A chance plea from a parent and colleague Brian Smith on Twitter today led to a long discussion online about the research process and how it could be so much more meaningful for students than it is.
Smith was struggling to work with his 14 year old to generate a research topic. The assignment the student was given was to pick “something of interest.”
While it seems very open-ended to allow a student to research whatever they want, as very often happens, the student was given the assignment with no advance preparation, brainstorming, etc., and expected to “come up with” a topic.
(I also wonder where the librarian was in this process. As a number of us commented on twitter, teachers often don’t seem to perceive us as partners in the research process or even as helpful advisors sometimes, even though research is what we “do” for our campuses; but that is another post altogether).
Smith reflected his frustration in his tweet:
How do we tap into student passions when we ask them to really research something? How do we stoke those fires, draw them in, ask for their voices and make it personal for them? And are we(both teachers and librarians) providing enough inspiration and scaffolding throughout the research process? What can all of us do differently to make this more meaningful for students–a rich, engaged and authentic experience where real learning and understanding occurs?
Carol Kuhlthau has done a tremendous amount of work on the research process, and her model is one I find very valuable because it speaks to the process, not the product. She observed the behaviors of students while doing research and her model describes both the steps they experienced but also the emotions associated with each stage.
For example during the initiation phase, students feel anxiety and uncertainty as they seek to define the assignment and their topic. That’s a normal way for students to feel, and it helps for both students, teachers, and parents to know that. Her model does an excellent job of portraying those connections, and in her books, she elucidates many ways to scaffold research assignments for students so that they are supported during the more stressful parts of the process.
Kuhlthau also identifies a “zone of intervention” based on Vygotsky’s work on zones of proximal development, which is the zone during which help and scaffolding helps move students through the process and eases their anxiety.
So part of the issue I frequently see is that we aren’t sufficiently supporting students through the stress that characterizes the beginning stages of the research process.
But another issue is something that Brian identified in his tweet–where is the passion? His child was told they couldn’t do their first topic because another student had selected it–on a practical classroom level, this is understandable, but in terms of the student’s passion for the topic it isn’t. If a student is interested in something, that is what they are interested in.
Basically we are asking them to set aside their own passion because another student “claimed it” first. And if we go back to Kuhlthau’s model, at the most stressful and difficult stage of the research process, we are adding to the stress by denying the student his own self-selected interest.
One way to have balanced that in the first place would be to begin a research assignment by weeks of having students write about their interests, or clip newspaper articles, or to bookmark websites on delicious–then the student would have had already identified several of his/her interests and wouldn’t be left in a scene that is all too familiar to many of us who are parents or librarians–sitting with the child going, “Do you like this? No…do you like this? No? …aren’t you interested in this?”
Another model which seeks to address the area of student passions is Ken Macrorie’s I-search model, which encourages students to be active participants in the research process and encourages use of primary sources as well.
So again, aside from scaffolding the process much more effectively, how can we tap into student passions? How can we make the research process more real–more like the real research that researchers do? Here’s a few ideas, but I would love to hear more.
1. Give students time to consider their interests. How many of us could “generate” a topic when approaching it completely cold. The bells rings–okay, pick your topic.
2. Consider having students, as I mentioned above, write about things that interest them or collect information for weeks or months prior to the assignment.
3. As you move through your curriculum, have students keep a “research idea” log as things in the curriculum pique their interest.
4. Consider conducting research across an entire semester or year. Two of our teachers are trying this this year–having students gradually collect articles of interest, compare Wikipedia with other sources, use delicious or furl to bookmark items, keep their eyes out for news stories on their topics and so on. (Interestingly, this was partially driven by the fact that our main library will be closed in the spring when they will be writing their paper, but it’s been very very effective educationally.)
5. Consider completely rethinking the “research project.” Tell students they will write a research paper sometime during the year when it feels right to them. Scaffold everyone at the beginning with assistance on logistics, but let students “strike when the iron is hot.” (I know we are dealing with high school students, but….they might enjoy having this flexibility and spontaneity).
6. Have students establish a blog or use a class bulletin board online as a way to explore topics, ask others for help and work collaboratively. (What would have happened for the student above if the teacher had said–well, if you want to do this topic, and if you and the other student agree, how about the two of you working collaboratively on your research and your paper? And then supported that with sharing web 2.0 tools that would have assisted them?)
7. Consider how writing a blog entry or several blog entries is like writing a research paper–where you explore, document and share your investigations and passions. Could a “blog” be a research paper and be even more meaningful because it’s published?
8. Consider making the process more open-ended for students. Every researcher does not end up with the same product in “real life.” Why can’t the product grow organically out of the topic and student’s process? Some students may want to create a video to inform others, while others may want to write a blog, and yet others may want to create a slide show and present their information to their peers. Empower students to make those choices.
9. If you are a classroom teacher, then realize that your librarian is and wants to be a real partner with you in research(and your tech coordinator may as well!) Most school librarians have teaching degrees(in some states, this is required) and most have taught. (and many were English teachers!) Your librarian sees research in action every day, sees the problems students are having, sees where help is needed and wants to collaborate with you and plan with you. Seek them out and don’t feel like you are bothering them or inconveniencing them. (And librarians, don’t ever make teachers feel like they are inconveniencing you!)
But whatever you do–think about how to engage your students passionately in their research. Think about how to make it authentic for students. Rethink how you were taught the “research paper” and rethink how you teach it. Throw out the old “box” and see what happens, because your students will benefit tremendously in the end. And imagine “grading” research papers where every student was so engaged and passionate about their writing and their topic that they transcended the form. Wouldn’t that make the process worth it for everyone? It could even become the spark that leads a student on a life-changing path as they learn to shape their own learning.