How often do you ask students to independently research? In my first year, I would have answered that there’s the one big project that students complete at the end of the year. Given my schooling, this also rang true to my experience as an elementary student. If this experience rings true with you then I would urge you to rethink how and when you place research into the curriculum in light of CCSS Writing Standard 7, which calls for both sustained and short research. This is a good thing.
Research needs to be a continuous set of skills that our students are building and refining over an entire year. With the one and done project, students end up with skills that are isolated and rarely refined. These are probably the same students who I encountered in college being thoroughly perplexed with the vast amount of databases my college library had to choose from. Believe me, working in a small group with those students was not enjoyable, especially since my college professors were not the type to backtrack and catch them up on their research skills.
To be honest, I’m not sure that I would have wound up as an expert researcher given the types of projects that I completed in school. Upon reflection, I think a lot of my success came from luck of the draw. I was the student who starting in 3rd grade naturally made my parents take me to the public library when I had to research something. Piling books upon the table. Scouring the card catalog. Following the trail of subjects. Pouring dimes into the microfiche machine as I zoomed to the magazine article pages to print. Also, I had two parents who had received graduate degrees, who taught me to how to use those resources, especially that microfiche machine. What about classmates who didn’t have those same characteristics or privileges? These are the students that we need to consider when we are building research into our curriculum.
We must reorganize our thinking, which is something I’ve written about before when discussing technology acquisition. In the context of shorter and sustained projects, I posed three questions to myself.
- How does my one big research project mirror the way students will actually use these skills post-education?
- How have I set myself up for frustration and failure with a one-time only research project?
- What would a ladder of skills, like Literacy Design Collaborative, look like for research skills?
Sometimes, we, as adults, will conduct long sustained research like when we’re deciding if you should change your diet to a vegan one. But, to say, that we constantly are scouring databases for articles, weighing their credibility, finding the appropriate evidence, interviewing experts…well, that’s not happening all the time with a majority of adults. This is not me advocating throwing out a sustained research project. Just, we need to consider how we will equip students to do research when say they hop on Facebook and see Ferguson, MO in a lot of their feeds. Or, when they see a bunch of people dousing themselves with buckets of ice. These are shorter moments of research in which we ask ourselves basic comprehension questions, figure out which sources are the ones that we can trust, and find out what is exactly happening in Ferguson and how do ALS and ice water connect. It’s possible we end up digging deeper if the issue seems intriguing or interesting to us.
Frustration and Failure
When I only built in one research project, I found myself mostly putting out fires in the computer lab. Inevitably, research ended up taking more weeks than I had estimated and sometimes, I found myself taking the keyboard from the student to help navigate to a good source. Most likely, the last time the student had been asked to navigate and use databases had been a year ago…or perhaps, they had never been asked. That’s where I began to pull my skills and content apart. It’s too much to ask my students to cover, in one project: keywords, source types, database comparison, printing and highlighting, digital archiving, researching after initial information, credibility, bias, website evaluation, and the list continues. Had I given shorter projects throughout the year that isolated and covered these skills, the sustained project would have been a great time to assess for their general research ability.
Ladder of Skills
Lindsey has written about how Literacy Design Collaborative modules consider not only the content questions and task, but also the literacy skills necessary to complete a task. I’ve found myself incorporating this idea of a skill ladder into my thinking about work with students. What exactly will a student need to be able to know and do in order to do each piece? In what order makes sense with my curriculum to teach these skills? Given a set of skills, I could focus on 1-2 when building my short research; think of these as mini-tasks for research.
Example End Goal: Students can evaluate and choose sources that are credible and the best sources for their topic.
- Credible skills
- framework for credible
- definition and understanding of what gives ones credibility
- identify and evaluate: bias, authority, source ranking, fact vs opinion
- Best Source
- read and understand what a prompt is asking
- rank sources
- identify what information is still missing/needed to respond to prompt
- difference between source types with pros/cons
- database: identify their uses and types of sources within the different ones
- keywords to isolate: topic, source type
- create a framework to collected information and organize their research process
- easily assess if a source is worth further considerationà abstract, topics, keywords, length, source, date
By sitting down and considering what my research skills look like on a skill ladder, I will be able to stagger these skills throughout my year for both shorter and sustained research. Ultimately, my students should be able to synthesize all the skills on the ladder into a larger, sustained project with less direction from me.