Is the research paper dead?

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Research paper

“Students today depend on paper too much. They don’t know how to write on a slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves. They can’t clean a slate properly. What will they do when they run out of paper?” –Principal’s Association, 1815

“Students today depend upon store bought ink. They don’t know how to make their own. When they run out of ink they will be unable to write words or ciphers until their next trip to the settlement. This is a sad commentary on modern education.” –The Rural American Teacher 1928

The problem with blind spots is that you don’t know you’ve got them. I mean, it’s obvious to us today that students weren’t going to need a slate or homemade ink in order to be successful.

But imagine living in that time. There was no way those people could have foreseen the changes that make us snicker at those statements today.  Might we also be clinging to faulty beliefs about what will make our students successful? If so, how do we identify them? How do we differentiate between the beliefs that are no longer relevant and need to go, and the ones that are and we need to keep? What skills and content are we teaching that will be irrelevant in five years? What tools are we still using that are already outdated?

And how can we possibly determine that?

As a quick exercise, let’s take just one tiny piece of the traditional school experience, the tried and true research paper, and imagine for a moment that it’s totally irrelevant to our students’ realities in the 21st century. Then make a bold and crazy statement–or two.  Let me start.

  1. The traditional research paper in English classrooms is dead.
  2. So is the traditional works cited or bibliography–you know, that MLA or APA formatted way of documenting your sources.

In some districts, those two statements would probably be grounds for my dismissal. But we’re all friends here. So let’s just play around with this for a while.

Why do we have students write research papers in the first place? Why include a works cited? Well, we assign the paper to instruct and assess skills and knowledge related to researching, organizing, analyzing, and synthesizing information. We have students include a works cited to show that they’re not just making things up as they go along. But works cited and bibliographies also serve two other important purposes: They give credit for ideas, and they point us in the direction of those ideas–so that interested readers can follow up and learn more.

Organizing, analyzing, synthesizing, writing, and attributing ideas are valuable skills. So what could possibly be wrong with the research paper?

The problem is two fold:  First, if we want to read some of the sources, we have to do more work.  We have to order a book, go to a library, find a specific journal, magazine or article. This takes effort.  But perhaps, more importantly . . .this takes time.

What would happen instead, if we assigned students a research blog or asked them to collaborate on a research wiki?

Couldn’t they then simply link to the source, and/or help the reader along by linking to a definition for potentially confusing terms or concepts?  Doing so simplifies the whole process by attributing, defining, and also actually supplying the source of the ideas referenced.

Yes, I know. Sometimes that’s not entirely possible. One can’t always link to an entire book or periodical. Alas, not everything is on-line and free. But we could still link to a listing or review of the book, an author page, or biography. So we can get pretty close–much closer than a properly formatted APA citation printed on paper.

So, in comparing this approach to the traditional research paper, what skills are we missing?  Nothing. We’ve taken the research paper and made it more relevant.

Perhaps the most glaring weakness with the traditional research paper, however, is who has access to it. If the paper were truly relevant, wouldn’t it also be valuable to greater audiences?  And might that audience’s feedback also be valuable?

Today’s tools make all this possible in ways we couldn’t imagine just a short time ago.  As longtime teacher, Karl Fisch says, “We are preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet.”

So is the traditional research paper, in fact, going the way of the slate and homemade ink? I’m pretty sure it is.

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