Everyone has that phrase, the cliché that rolls off others’ tongues with surprising frequency. The one that shouldn’t bother you. The one that does bother you. The one you seemingly can’t escape.
Whether it’s “out-of-the-box thinking,” “giving 110%,” or “same difference,” whatever comes after is lost. For me, that phrase is “research says.”
This is partly due to its ubiquity, but also because there doesn’t seem to be a definition of research that’s shared between librarians and popular culture.
Research isn’t the actor. Research isn’t a specific result. Research isn’t a prescription. Research is a focused and systematic investigation, with the goal of finding useful information and replicable results. Scientists will agree with the librarians. And obviously 9 out of 10 dentists.
Each fall my husband’s Physics students run carts of different weights down an incline to determine whether mass affects the acceleration of gravity. No less a scientist than Galileo determined it doesn’t, and my husband has the equations to back this up. The result is not just anticipated, it is known and can be calculated. The students are not researching, but the experimental process sets the tone for what research looks like when the result hasn’t yet been determined.
Similarly, in English classes, who else has been asked to help students write papers with their own “original research” offered as literary criticism on a work. Ironically, what teachers mean by this is usually the students’ own thoughts on a published piece, without referring to any external secondary sources. This can promote critical analysis, though I might question why we assume novice readers will come up with valuable insights not considered by experts, but it isn’t research. No wonder students are confused by what research is or why it matters.
We try to address this general idea in Honors Biology with a Vitamin lesson on why experts disagree. It’s helpful to hear students try to contextualize what an individual study demonstrated, the limitations of that research, and how the findings were shared (or shall we say dumbed down) by the popular media. They’re quickly able to make connections to the clickbaity news they encounter on a daily basis.
Stanford History Education Group’s updated report on Students’ Civic Online Reasoning is, in their words “troubling,” and in my words, “terrifying.” It’s not just that our students need to be better navigators of information so as to excel as scholars. There are organizations out there who are monetizing our illiteracy. Whenever I hear “research says,” I picture research (as some sort of Muppety Beaker/Swedish Chef amalgamation) messily mixing variables and then sharing the resulting baked goods with an unsuspecting audience.
Is it too much to ask who did the research, the background of those researchers, and the scope of what they were expecting to find? Bonus points for when it was completed and the variables that were tested! This isn’t what makes headlines, but this is what research would actually say if it were able to talk. When we can substitute “I did a Google search and this is what I found” for “research says,” we are setting our society up as information illiterates, with consequences for our civic infrastructure. We continue to increase media’s access to us through our- often complicated – relationships with our devices. I believe it’s crucial that we are ambassadors for a nuanced understanding of the idea of research. If you have any ways that you’ve done this in your school or community, I’d love for you to share in the comments below.