By Patricia Kuhn, Dean of Student Research and Library Resources, and Rebecca Moore, Director of Communications
Randolph ’s Upper School library is a place of quiet study, but if you listen closely you can hear other sounds: the printer, the photocopier, the squeak of a felt tip pen on the page of a coloring book, the click of LEGO bricks, the rush of a hot beverage dispenser, chargers and cables being connected and disconnected, whispers, laughter, and the occasional reminders to work quietly from Patricia Kuhn, Randolph’s Dean of Student Research and Library Resources, who manages the space and resources of this increasingly complex and multidimensional space. Ms. Kuhn is gradually transforming this traditional-looking library into something that better meets the needs of today’s students.
Libraries of the future may look quite different, but Ms. Kuhn firmly believes they are and should continue to be the heart of the school. The library aims to meet the varied, complex needs of both students and faculty.
Meeting throughout the year with different student groups, Ms. Kuhn asked, “If you had your dream library, what would it look like?” She believes that “the collaborative and the contemplative can coexist in a functional way.” Ms. Kuhn wants the library to be a place where students will come not only to work but also to relax a little and be creative. “Their brains freeze up when they have been concentrating for a long time.” This is why she provides the coloring books, puzzles, LEGOs, and the hot beverage machine. Despite research that connects school libraries to success in higher education, she says, school libraries across the country are being shuttered and dismantled.
“The independent school library should be at the center of the learning process and foster the love of continuous learning,” says Jerry Beckman, Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs. “The library should provide the space and opportunity for students to work both collaboratively and independently. Students should have opportunities to delve deeply in to disciplines that they find interesting and challenging. All students must learn how to access, research, and synthesize factual information to inform substantive opinions and ideas. Most importantly, we believe at Randolph that you must have a library/media center specialist to connect students with valuable research methods and tools ensuring their success as they continue their educational journey.”
What happens to the library and its resources in the digital age?
“Books aren’t going away,” Ms. Kuhn says, “but they are accessible in more ways. Students are learning and relearning how to use a book when they’re not holding it – a digital book will still have a table of contents, an index. We are also teaching students the importance of sorting through the material to find something that speaks to the heart of their research, not just something that works as a note, knowing where to go, being really careful to look at the sources so there’s no lapse in logic or credibility.”
Enter the words, “Save the Tree Octopus,” into a search engine and you will find an incredibly detailed website with photographs of octopi nestled in trees. You can read related “Cephalonews” to learn more about them and you can donate to save their environment. But add the word “wiki” to your search or use Google Scholar and you will find that this is a nearly two-decades-old Internet hoax cited in numerous articles to demonstrate the fallacy that being online imbues users with the skills needed to discern spurious websites or information. “Even some of our juniors initially faltered when I showed it to them,” says Ms. Kuhn. “The students were dubious, but not sure how to verify or disprove the site. I showed them how search results differ in Google Scholar. There you will find articles and studies on digital literacy and studies that show that students are not as proficient with information literacy as we assume they are. People think that because students are looking things up all the time, because they use Google, they are good researchers, and that’s a false assumption.”
Working in the Upper School library and across the divisions, Ms. Kuhn is identifying what skills we need to be teaching so that our students won’t unwittingly try to save the tree octopus. She began her work with our Upper School students by looking at the research abilities that colleges hope or expect their incoming freshmen will have. She is working with Upper School colleagues to better integrate good research habits into the curriculum and with the Middle and Lower School librarians to develop a common K-12 language, and to scaffold concepts so that they are presented as a set of discrete skills to be mastered over time, not just steps in a single project. The process is just as important as the end product.
“We want our students to be not simply good at research, but ahead of the game when they reach college,” Ms. Kuhn says. “Authentic research requires that both the faculty and the students have the resources they need to address their discipline effectively. Colleges find that students struggle when ‘evaluating, integrating and applying the sources they found’ (Head pg. 3). They have come to expect instant information and often don ’t question the source or the process.” An ethnographic study into the research habits of college students has indicated that “when it comes to finding and evaluating sources in the Internet age, students are downright lousy” (Kolowich 2). “It is incumbent on those of us who work with students to change this by empowering our students to seek out the skills they will require, not only to get through college, but to thrive,” says Ms. Kuhn .
