Research is the fourth “R”, after reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic and we need to learn well, here’s an argument

Dan Russell writes, 
SearchReSearch 28/01/12 4:08 AM (Daniel M. Russell)

We all know about the three R’s of education—reading, writingand ‘rithmetic.  The three basic skillsthat school have to teach… and which obviously doesn’t include spelling. 

I want to propose that there’s a 4th R we shouldbe considering: RESEARCH. 

If you think about it, learning has changed from aschool-only activity to a life-long activity. And just as advantage accrues to the person who can learn the best andknow the most, so also does the ability to research to the best of yourability. 

As SamuelJohnson said:  “Knowledge is of two kinds, we know a subjectourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.”

While that’strue, but this common version of his quote usually leaves off the rest of thatparagraph:  “…When we enquire into anysubject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated ofit. This leads us to look at catalogues, and at the backs of books in libraries.”   (Boswell’s Life of Johnson, 1791)

Inother words, even if you know how to research something, you still need to knowa little bit about the skill of how to search.  In Johnson’s day that meant knowing that cataloguesexisted, that libraries were collections of books on topic of interest, andthat the back of a book contains an index. It also meant that you knew how toget into a library, many of which were still private and by subscription (read,“invitation”) only. 

People fluent in search and retrieval not only savetime,  but are far more likely to findhigher quality, more credible, more useful content.  More importantly, they can ask questions thatwere 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] intoa 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 withphone numbers and user reviews.  

Most of the searches that Google sees in a typical day fallinto this simple category where user goal is clear and the results are pretty obviousand unambiguous.  

But a significant number of searches are not.  Searchers might have a goal in mind but theycan’t figure out how to express it in a way that will give them what they want. Sometimes their search is precise, but theydon’t know how to read and interpret the results.  Sometimes I’ll see searchers spending 30minutes searching for something that should take less than 2 minutes. It drivesme crazy as a researcher because I know that the searcher is missing just one small,but critical piece of information.  Wetry to build as much as we can into the search algorithm, but people still needto know a bit about how the web is organized (there’s no index in the back ofthe book) and how search engines crawl, index and respond to their queries.

In a sense, that’s my mission—to help people become betterresearchers, beyond just the basic skill of knowing how to make Googledance.  My goal is to help people understandthe larger issues at play here—how to be a literate person now, and now to becontinually 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 ownliteracy.  More about this in future posts.  

BOTTOMLINE:  Research is a skill that we all take for granted, yet it’s acritical skill for our future.  As thenature of work and education changes (and that, really, is the only constant wehave), we… as a teaching culture… need to bring our students up to speed onwhat it takes to be good searchers. 

We need to give them the skills of the 4th R—research—and all of the skills andknowledge they need to function effectively as learned searchers. 

What’s more, we’re trying to equip them with skills they canuse not just now, but for every information search problem they confront nowand in the future. 

Search on! 

I agree. I think more so, because we are increasingly living in an age where it’s important to identify where to locate a piece of information and then instruct a machine to go fetch it for us. This is true for locating a restaurant as  much as it is important for identifying that essential journal article which will advance our knowledge. A good search-ability enables us with time to think of greater and more important things. That then become search worthy. The iterative process continues. 


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