A Child’s Eye View of Research

Brockhaus Konversations-Lexicon, 1902
Image via Wikipedia

My nine-year old son just got his first research assignment. I know, it seems late for a nine-year old to be getting his first assignment in the third grade. His alternative school is light on homework and heavy on enrichment.

But, I digress.

He announced his task at the dinner table last night, as we ate turkey chili laced with stewed tomatos. His first assignment is to find out whether a tomato is a vegetable or a fruit.

I asked him: “where would you go to look for that answer?” Without a moment’s hesitation, he replied: “The Computer!” I gave him my raised eyebrow look and he quickly stammered “my teacher said we could go to any web site we wanted to.” He knew by my look that this was not going to sway me.

I backed him up a bit. I asked him where one would go to find out what a word means. He thought for a moment and replied, “the dictionary.” I agreed.

Then I asked him where one would go to find out what something is. More than the word’s meaning, what the concept or “thing” is. He was stumped.

I told him that there is another, similar book called an encyclopedia. It is a bit like a dictionary but contains stories about what things are. Not just their meaning, but all sorts of facts about them.  I explained that encyclopedias are great places to start research, get quick answers and find information about where to go to get even more detailed answers.

I then asked him: “Would you go get your answer to your tomato question from a dictionary or an encyclopedia?” He agreed that the encyclopedia was the way to go. After explaining to him that we did not have a set of encyclopedias in our library to go with our dictionary, I asked him where he might go to get a book that we didn’t own. He knew that the library was the answer.

I grew up surrounded by books. When I received a research assignment in grammar school, I knew the first place to look was the set of World Books or Encyclopedia Britannica at the school library, or the set of Encyclopedia Americana my parents purchased on time. I preferred the World Books and would hurry to the library so that I could check out the proper volume before my classmates could. I liked them best because they were laid out cleanly with an easy prose and understandable organization.

Now, children are surrounded by computers. Talk about ease of use and convenience. Of course, today’s child would jump at the computer as the first source of knowledge, just like I jumped at the World Book back in the day.

While I am a true champion of the cause of technology as the solution for quick, efficient and thorough research, I still have a vast appreciation for an apprenticeship that starts with paper and glue and dusty old shelves and those index cards bearing the Dewey Decimal System. Teach the forest, then the trees and then you are fit to wield a saw.

So my son and I have a date with the library this Saturday. I didn’t feel it necessary to explain Wikipedia to him. There is still plenty of time for that.

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