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When I first began teaching, I viewed research as something separate from the rest of learning. We did research projects or we kept the research as a phase within a project. Since then, I’ve had some shifts in how we do research:

1. Start with questions.
I’m not sure why this took me so long to figure out. Outside of school, research often begins with a question (often a bigger question) followed by smaller questions. In my first few years of teaching, I had kids research topics. Essentially, I had asked all the questions and turned the questions into statements that they then used for research.

2. Begin with curiosity.
This is similar to the first shift, but it has more to do with the driving motivation for research. I try and begin with student curiosity. It is not only more authentic, but it forces kids to think deeper about the facts they are finding. Instead of saying, “You’ll be researching globalization and its effect on our economic systems,” I say, “In looking at globalization, what are you most intrigued by? What sticks out to you as something you want to know more about?”

3. Make it flexible.
I remember giving kids a specific research grid. Then, I changed it to notecards the next year. Later, I realized that different kids could have their own methods of organizing their research. Some would use a concept map, others would use tables or lists and still others preferred visual curation or digital notecards. If my goal is to empower students to be self-directed learners, using a flexible organizational structure is helpful.

4. Pay attention to bias.
I think we do a disservice to kids when we teach them that there is a binary difference between fact and opinion, when, in fact, it’s more of a sliding scale. We rob them of the controversy of “facts” and the conflict necessary in order to make sense out of their world. This is why we use research as a chance to find and identify bias in sources. It’s why we pay attention to loaded language and the construction of arguments. We ask hard questions about the omission of certain facts. It takes time, but ultimately it’s worth it.

5. Start early.
Often, research happens at the end of the year. It’s sort-of a culminating project, often connected to a topic (state reports, animal report, etc.). What if we started research in the beginning? What if students began seeing research as a normal part of reading and thinking? I’ve found that Geek Out Projects can be a great introduction to research. Kids take something they are passionate about already and then research it in-depth. This guarantees that they have prior knowledge while also getting a chance to share their interests and passions with the world.

6. Rethink sources.
Although my students find information from books and magazines, they also use social media to connect with experts. When researching social issues, they interview people in their community. In the past, I had students conduct Needs Assessments, where they used polls to collect data that they then analyzed in their research. I might just do the Needs Assessments again this year.

7. Cycle back.
I used to have students go through phases where they asked questions, did research and then created something. Now, I see the need to have them cycle back to research when writing a blog post, creating a video or doing a project. Often, in making something new they find a gap that they hadn’t seen. So, we take some time to go back to the research phase again.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • Dave says:

    On Facebook I'd give this a (y) (y)

  • Totally dug this, Bro….

    (Oh wait: I wasn't supposed to say Bro.)

    Totally dug this, Pal…..

    Would LOVE to see more about the "Geek Out Projects" that you mention here. Seems like a great way to start the year.

    Our Language Arts team has kids do an "All About Me" board to start the year with — and while they usually turn out good, I think the kids might really dig doing something connected to their own passions.

    Rock right on,

    • Anonymous says:

      I think the steps toward shifting research methods are very useful for students and teachers. I like the way that you showed the connection between posing questions and curiosity. Making any form of research flexible helps motivate students in their effort. This makes it more intrinsic which tends to heighten student's interests. As you mentioned paying attention and starting early helps to make research easy and more durable for all involved. The strategy for students to rethink what they are doing is crucial for them to move forward. Your knowledge was truly helpful.
      Educators 4 Life,
      Tracy A.

    • John Spencer says:

      I'll try and get it over to you at some point, Bill. I want to release the Geek Out project as a free resource.

  • Anonymous says:

    I really like how you started out with the admission that as teachers, we can always improve ourselves. I like that you had a change in perspective that is helpful for you and your student. In terms of the seven points you made in your article, the one that resonate with me the most is number 2, begin with curiosity. As you stated, it has more to do with the driving motivation for the research. In addition, it gives the ownership to the student and makes it more authentic for them. They will feel more motivated to do a great job since they are working on a topic that they have chosen, instead of choosing something from a list in which the topic is not their first choice. In this way, we are fostering their intrinsic motivation instead of extrinsic motivation. I also like your 3rd point of making it flexible because it gives the students the autonomy of choosing their methods in doing the research. Our students are very creative and this definitely gives them the chance to show their creativity. As you stated, if the goal is to empower students to be self-directed learners, being flexible is helpful. Your other points are valid and helpful also. Thank you for writing a great article that can help teachers not only help our students with their research skills, but also foster their intrinsic motivation and gives them a chance to show their creativity.
    An educator,

  • Deborah Hoover says:

    As a school librarian these are the steps I use and I find that teachers and students are confused when I don’t have them just jump in without doing the questions and curiosity steps, but over the years I find that students research has more depth when these skills are used first and students often continue learning about the topic once the project is concluded excited to share their new tidbits of knowledge with me in the hallway. Teaching how to research doesn’t have to be the whole enchilada with a big end product – you can do a lesson just on questions or brainstorming or making an I Wonder graphic organizer – the scaffolding of building on these steps reinforces how the pieces interlock and creates automaticity in their use. Learning to ask questions, evaluate sources, curate sources and think critically aren’t just school skills they are life skills. As many schools mistakenly eliminate their librarian positions it becomes more difficult for teachers whose skill set isn’t the same as a certified librarian to cram them into their curriculum. The result is that both students and teachers are both suffering and frustrated. The internet made librarians needed more NOT less. I have friends whose college freshmen that contact me because they don’t know how to contact college level research and are floundering. This needs to be address nationwide at the federal level as both an education and a national security issue – an informed politic is the best defense for a democratic republic.

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