Randolph has a demonstrated commitment to professional librarians who have earned a Masters in Library Science. Four professional librarians assist, instruct, and collaborate with students and teachers to further their literacy skills and deepen their appreciation for the process of research. “Although I work within the Upper School Library,” says Ms. Kuhn, assisted there by Lee Anne Bryant, “I have the privilege of working with Lower and Middle School librarians Kim Simpson and Kelly Kessler, who are passionate about the development of critical thinking strategies in students and work in paths parallel to mine.”
Research suggests that many high school graduates are entering college with only one, maybe two, major research projects under their belt, whereas Randolph ’s Upper School students conduct research every year. This research is often interdisciplinary, involving multiple sources, and the finished product is often varied – reflecting today’s reliance on multimedia. It is not enough to point student s towards the Alabama Virtual Library and hope for the best.
Randolph students are taught to use databases such as JSTOR, Pro Quest, History Today, Academic Search Premier, History Study Center, ABC-CLIO, Gale Virtual Reference Library, and the New York Times Archive. They are required to use both primary and secondary sources. To emphasize the importance of the research process, Randolph students are taught to use software such as Noodle tools to organize their research and properly cite sources. Randolph’s Honor Code encourages students to respect intellectual property and to create new knowledge through inquiry, analysis, and drawing conclusions. Over the course of her first year, Ms. Kuhn consolidated citation resources across disciplines to create a Randolph MLA Citation Guide based on the latest MLA Guide so that all students are being given consistent advice. Standardized citation sources are focused on the kinds of work our students are doing and the problems they encounter – for example, citing a YouTube video for a Model UN government resolution.
Upper School history teacher Ann Lawson relies on Ms. Kuhn’s research expertise and familiarity with resources, both to help students frame their research questions and to locate primary sources for class lessons that aren’t readily available, such as digitized textbooks from the 1880s as well as hard copies for an inquiry into the role educators had played in shaping attitudes about race and ethnicity in the 1920s.
Learning how to work with a librarian and to work collaboratively when conducting research is another important skill. A tool Randolph ’s librarians give students, starting in 5th grade, is called LibGuides—a kind of annotated, digital book cart, like the ones Mrs. Simpson prepares for Lower School students that align with curricula. LibGuides are used to compile information in a link-rich format. Through these interactions, students, even in 1st grade, working in small research teams to learn about insects or puppies, learn that research can be a very rich and collaborative process. Through their collaboration, Randolph's librarians have adopted the Big6 model for research across all grade levels. You can read more about that here.
Ms. Lawson’s 11th grade U.S. History students create blog entries and compile an e-portfolio with resources. They start the year answering quick questions, like what are supply chains in the business world. They can hyperlink to resources and embed links in the text. At the end they will annotate their sources in a more traditional way. The goal is transparency. That addresses their anxiety about giving proper attribution. If they found a source that wasn’t on the Internet, they can digitize it, scan a book page, and upload a PDF or picture. Any resource can be digital.
“Electronic versus book,” Ms. Lawson says, “is an old-fashioned distinction. I emphasize their being flexible because so many of their sources are emerging. They are writing for a real-world audience, in their own voices. In the final quarter, the only parameter is that they choose a post- WWII topic. Producing the final product isn’t as big of a deal as the conversations students have as they go along. At the end of one research period, they might write a blog post about what they have been learning, or they might find they need to reframe their question, or even pursue a different one entirely, and they have enough time to do that. I think the biggest challenge with research projects is they’re just messy and they can go in so many different directions. The rubric needs to accommodate all the possibilities for how a student might approach a topic.”
