The Anglers Guide to Research: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Use Wikipedia

Posted on the Educator’s Royal Treatment

Why shouldn’t learning start with hunches?

As a new teacher, there are many times I feel stranded somewhere between the older students I teach and the younger teachers above me. I still have strong memories of being a high school student, but am operating in an authoritative role “above” them. I’ve gotten used to being “the new guy” on the staff, but also to being “the tech guy” to whom many come with questions. I enjoy the dichotomy that being new and also holding a position of soft power puts me in; It’s a place that fosters frequent reflection, which is good.

As an English teacher, I pay close attention when the academic establishment is hanging out in the teachers’ lounge and clucking on about how students don’t do this and can’t do that when it comes to rigorous work. “These juniors can’t even write a research paper! Have they ever been taught to use parenthetical citation!?” It’s a valid question: have they been taught? Can they cite sources? Do they really understand what research is about?!

As a teacher of mostly remedial students, I come to class with no assumption of such prior knowledge. When I assign work requiring the use of an outside source, I know I have a challenging task before me. In my school, we have two impediments to doing good research: flagrant and debilitating Internet censorship and clunky out-of-date library databases. When approaching a new topic to research, which is a 14-year-old more likely to choose: a complex series of several Boolean-based blanks begging for information…or Google. Regardless of what library skill training they’ve had, just about every student I know starts with Google.

When you are learning about a topic for the first time, you’re going to start with very broad information. There’s almost always a Wikipedia link near the top of a student’s Google query…and it beckons them…

Evil! Non-academic! Not peer-reviewed! Open-to-question!

The voices of dissent come from all directions in unison. The student clicks the link despite them. Inside my head I make a fist pump in celebration; there’s exploration afoot. Whether they’re reading about the collegiate statistics of Albert Pujols, the internal combustion engine’s impact on agriculture, or the Presidential line of succession, they’re being led down different paths than before

They can’t cite that information in a paper! It doesn’t count! Don’t waste your time!

Yes, but students don’t care. They are just acting on a learning hunch. As Google might put it, they’re feeling lucky and clicking in to new information. Why shouldn’t learning start with hunches? I like to teach students to explore those hunches because it’s one thing I know they’ve got.

I know far too many who malign even the mention of Wikipedia when it comes to research. As if learning were some holy grail, only to be sought by knights gilded in the armor of academic pomp and armed with the 6th Edition APA Handbook. “Why can’t they just let kids read?” I think. Some students may sit with a box of note cards at their side, citing, printing abstracts, and perusing journals, but this doesn’t come naturally for most. The synthetic methods of research are stuffy and confining to most (I still kind of like note cards, I must admit) who would rather read freely.

I compare it to fishing: some people prefer to have the perfect pole, perfect line, expensive fish finding radar, and just the right tint of sunglasses resting on the nose while they float down a well-chartered path. Others find more fish just trolling the banks.

But they’re just lazy. I won’t let my students get by with being lazy.

As with anything in education, it’s about balance and differentiation. Some information fishers are professional in their adherence to the rules, but lack flexibility. Other academic anglers are more in tune with what the river will bring them.

As a teacher, the river guide, I see Wikipedia as an academic point of entry for students who don’t come as equipped for research; it gets them off dry land and puts a pole in their hand.You don’t need a lot of gear to troll, just a little persistence and a good guide.

3 thoughts on “The Anglers Guide to Research: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Use Wikipedia

  1. For research, I allow, and even encourage, students to start with Wikipedia. I just don’t want them to stop there.

  2. We should absolutely encourage hunches! Wonderings are the seeds of learning, they generate thinking and ignite creativity. Stephanie Harvey shares her thinking about wonderings in her book NonFiction Matters. Arthur Costa and Robert Garmston use the specific languages of “hunches” to as a structure for mediating other’s thinking in cognitive coaching conversations. Go with your gut – hunches are good.

  3. First, I think approaching all students as “remedial” makes learning more likely. I’ve taught for over 30 years and I’m still in remediation. Socrates had the thought that the more he knows, the less he knows. Sounds like he may have needed some remediation.

    Second, teaching students to cite information is no guarantee they will actually cite information. Whether remedial or gifted or somewhere in between, normal human beings don’t like to cite information. It’s like eating broccoli when you’d prefer onion rings.

    Third, to cite or not to cite: a false dilemma. The fishing net is large and has plenty of room for hunches, google, online databases, and style handbooks. You just have to know what you’re fishing for so you can put the right bait on the right hook. There’s lots of fish out there.

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