Don’t Ask an “Expert:” Read the Research
I regularly get emails from high school students that I have never met, typically asking for help for an assignment where they are supposed to interview an “expert” about a topic of their choosing. The emails often contain a long list of questions that I cannot respond to due to time constraints.
I realize that these students have no control over the assignments that their teachers give them—although I have sometimes wondered if the emailed questions are meant to avoid actually doing some reading—and I can easily gripe about how those of us from the twentieth century never had this option, short of writing a letter if we could somehow find an address.
But the more I think about these kinds of emails, the more I think about the problems with assignment itself. Asking an “expert” is a poor way to learn about social science, which is based on examination of empirical evidence, not from the pronouncements of experts. Unless the students are taking a journalism class, interviewing someone seems like a missed opportunity to learn more about research.
So high school teachers, if you are reading this, here is how I suggest you alter this common assignment of “asking an expert” and instead focus on creating empirical literacy among students:
- Choose a topic of interest
This is the part that is already central to the assignment, presumably. Whether shaped by their own lives, general curiosity, or events in the news, it’s a great idea to have students think about something that they would like to learn more about. But from here things change….
- How have people studied this topic?
It’s important to learn what kinds of research questions social scientists typically ask about this topic. What kinds of questions haven’t been asked? Why haven’t they been asked?
Most of the time the questions that high school students email me reveal that they haven’t read anything about a topic. Sometimes they mention that they contacted me because they Googled their topic and saw that I wrote a book on a similar subject, but they clearly hadn’t even read the description of my book, let alone gotten it from a library to read a chapter or two before contacting me.
Reading other people’s research helps us answer these questions. We can learn more about a topic and also who, what, and why about a subject to understand why researchers look at certain issues and not others. Just about any book or journal article will provide a useful background of what others have studied on the topic as well.
If we don’t know what researchers have studied about a particular topic, we can’t really know what questions to ask “experts” to begin with. We have no idea of knowing if a question makes any sense. Sometimes there is no research addressing their particular question because the connections that they presume just don’t exist. But sometimes there is a real gap in the literature that new research can explore.
- What do the data tell us?
The data, not the “experts” matter. Students should learn how researchers gather data and what that process is like; that although no study is perfect, some have bigger limitations than others.
Students also need to know where to find data online, not just how to find “experts.” In an era of fake news, it has never been more important to learn to find data from the original sources, without spin or interpretation. Sometimes I’m asked about national crime trends. Rather than searching for a social scientist, it is much better to have students look directly at the data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, for instance.
The students can then learn to find and interpret research on their own and be less vulnerable to false claims about a topic from those deemed “experts” (and it wouldn’t hurt to critically explore who is considered an expert on a subject, and what, if any credentials they may have).
Learning to analyze data provides important lessons in understanding the complexity of the world around us, and also about critical thinking more generally. Data can challenge our pre-existing worldviews if the results don’t support what we take for granted to be true.
How else might students better learn about the research process? What other lessons might students gain from reading research rather than—or at least before—asking an “expert?”