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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