Rethinking Research

Screen Shot 2013-12-02 at 9.17.02 PMWikipedia. Google. Answers.com. Do you ever use them? I know I do. Some of my recent searches include: How long do I cook my turkey? Do I need 2 or 4 winter tires? How old was Bob Woodward when he broke the Watergate story?What was the name of that guy who wrote that book about World War I with the blue cover?

Regardless of our own personal reliance on these websites, we want students to understand the importance of reliable sources. We teach them the “CRAAP” test. We do entire lessons on evaluating websites. We tell them we will not accept Wikipedia as a resource. We tell them not to use the sources we rely on.

And I agree with all of that.  If we are asking students to do academic research, we need to stress the importance of reliable online academic resources like school databases, websites like the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian, and digital newspapers and encyclopedias, while also showcasing available print material.  There is a great deal of garbage on the Internet, and we must guide them to well-researched, responsibly-written work.

But if we are asking them to use those resources, we need to ask them to actually do research.

The Oxford English dictionary defines research as, “the systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions.” Yet, too often we ask students to just establish facts. And facts are quick and easy to find.  If we want a student to find out information about Abraham Lincoln’s life, most of that information is common knowledge and we can find it almost anywhere. Citing it feels falsified and doesn’t show students how to really acknowledge others’ ideas, because we can find where he was born and who he married on any Internet site or in any book, so whose idea is it, really?  Yet, if we ask our students How did Lincoln’s early life guide his decision during the Civil War? then we are asking them to not only understand his life, but to also understand what decisions he made–and then to draw conclusions. Instead of asking students to research jellyfish, what if we asked them How does the jellyfish adapt to its environment? Instead of asking students to research weaponry during the Viet Nam War, what if we asked them How did the weaponry of the Viet Nam War impact the death toll? Asking students to prove something–to assert a claim–to make a thesis–will always help them dig in deeper and naturally drift away from those wiki sites.

This kind of research requires time. It requires students to be able to comfortably navigate resources, read and not feel rushed, make mistakes, assert a different thesis than their original. But, like in every classroom across the nation, time is a rare commodity. Yet, if we do not honor the need for thoughtful and deliberate research, we are cutting them off at the knees and not preparing them for the research expected of them in college.

So how do we get around this complicated research debacle?

  • Offer authentic  choices in topics that allow students to assert authentic claims.
  • Remember that not every research project needs to culminate in a large project. What is your main objective of this assignment? You can create small, feasible research projects that culminate in index cards, a list, or a paragraph
  • If you are immersing students in a full-process research essay or presentation, give them adequate time to explore topics, make mistakes, struggle with theses, take notes, organize their information, and pull together their ideas in well-written prose.
  • Always remember to model each piece–do the research piece alongside them. Explicit modeling will always help your students.

What other ideas have you tried that have worked? What do you still continue to struggle with? What are our greatest challenges in teaching students how to delve into research? How can librarians and classroom teachers collaborate together to make the process easier? Please share!

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