We all know about the three R’s of education—reading, writing and ‘rithmetic. The three basic skills that school have to teach… and which obviously doesn’t include spelling.
I want to propose that there’s a 4th R we should be considering: RESEARCH.
If you think about it, learning has changed from a school-only activity to a life-long activity. And just as advantage accrues to the person who can learn the best and know the most, so also does the ability to research to the best of your ability.
As Samuel Johnson said: "Knowledge is of two kinds, we know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it."
While that’s true, but this common version of his quote usually leaves off the rest of that paragraph: “...When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and at the backs of books in libraries.” (Boswell's Life of Johnson, 1791)
In other words, even if you know how to research something, you still need to know a little bit about the skill of how to search. In Johnson’s day that meant knowing that catalogues existed, that libraries were collections of books on topic of interest, and that the back of a book contains an index. It also meant that you knew how to get into a library, many of which were still private and by subscription (read, “invitation”) only.
People fluent in search and retrieval not only save time, but are far more likely to find higher quality, more credible, more useful content. More importantly, they can ask questions that were impossible just a few years ago. People with these skills are effectively smarter.
Using Google to do search is easy. It's been designed that way. You type something like [New York Times] into a search box and a moment later you're reading the paper. If you search for [pizza Mountain View], you get a list of local pizza places with phone numbers and user reviews.
Most of the searches that Google sees in a typical day fall into this simple category where user goal is clear and the results are pretty obvious and unambiguous.
But a significant number of searches are not. Searchers might have a goal in mind but they can’t figure out how to express it in a way that will give them what they want. Sometimes their search is precise, but they don’t know how to read and interpret the results. Sometimes I’ll see searchers spending 30 minutes searching for something that should take less than 2 minutes. It drives me crazy as a researcher because I know that the searcher is missing just one small, but critical piece of information. We try to build as much as we can into the search algorithm, but people still need to know a bit about how the web is organized (there’s no index in the back of the book) and how search engines crawl, index and respond to their queries.
In a sense, that’s my mission—to help people become better researchers, beyond just the basic skill of knowing how to make Google dance. My goal is to help people understand the larger issues at play here—how to be a literate person now, and now to be continually learning how to be literate as changes happen in the future. This is the idea of meta-literacy—knowing how to be literate about your own literacy. More about this in future posts.
BOTTOM LINE: Research is a skill that we all take for granted, yet it’s a critical skill for our future. As the nature of work and education changes (and that, really, is the only constant we have), we… as a teaching culture… need to bring our students up to speed on what it takes to be good searchers.
We need to give them the skills of the 4th R—research—and all of the skills and knowledge they need to function effectively as learned searchers.
What’s more, we’re trying to equip them with skills they can use not just now, but for every information search problem they confront now and in the future.