Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Learning to Answer Your Own Questions

I am an education renegade. If you had known I am an advocate of homeschooling, you might have suspected that. It was probably in my DNA to hold the education system at arm's length, but I still blame my mother—a public school teacher who was horrified at what she saw as the leftovers of a malfunctioning ideology. I cut my teeth on her diatribes about classroom vignettes. Reading, decades later, The Underground History of American Education hardly surprised me.

I prefer, instead, to opt for independent discovery. Individual learning. An inquiring mind. When I discovered the word "autodidact," I fell in love with it.

So, what's the matter with me now? Here I am, teaching beginning genealogy classes, and the more questions my students toss at their devoted teacher, the more I love it. Why? Because I get to talk even more, answering those questions.

Instead, I need to remember my educational roots. When students ask me where to find the answers to their genealogical research questions, I need to remember to prompt them to use the tools I've already shown them to find the answers for themselves.

I can't believe I just now woke up to that solution. What aileth me?

Just as the Internet has brought us myriad opportunities to research our family history, it has also provided us the tools with which to delve deeper in our quest to find just one generation more. Remember Google? Why is it that we can use "Dr. Google," as my college-age daughter prefers to call it, when we are looking up the URL for our favorite store or restaurant, but it doesn't even come to mind when we are wondering whether we can access, say, old newspapers in Manitoba?

Likewise, when contemplating what life might have been like in our ancestors' hometown in Illinois—or Ireland—why not stop by Wikipedia? For a brief introduction to topics, Wikipedia is a good start. For a more specialized bird's-eye view of a genealogical topic, another "wiki" can come to our rescue: the wiki at

I am surprised at how many people know about another resource for self-directed genealogical learning—Cyndi's List—and yet, don't use it. "It's too big," I hear people whine. While that may be true—hey, that's the Big Box of one-stop genealogical resources—it still is a way to inform yourself about any topic. For my class members wondering how they can find resources about their great-grandparents' country of origin, taking a spin through the lists of lists at Cyndi's List is well worth the time. You just have to do it.

And remember those old forums? Yeah, they're so "nineties." But they are still pertinent. I'm not above posting my query on a message board at Ancestry or Rootsweb, or even searching through the old posts at GenForum, now that it's been brought back to life. That's how I knew, years ago, about the Manitoba newspaper resources blogger Gail Dever just stumbled upon a couple days ago.

On the flip side, what I find today might be something you found years ago, too. That's why another resource—as Gail discovered—is the world of Facebook pages devoted to genealogical research. Between specific interest groups and genealogical societies, social media—whether at Facebook or Google+ or through lists posted by participants at Twitter—is turning into a go-to place to ask your family history questions, as well.

There are so many more resources to help with your research questions that I couldn't possibly post them all here. But you get the idea. There are tools you can use. All you have to do is ask the question. As we all know by now, the answer is out there. Somewhere.

Above: "Bicycling," 1887 watercolor by Montreal native, Henry Sandham; courtesy Wikipedia; in the public domain.


  1. I'm an independent learner, too. Thanks for reminding me what I already know, that most times, there is an answer somewhere, and it's my job to learn enough to figure out where that "somewhere" is.

    1. Janice, as you know, there is an immense amount of freedom in being able to find the answers to your own questions. Of course, we sometimes forget that we are free...

  2. I hear you about "arms length" with public schools - they cater to the "lowest denominator" and to political whims of the moment - and fail to simply teach.

    Shame, really we waste so much taxpayer's monies on it.

    1. What, to me, seems even more tragic is how some students' minds seem to get stifled in that group environment. Of course, a talented teacher can make all the difference, but often, the task simply cannot rely solely on one miracle worker to make that key difference in the lives of so many students.

      Learning sometimes is a team effort. But above all, when we can, we must make it a personal initiative. When we teach others, we do them a disservice if we make them merely the product of our pedagogy. We need to instill in each other the understanding that we can equip ourselves to be able to instruct ourselves.


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