“Research Says…”

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.

6 thoughts on ““Research Says…”

  1. Amen, Amen, Amen!
    I am sure all of us are struggling with this. I am trying to figure out how to bridge the artificial divide in thinking/approach between “academic” research and all other research. For example, when I teach students to look at and compare information from print resources, then academic databases, then Google Scholar, then the open web–and I explain why it is important to evaluate sources, they suffer through it because that is what is required for their academic work. But when they want/need to know something that *they* are investigating, they just jump on Google and abandon critical thinking. I’d like to create a lesson/series of lessons which tie into their interests and goals, and connect critical thinking to that–not just to “school work.”

    • I just discussed that 7th period with a student who found “all the information she wanted” on a flashy (aka sketchy) site and when we started from, “If we take this as true, let’s find the information somewhere more academic.” Lo and behold, the more reliable websites didn’t come to the same conclusions. Does it matter that the topic was witches? Probably!

  2. This is so important, Christina! And especially — [here’s my trigger phrase] Now More Than Ever! Most terrifying part? “There are organizations out there who are monetizing our illiteracy.” Thanks for a great post.

  3. This is SOOOOOO GOOD!!! I find myself weighting more and more of my information literacy instruction advocacy/push toward addressing the “civic online reasoning” piece. Realistically, after high school and college, the vast majority of our kids aren’t going to be doing academic writing, but if our democracy has any hope of survival every future voter needs to be able figure out how to understand and place in context information about global warming, the spread of viruses, what to feed a new kitten, and the benefits vs risks of vaccinations. Again, thanks for this!!! #ThisIsGood

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