I failed some teachers the other day. I failed to recognize a potential problem ahead of time and didn’t dedicate my best practices towards resolving it.
After the fact, I realized it was a difficulty I see with research assignments fairly often. (Even when I do recognize the difficulty ahead of time, it’s not always something I am able to resolve because it depends on collaborative planning sometimes.)
I’m always pleased when teachers ask students to investigate topics instead of teaching the topic themselves directly because I think it puts students in a more active role in the learning process.
But my issue lies in approaching students with pre-defined topics. I think there’s some important scaffolding we need to do to make assignments like that more effective. And I think I fail when I don’t approach teachers with ideas for how to do that.
On frequent occassions, I find myself helping students who are attempting to research a topic that they fundamentally have no clue about, to be blunt about it. It is like the time a student came up to me in the library years ago, and said to me in a somewhat exasperated tone of voice, “There is just nothing in the library on my ‘guy.'” Having heard that comment many a time before, I asked who she was researching, thinking we might have to do some deep investigating. Her answer was “Frude.”
After puzzling over it for a minute, I found out that this gentleman was actually “Freud,” so naturally we did have plenty of information about him. But the fact that she was assigned a topic about which she knew absolutely nothing and that didn’t grow out of her natural curiosity in the course, meant that the name had no context for her, and so she had nothing to go on except a misspelled name. I don’t tell this story to ridicule this student at all, by the way.
I just think too often this happens to students. Sure, some of them are proficient in Google or Yahoo or using a library catalog online. But if they don’t understand what they are looking up, when they hit a roadblock, they have little in the way of alternatives. (Of course, they do have their own networks who can sometimes help them unmuddle the question.)
To me, this is the fundamental problem with assigning one or two word “topics” to students or having them draw them from a hat, or whatever the methodology, rather than having students select topics from the unit of study themselves. And by select I don’t just mean pick from a list, but perhaps by skimming ahead through the next chapter of their history textbook and picking out something that picques their interest, or brainstorming questions with their class that they might be interested in, or clipping articles out of the newspaper that catch their interest and then building up a file of things they are interested (or do this on del.icio.us or Google reader or Diigo or whatever online tool they choose).
On the other hand, I do think there is value to letting students start out with a question or topic of their choice (within parameters) and not defining the steps too specifically at first. I think there is a balance to challenging them to investigate and inspiring them to be detectives and scaffolding them. Are we modeling for them what we do when we are stuck? Do we show them how we ask our network for help, our librarian, our friend down the hall–do we model for them what sites we start with when we are puzzled?
We want to model good sources and strategies for them to an extent, but we also want them to learn to follow leads and be independent learners, and I think that balance is tricky. I don’t think just tossing them out on Google with a vague topic is the answer, but I think we can also squelch their investigative curiosity by making a research process too “step by step.”
Wes Fryer and Scott Weidig have been having an interesting exchange about this idea of “procedural” learning versus “navigational” learning in regards to teachers, but I think it applies to students as well. (To summarize and oversimplify, Wes defines procedural learners being those that want to have a series of steps to follow, and navigational learners as being those who figure it out by “doing” it and experimenting.)
In their conversation, Scott asks:
“I guess that I am thinking that if we look at how young children, who very much want to learn and I feel are a great model of what an investigative thinker/learner is/should be, learn (navigationally) is there a point in the education cycle where we teach that out of them and create a procedural learner in its place? Are we creating this cycle by in essence teaching goal setting and breaking of topics/ideas down into more manageable ‘goals.'”
I think an area often neglected in teacher training (and in staff development) is about the whole nature of research and how we teach it and use it in the classroom. Even if the assignment is fairly straightforward–I want students to investigate “x” and share it with the class–How do we strike that balance between covering the content we need to, and helping students be investigative and curious? How do we tap into their curiosity? Can we engage students better by giving them some choices? Can we arouse their curiosity by our own passion for the subject? Can we connect it in to what they already know, or ask them to make those connections before beginning?
And as they move through their research, do we model how to problem solve? And have we created a situation where they are invested enough in it to even WANT to problem solve?
As guides, how do we know when to intervene in their process and provide them some context during their investigative process so that they are more successful–what Carol Kuhlthau calls the “zone of intervention?” Can we make assignments defined enough for our curricular needs, but open-ended enough that students can follow what I think of as the serendipitious paths of information that might arise along the way during their search?
And how can we use tools that allow us to see what students are thinking as they move through a research process, so we can even understand the barriers they are encountering–journaling on sites like Tumblr? using blogs as reflective tools during their research process? Twitter for micro-reflections? Skype or IM in the library so students can just instant message a clarification question?
The simplest things can trip any of us up. The notion of “have to” versus “want to” can slow any of us down in our work. The questions of invitation, of context, and of exploration seem significant ones if we are to inspire student investigation and curiosity, (or teacher investigation, for that matter.) If we want to create curious and investigative adults as Scott writes about, how do we support those traits in our own assignments and interactions with students?