in Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking by Browne and Keeley.
Which do you use, the ‘panning for gold’ or the ‘sponge’ approach to data? How do you know which you use?
You will know which technique to use depending on what your goals are; however, I do not believe that the techniques exist in complete isolation. I believe that they both are needed at different times and under different circumstances in order to be an effective and progressive critical thinker.
In my approach to learning and teaching, at first I use the sponge method. I try to read as broadly as possible on a topic to know what is out there. I also want to get a handle on all the major scholarly opinions. It is only after this, do I come to analyze and come to my own conclusions. During this process, I "pan for gold." I look for the most important pieces of evidence to construct an argument that is cogent.
So, the direct answer to your question is that both approaches to data-collection are valid - under different circumstances. If you are trying to gain a general base of knowledge about a topic, "the sponge method" allows you to sort through a great deal of information. When you have specific questions about a subject, "panning for gold" allows you to search for the specific content needed.
I think in reality we all use both methods depending on the situation and what is called for. In the process of writing a report or an essay, for example, we all use the panning for gold method, as we have to decide what information is useful and what is not. However, when I am reading a book for interest and pleasure, the sponge method is clearly used.
I "pan for gold" by scanning information until I find sources that I know will be useful, them I am a sponge, taking in all of the information the source has to offer. If I don't approach research this way I tend to get bogged down in interesting but not useful information and sometimes lose my focus.
This really depends on what I am doing. When I am first trying to learn about a topic, I use the sponge. However, once I have a basic grip on the topic, I will often "pan for gold." A good example of this is when I look for specific facts to use in teaching a particular issue in class. However, I try to remain open to noticing new ideas even then -- you never know what might end up being useful.
I, too, like the "sponge" approach: sometimes you don't know what nugget of gold you will find unless you soak up a lot of apparently "useless" information and then sort through it. Some of my favorite projects have begun with this kind of comprehensive approach.
I would say that I use the sponge approach to learning. I do not think that anything is irrelevant as a whole. While some information may not be relevant at the time, there could be a time where the information will be relevant. Therefore, it is better to absorb than to discard.