Betsy Allen sees this with her 8th Grade History classes. When studying a topic, such as the Louisiana Purchase, students choose from a list of related concepts, people, and terms, to explore and present as lessons in class. It doesn’t matter if several students choose the same person or term to present about, says Mrs. Allen, because they will each hone in on a different aspect. The interest is in the details students uncover through their research.
“Generalized research is boring,” says Michael Treadwell, 9th/10th Grade Dean and World History I teacher. He helps freshmen take their Middle School research skills to the next level by guiding them to seek out the specific details that provoke further questions, moving from who, what, and when to why and how. This means using more sources to find that odd detail that resonates. One example he gives is when a freshman with a general interest in weapons focused on a particular battle and posited that the use of the longbow in that instance was a military innovation that changed the face of modern warfare.
Randolph’s teachers also pursue experiential research opportunities for their students, such as the 11th Grade English research paper and the new yearlong 8Lead project. Students spend time in the community learning about the real-world applications of their coursework and discovering new passions. This kind of inquiry supports both the development of lifelong learners and active and contributing members of our community. Curiosity, the search for truth, persistence, and the organization of one’s findings are the bedrock of success in any field.
“Ultimately,” says Ms. Lawson, “the core skills I want my students to develop are how to make an evidence-based case for something, and to learn to listen for when people are asserting things that are not based on evidence. If someone says ‘This country is in the midst of a crime wave,’ then let’s look at the data. I want them to have the habit of mind to query the basis of anything they see or hear. They need to learn how to listen and then to ask the right questions.”
In her article “Pragmatism and idealism in the Academic Library,” Mary Thill writes of the concepts of “library idealism” and “library pragmatism” (Kolowich 4). The latter is the act of simply getting the job done, whereas Randolph endeavors to push students toward “library idealism,” which Thill describes as “the tedious unearthing and meticulous poring-over of texts” (Kolowich 4). As exciting as that might sound to a librarian, we must strive to find ways to make that “unearthing” rewarding. Students need to be able to research across a wide assortment of material s and disciplines, not just history; students who can evaluate and analyze high level material should be able to dig a little deeper, where one question might lead to another and they are invested in finding the answers. Another area of competency we seek to develop is data literacy. Colleges expect students to use numbers and data more, manipulating statistics to support their research. Students need to become savvier at sifting through a myriad of sometimes useless info to find gems of wisdom.
Data-driven decision-making requires more students to master the ability to use data in drawing conclusions – this is a skill that will be taught earlier and across disciplines. David Hillinck’s AP Macroeconomics students make extensive use of FRED, an online database compiled by the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, to construct graph s and chart s that illustrate important concepts like inflation, unemployment, and GD P growth.
“If you are going to understand your own tribe or other people in the world, if you are going to be an effective citizen, you need the skill set to make your own conclusions about why things are the way they are,” notes Mr. Treadwell.
Earlier in the school year, in her first post for this, “Research for the Real World,” Ms. Kuhn wrote about her work with 9th grade teachers and students in World History I. She concluded, “Upon arriving at Randolph, I quickly learned that research and inquiry are a way of life here. Encouraging students to pull on the loose threads of their curiosity and to follow those threads to their natural ends is a great way to unleash the power of questioning minds. Giving students ample opportunities to express those questions through guided inquiry in a safe, nurturing setting is what develops great thinkers with the skills needed to inspire and enrich their community, which speaks directly to the mission of Randolph School.”
“Five Essential Skills for Every Undergraduate Researcher” by Adrienne Showman et al.
"What Students Don't Know: A two-year anthropological study of student research habits shows that students are in dire need of help from librarians, but are loath to ask for it," Inside Higher Ed, Steve Kolowich.
"At Sea in a Deluge of Data," The Chronicle of Higher Education, Alison J. Head and John Wihbey.
Tree octopus image, "Baby Octopi and Green Flowers," is used with permission of the photographer, Liz Wolfe, who created the image unaware of the hoax. You can see more of her work at lizwolfe.com.