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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Questions: What If They Don’t Come Up with the Right Ones?

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A quick visual used in history class!

Last year, our health teacher came to me to work on an annual research project, in which her students researched and reported out on a health issue. The students arrived with a list of questions to answer, and proceeded to search for the answers and put those answers into the slides of a Power Point presentation. As they went through the process, I sat with them and asked them other questions about their topic, like, “What is surprising about this?” or “Is there any stigma to this illness?” and they stared at me blankly. “That’s not on our sheet,” one answered.

The following quarter I suggested we have students come up with their own questions. The teacher looked at me nervously. “But what if they don’t come up with the right ones?”

I understand this fear. We are obligated to guide students through particular curriculum, and there is immense pressure to cover all of the material. And if we provide them with the list of what they need to look up, we can ensure that it is all covered.

And while students will compliantly look up the material, they will not analyze or synthesize that material in any way.

Since then, we have transformed the research into one where students develop an essential question (Are we doing enough to support those with schizophrenia?) and supporting questions (How many people have it? What treatments are available?), and then compile their information into a mini-TED-like talk. In history class, we have taken a Supreme Court hunt-and-peck unit and have provided an essential question (How does this Supreme Court Case impact our law today?), and then asked students to come up with their own supporting questions–what do they need to know before they can answer that essential question? From there, they developed a website that outlined all of their cases. In Spanish class, we have undertaken a similar remodeling-(Which Spanish-speaking country would you want to visit and why?)-providing them with an essential question, asking them to develop their own supporting questions and then doing a fun, Pecha Kucha presentation (20 slides, 20 seconds per slide) where they “sell” their countries.  Across the curriculum, we are shifting from regurgitative fact-listing projects to more authentic products driven by meaningful, deliberate inquiry and student-driven questions.

And we are finding that it works. Students have to think to formulate their own questions. This is a difficult task and not one they instinctively do well, especially when they have to come up with an essential question. It forces their brains to be analytical and to work in backwards design, which is often a new intellectual process for them. As they work through this, we find that they need modeling and practice. Without experience in this, they will not immediately ask thorough enough questions, but with conversation and guidance, they arrive to where they feel confident in this kind of thinking, and when we ultimately are able to step back, we discover that students not only ask the same questions we would have, but they actually ask better ones.

Across the board, in each class, we have watched our students understand their topics better. There are no more blank stares. They add to their questions as they go through the process, and they work to prove a point with each presentation. Their understanding is deeper and they feel more ownership and purpose.  The quality of their knowledge and final products has been immensely improved.

My husband likes to remind me that we teachers (especially me!) are control freaks. And rightly so–there is a great deal of pressure resting on our shoulders, and it is terrifying to relinquish the strangle we sometimes urgently feel in the rush to get it done. In the end though, we need to ask our purpose. Do we want students who know how to look up facts on Google? Or do we want students to know how to think through a problem? If it is the latter, we must switch the focus to guiding our kids’ learning processes, rather than controlling them, allowing them to flourish in unimaginable ways. We have to trust ourselves and our students in this unfolding of understanding, knowing that with practice, they will come up with the “right” questions.