Open and Closed Questions

Another way to introduce students to the idea of complexity in the research process is through open and closed questions. In Second-hand Knowledge: An Inquiry into Cognitive Authority, Patrick Wilson describes closed questions as matters which (for now) have been settled beyond practical doubt and open questions as questions on which doubt remains.

I suggest to my students that one way to focus their research is to pay attention to clues that suggest where the open questions are and to concentrate their efforts there. Wilson points out that previously closed questions can become open when new information comes to light. In class, you can illustrate this and attempt some humor with the line, “when I was your age, Pluto was a planet!” Then proceed to explain how the planetary status of Pluto became an open question with the discovery of the Trans-Neptunian objects Quaor, Sedna, and Eris. Then follow this up with an example of an open question in the subject matter of the class you are teaching.

The term “research” is ambiguous. For some it means consulting some oracle–the Internet, the Library, the encyclopedia–finding out what some authority has said on a topic and then reporting on it. Fine, sometimes that’s what research is. That kind of research can be interesting, but it can also be pretty boring. What makes higher education thrilling is discovering live controversies and trying to make progress on them. Academic libraries are not only storehouses of established wisdom, they also reflect ongoing debates on questions that are unsettled, in dispute, very open, and very much alive.

Why Students Want Simplicity And Why It Fails Them When It Comes To Research

The research process, by its very nature, can be both complicated and complex. For students it presents a gap between the known and unknown. They get a research assignment, usually broadly defined by the instructor, and then need to identify a topic without necessarily knowing much of anything about the subject. Then to further complicate matters the student must navigate unfamiliar resources, perhaps encountering new and unusal concepts along the way. A defining quality of a complex problem is that right answers are not easily obtainable. Excepting those students who are passionate about the study matter and research project, most students would prefer to simplify their research as much as possible. The problem, as a new article points out, is that applying simple problem solving approaches to complex problems is a contextual error that will lead to failure. I think this theory may better inform us about why students take the path of least resistance for their academic research, than our usual beliefs that they are just lazy, have adapted to their instructors acceptance of “good enough” research or that the blame lies with us for serving up too complex search systems.

The Cynefin (pronounced Ku-Nev-In) Framework can help us understand why students apply simple approaches to complex problems, and how that is a formula for poor research results. Cynefin is a Welsh word that signifies the many factors in our environment and experience that influence us in ways we can never understand. A recent Harvard Business Review piece by David Snowden and Mary Boone explains how the Cynefin Framework can help us to better match our process for problem solving to the actual context of any particular problem. In other words, as a decision maker – and being an effective researcher requires the making of any number of decisions (what database to use, what search terms to use, which results to explore, etc.) – one must understand the very context of the situation in order to think clearly about developing the appropriate decision. In their November 2007 HBR article “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making” Snowden and Boone help us to understand how to make better decisions in multiple contexts. Some might call this situational leadership.

The four main contexts are simple, complicated, complex and chaotic, but here I’ll deal with just simplicity and complexity. Simple decisions have their place. It depends on the context of the problem situation. We resolve them by using patterns and processes that have delivered past success. In other words we approach simple problems by using personal best practices. The right answer is clear, evident and without dispute. There is no uncertainty. The danger lies in what the authors call “entrained thinking”. When managers and leaders approach a problem the natural reaction is to use familiar strategies and methods to seek the one right solution – the ones we have trained ourselves to use because they typically succeed. While those entrained methods may work well in simple contexts they may lead to disatrous results when the context is complex. The point of the article is that managers and leaders must first analyze the situation at hand to determine its true context, and then use decision-making strategies that effectively fit that context. In some situations that are extremely complex, the authors say that no leader may be able to devise an effective solution and that those involved in the situation must allow a solution to emerge. Great leaders recognize these dilemmas, and are able to construct the environment that generates discussion that leads to the generation of ideas.

Students come to our academic institutions after 15 or so years of research methods that may have always worked in their previous simple contexts. I need to know the names of Britanny Spears’ children…I use Google to find the answer. I need to know what year the War of 1812 started…I use to find the answer. I need to know the reasons the American Revolution began…I use Wikipedia to find the answer. In these simple contexts there is always a right answer that can be easily obtained. If these strategies have served our students well, what do we think they’ll do when they get their first challenging research assignments? Right! They’ll apply their decision-making process that has previously led to great success. So what can we do about this? How can we help our students to understand that when it comes to college-level research they must first examine and understand the context of the decisions they will need to make before taking any action?

I propose that we add “identify and understand the context of the research problem and choose a decision-making style that matches that context” to that long list of information literacy skills that many of us list in some planning document. And it should be near the top of the list. There are times when a research question has but one correct answer and the simple context demands a simple research method. Go ahead and search Google. But when the research challenge is vague, involves uncertainty and requires navigating some complex issues, then students need to recognize it and overcome their temptation to seek out simple solutions. I’d like to think that if we can get students to think in terms of context it might help them to increase the effectiveness of their research skills. This skill could prove to be valuable for achieving academic success, but also for the many decisions our students will need to make in their post-college careers.

Sharing Some Worthwhile Quotes

I came across some quotes recently, via articles and blog posts, that I thought were worth sharing here. They should, I think, resonate with academic librarians:

“Simplicity is an important trend we are focused on. Technology has this way of becoming overly complex, but simplicity was one of the reasons that people gravitated to Google initially. This complexity is an issue that has to be solved for online technologies, for devices, for computers, and it’s very difficult. Success will come from simplicity. Look at Apple, the success they have had, and what they are doing. We are focused on features, not products. We eliminated future products that would have made the complexity problem worse. We don’t want to have 20 different products that work in 20 different ways. I was getting lost at our site keeping track of everything. I would rather have a smaller set of products that have a shared set of features.”

