A few questions all of us who work in educational institutions must ask ourselves: What kind of adults do we want our students to become? How do we ensure that our students develop critical thinking skills that are grounded in sound research? Fortunately for us as a species, critical thinking and good research skills can be learned. To understand the stakes for doing so, COVID-19 has provided some examples from popular culture that should motivate us to re-examine and double down on what we do in schools.
By now, you have heard some version of “you have to do your research,” typically from a celebrity who is COVID vaccine-resistant. For instance, Nicki Minaj, a rapper, claimed that she will take the COVID-19 vaccine once she’s done enough research. What does Minaj’s use of the term “research” mean? Does it point to peer-reviewed journal articles written by epidemiologists, virologists, as well as public health and other medical professionals? Does it point to reviewing the medical data on infection rates, hospitalizations, and vaccine effectiveness? I suspect not. However, what’s important here is that Minaj’s redefinition of the word research is problematic for students.
While we don’t know where Minaj went to conduct COVID research, Aaron Rodgers cited his sources. The Green Bay Packers quarterback shared that he asked Joe Rogan, a popular American podcaster, for advice when Rodgers tested positive. He also disclosed how many times he had been tested (over 300) and gave thanks to his ‘medical squad.’ Of note is that he sought advice for testing positive for COVID-19 from a radio personality known for his vaccine misinformation (Rogan has since apologized) rather than somebody on the Green Bay Packers’ medical team. The Israeli study that Rodgers mentioned in support for not being vaccinated was to understand “…infection-induced and vaccine-induced immunity over time. And the results of the study showed that the benefit of vaccination compared with infection without vaccination appeared to be higher for recipients of Moderna than the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.” In other words, the study did not recommend that people not get vaccinated. That wasn’t even its purview: it was a comparison of the effectiveness of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines against one another and against immunity from infection.
As a teacher and trained humanities researcher, I realized that Minaj and Rodgers demonstrate confusion over the question of reliable sources and what it means to conduct research or they suffer from a severe case of confirmation bias. In the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), research is defined as a “systematic investigation or inquiry aimed at contributing to the knowledge of a theory, topic, etc., by careful consideration, observation, or study of a subject.” From this definition, we can see that research is systematic and careful. For something to be systematic, it must be deliberate and comprehensive. To be able to conduct research as it should be, in a systematic way—with consideration of the whole and the relationships among the parts, we soon realize that we are ultimately exploring the dispositions of a good researcher.
Luis H. Toledo-Pereyra, Professor of Surgery and Director of Research at Michigan State University, Kalamazoo Center for Medical Studies, conducted research on the qualities of a good researcher. He identifies these characteristics as interest, motivation, inquisitiveness, commitment, sacrifice, excelling, knowledge, recognition, scholarly approach, and integration. In layperson’s terms, this would be curiosity, patience, courage, detail-oriented, creativity, persistence, as well as analytical thinking and problem-solving. We want our students to develop these qualities because they will result in students who are innately interested in learning for the sake of learning as a lifelong pursuit. There is no learning without curiosity, creativity, patience, analytical thinking, and the ability to problem solve regardless of the discipline. Any body of knowledge and skill set can only be mastered by students if they possess these dispositions. And given how rapidly our world is changing and continues to change, their ability to survive, not to mention thrive, socio-economically depends on students’ ability to master these skills.
In classrooms and libraries across the country, we teach students how to be good researchers. Since research involves working with sources, we explore how students can work ethically with sources. One popular method for evaluating sources is the CRAAP test: Currency, Relevancy, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose. Students have to determine if current information is needed and when the source was published. They also evaluate if the information is relevant to the topic being investigated and whether the researchers/authors/publishers are qualified to write/publish on the topic. Finally, students have to assess the reliability, truthfulness, and correctness of the content as well as the reason why the research was conducted. As every English, History, Science teacher and librarian can attest, researching is a skill, like any other, that needs to be practiced repeatedly for students to achieve mastery in it. We know that students, if allowed, will primarily use Google and stay within the top ten results. We also know that students can succumb to confirmation bias.
To combat confirmation bias, we need to foster the characteristics of a good researcher mentioned above. Underlying all of these qualities is open-mindedness. In English, one way open-mindedness can be cultivated is by teaching students how to ask questions about a text. In our English department, we use the Three Levels of Questions as a tool for students to learn how to frame questions driven by what they are curious about in literature, writing, and the world: Level 1 questions are fact-based and specific to the text, Level 2 questions are interpretive and specific to the text, Level 3 questions are the big ideas explored in the text that can be answered using the text and the real world. Level 2 and 3 questions must be framed in an open-ended way because open-ended questions elicit insights, engage reasoning, build knowledge, invite curiosity, show independent thinking, and more. As a result, students develop the ability to think critically, creatively, expansively, and with nuance. Therefore, by the time we get to a research project, the literary critical essay for example, students have been pivoted to think and work like good researchers.
What Minaj and Rodgers as well as other celebrities and sports figures reveal through their vaccine resistance or hesitancy is not only a complete misconstruing of what research is and how it is conducted but also more fundamentally, an unfamiliarity with critical thinking. It is important to note that Rodgers defended his vaccine resistance by describing himself as a critical thinker. Critical thinking, in actuality, isn’t a rejection or questioning of scientific thinking and logic. Critical thinking is a rational, empathetic, reasoning-based way of thinking that attempts to account for the limitations in human thinking. Critical thinkers ask the kinds of questions that good researchers ask of sources to evaluate the sources and guide the researcher’s actions. Critical thinkers know that research doesn’t mean looking something up on Twitter and/or Google and asking the loudest or most popular person you know for their opinion, especially if you already know they agree with you. Research involves knowing where to look, when, and who to ask what—you know, the CRAAP test. Doing research requires one to be open-minded. So, hypothetically, if Minaj and Rodgers were critical thinkers and good researchers, then based on the science in the relevant sources, their position on vaccination would change.
This is probably why Aaron Rodgers could cite a study that is not at all about vaccine resistance as proof for why one should be vaccine-resistant. This also raises another key skill that students should be developing long before the research process begins, and it is to analyze what a text is interested in. Students need to determine the scope of the preoccupation. Understanding the purpose of the text allows students to determine the kinds of open-ended questions that can be asked of a text. For instance, a research project on the portrayal of the black working class in Nella Larsen’s Passing will often reveal an inattentive reader who brings questionable assumptions about race in America to a novella about a wealthy African American experience in the 1920s.
Now more than ever we see that what occurs within classrooms has real-world stakes. Again, the questions all of us who work in educational institutions must ask ourselves: What kind of adults do we want our students to grow into? How do we ensure that our students develop critical thinking skills and become good researchers? Furthermore, how do we help them master these two skill sets so that, like with mastery in any topic and skill, they can use critical thinking and be good researchers anywhere and everywhere these skills are relevant? And these are all open-ended questions.