When my oldest son was five, he asked me whether the leaves were falling because the air was getting colder or because the sun was setting earlier. We gathered leaves. We conducted experiments. We looked at maps of leaves and sunlight and temperature. He wasn’t reading but he was doing research.
When my middle son was around the same age, he asked why metal things (like the laptop) seem to feel colder. Are they actually colder or does it just feel that way? Do they get colder faster? We held up different objects and talked about them. We talked to the best science geeks we could find. When I realized that I didn’t have a thermometer that would detect the temperature of objects, we went online and found this great video that explores the concept. He wasn’t reading but he was doing research.
Now my daughter is in kindergarten and she is always asking, always investigating, always exploring. She might find pictures from a book or find objects or ask experts. What was life like before the internet? Was there a time when pink or purple weren’t considered “girl colors?” Why do stars twinkle? She isn’t always reading but she is often doing research.
I mention this because someone recently asked, “In design thinking, do you just have the younger students skip the research phase since they can’t read at that level yet?”
I responded with, “Kids can research without reading It might have to be a little more guided. You might have to look for resources. You might have to help navigate the information. However, research isn’t dependent on written text.”
Children are researching years before they learn to read. Watch a toddler investigate the bugs in the backyard and you’ll notice that curiosity is deeply human. And while we want students to learn some of the harder, more complex aspects of researching (such as determining the loaded language and bias in a source), my hope is that they retain some aspect of this curiosity as they get older. On some level, I want my current graduate students to research like a toddler.
When I was a kid, I had “research in life” and “research in school.” These were vastly different scenarios. At school, the teacher chose the topics, asked the questions, determined the process, and limited the sources we used to print material. At home, it was a messy process where I didn’t have to take meticulous notes and “show my work.” I could skip back and forth between ideas, making connections along the way. I dreaded school research papers but I loved to research geeky interests at home. I didn’t get the chance to do “research in life” at school until Mrs. Smoot and Mr. Darrow provided an outlet for me in the History Day project my eighth grade year.
Research should be fun. When we allow students to ask the questions, choose the sources, and own the process, they view it as a mental playground. It stays fun. Forever.
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