Sergey Brin, Co-Founder of Google, from a recent Business 2.0 feature on “How to Succeed in 2007”

“Despite an entire industry now doing ‘professional development’ in technology, keeping up with every technology has been declared impossible by the kids. In their words: “You’ll only look stupid.” So what’s a teacher to do?…Relax, you do not have to learn to actually use any of the new technologies. The kids can use these technologies far better than you or I ever will, no matter how hard we try. Our job as educators…is to become familiar enough with the results that the technologies produce to help our learners evaluate good quality from bad. In the case of search engines and Wikipedia, for example, the lessons are the difference between “search” which means finding everything, and “research” as we have defined it over hundreds of years, which means using multiple sources and understanding the relative value of those sources…Teachers should let the kids do the work, and figure out and teach the key lessons beneath the obvious.”

Marc Prensky in an essay titled “The Train Won’t Stop” that appears on p. 80 of the November-December 2006 issue of Educational Technology.

Paying Attention

Marilyn Pukkila, head of instruction services at Colby College, has often posted thoughtful issues on the ILI-L list. She has kindly contributed this guest post for ACRLog readers – on the blurring of boundaries for multitaskers and the difficulty of paying attention to those quiet voices inside.

This snippet from a Business Week article got me thinking:

“In fact, the advertising [in MySpace] can be so subtle that kids don’t distinguish it from content. ‘It’s what our users want,’ says Anderson.”

Most users of this generation claim they can tell when someone wants to sell them something — and it puts them off. But this blurring of the lines makes me question just how much they really can tell, and how much they mind. In a similar way, TV stations which identify their programs as “news” are in fact offering documentary and even “infotainment”, while staunchly clinging to the “news” designator. This is, of course, one of the tasks of information fluency librarians: to alert folks to the ways the lines are blurred.

I think this blurring is an offshoot of “continuous partial attention” (from the Pew study on the Internet and the U.S.). While multitasking can be useful, there is still value in the ability to focus on one task, and educators have a role in conveying that message. A group of students told me that the one thing they’d find most challenging about the voluntary simplicity movement was not giving up things. It was spending time alone to think, relax, and get to know themselves and their values. I was startled, but it quickly made sense to me. If their lives are so hyperconnected, solitude could be very threatening. And what does this mean for those members of this generation who are solitary beings by inclination?

–Marilyn R. Pukkila

Sudden Thoughts And Second Thoughts

A Simple Blog

Not for everyone perhaps but I’m keeping an eye on Laws of Simplicity, a new blog by John Maeda (MIT Media Lab) that is based on his new book The Laws of Simplicity. The book focuses on Maeda’s 10 laws of simplicity, and the blog expands on these laws as well as other ways to design simplicity into services, resources, products, and other areas of life and business. Law number 5 in particular is one I need to read more about: simplicity and complexity need each other. I have previously thought of these two as relative but not dependent on one another. The book should tell me more.

Collaboration – A Good Idea That Doesn’t Work

There is ongoing buzz about Surowiecki’s “wisdom of crowds” concept that suggests that groups of people make better decisions than individuals. It’s the thinking behind social collaboration bookmark sites as well, and again suggests that following the crowd’s bookmarks may be a better way to locate information than doing one’s own searching in an engine or library database. An article titled “What’s Next: The Idiocy of Crowds” by David Freedman suggests that while collaboration is a great idea it doesn’t work. I think there are two different ways in which we can think about collaboration. The one Freedman claims is more about groupthink is sometimes evident in the blogiverse. A blogger writes about the genius of a blog post and then before you know it 10 or 20 other bloggers are saying the same thing. The big problem says Freedman is that a lone dissenter is likely to fear voicing his or her opinion because with technology tools backlash can be magnified and distributed far more quickly. So even if there are some flaws in the post – a lone dissenter is unlikely to make that known for fear of instant backlash. The other type of collaboration I recognize is the kind that occurs on our campuses when we collaborate with faculty, colleagues and other academic professionals. In this case I endorse collaboration strongly because I think we accomplish more as partners than as individuals. This type of collaboration, I believe, is really about taking action and getting things done, than just promoting ideas with the intent of getting everyone to think the same way.

Satisfying The New Consumers

According to this article there is a new generation referred to as the Connected Generation, but it sounds a lot like the Millennial Generation to me. Similarities aside, the Connected Generation is identified in this article (part one of two) as having 10 consumer cravings. These include things such as extreme personalization, the importance of design and brands, and adventure. These “10 cravings” come from a new book on this topic. Although the book appears to be geared to corporate marketers it may be a worthwhile read for us as we always need to find better ways to promote our services and resources to our new generations of library users.

When Good Enough Seems Sensible

Jane of “See Jane Compute” has a good post on “Embracing Good Enough“. The gist of the post is that there are times when doing good enough work (in her case it’s teaching) is all right. Jane warns about the problems we create when striving for perfection causes us to miss sight of getting something important done. I think there’s something to be said for recognizing when good enough efforts can make sense. I still don’t think that should be the case for certain types of student research, especially when faculty have worked collaboratively with a librarian to design an effective assignment that demands some challenging work. From my perspective condoning “good enough” student research does a disservice to students even if we think it saves them and us time.