The research conspiracy

12th June 2015 at 01:00

Years ago I ran a conference for sixth-formers on conspiracy theories and misinformation. I used Moon landing denialists as an example and 20 per cent of my students thought the whole thing was a fake. So I spent an afternoon dismantling all the popular Looney-Tunes claims and then did another straw poll: this time, around 30 per cent believed it was fraud. I shouldn't have bothered. When our alien overlords return to Earth, they will not be pleased.

I was reminded of this recently by a conversation about research homework, where a teacher assigns class X to research topic Y and asks them to produce some kind of informative or evaluative response. It's a standard arrow in your quiver. Good teachers always have lessons and homework ready in case of emergencies - one on the hip, one in the clip. When even the clip is empty, desperate men and women reach for research homework tasks. It's the equivalent of the cover teacher's "revise for your test in the next lesson".

What's the issue with research homework? English teacher Dr Anthony Radice has made some cogent points on the topic. The first problem is the internet: it's simply too vast and overwhelming for most students. When I was a teenager, I was tasked with finding out about the Rosetta Stone. I had to walk miles to the library to find out even a nugget. Now a child can google it and give you 100 pages on its origins and importance without a scrap of understanding. Or you'll get a piece on the popular language courses. Or even a biography of Mr and Mrs Stone's daughter Rosie.

The truth may be out there, but it's buried in haystacks of conspiracy, misinformation and madness. Children simply don't have the critical ability to discern between boring fact and attractive fiction. Hell, many of us don't. That kind of data-sifting skill comes from building up a solid scaffold of knowledge around a topic. Otherwise you're abandoning children to their own guesses and prejudices. Tell them where to look or expect essays on the Illuminati.

The second issue is even more fundamental: what are we asking them to do? If it's "read selected sources and write a summary or analysis", then fine. The task has been circumscribed by the expert in the relationship: the teacher. But if it's "research" meaning "generate new knowledge in a structured way that tests a hypothesis using existing and found knowledge", then why? Often the answer is "to build up independent thinking skills". But this is just shorthand for "not teaching them anything".

Without having the knowledge to enable analysis, pupils struggle to tell what is relevant. The skill of critical discernment is a by-product of subject fluency: competence produces confidence. And the ability to study and learn by yourself is a habit, not a skill, separate from the knowledge and understanding that springs from it.

I'm not saying never set research homework. But I'd think hard first. Not convinced? Next week, ask your students to write about the Moon landings and get ready to weep.

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London and director of the ResearchED conference

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