Lessons Learned from Reinventing the Research Project

Because their exposure to the Web is almost entirely limited to gaming and other forms of entertainment, my middle-school students have enormous facility with the devices they own, but little exposure to opportunities for learning via researching the Internet. Ironically, many may have unmonitored freedom to roam cyberspace when they are at home, but little or no experience with mining the Internet for traditional educational purposes. Others’ exposure is so locked down and controlled, they hardly know how to begin a self-directed search. So when it comes to undertaking research on the Web, my students found themselves frustrated, overwhelmed, and lost. Here are a few lessons we learned from a self-directed research assignment, using The Big6 process, we worked on in conjunction with my fifth-graders’ work for their Student Learning Teams projects.

1. Students avoid research whenever possible.

Okay, so maybe this is nothing new. Maybe it’s something akin to washing behind their ears, maybe it smacks too much of what is most boring about school, or maybe students feel they need to invent everything on their own. But kids do seem to resist research even when it’s obvious that it will benefit them.
Of course, they may not hesitate to look up tips and tricks for improving their mad Minecraft skills, but as often as I encouraged my students to do research on an as-needed basis for their semester-long projects, they just wouldn’t do it… until I made it a required assignment.
Arms suitably twisted, they set to work, and then I watched them give up quickly in frustration. “There’s nothing out there about how to make a game that kids will like,… how to build an app,… what goes into a newspaper. Too big and scary and insurmountable, researching on the Internet just didn’t seem worth their time.
Yet, once my students gained a few skills, almost to a person, they said in their post-project reflections that their projects would have been better if they had done their research sooner.

2. Students want open access.

At the end of the research process, one of my students shared this reflection about the obstacles to his learning: “The information sources are [blocked]. It bothers me because I want to look at these website[s] but it does not let me. I have to ask a teacher and she or he might not open the [site]. It just bothers me so much! It is so frustrating.”
Another student commented on the usefulness of YouTube, especially for demonstration videos, for learning how to do almost anything.  Again, access to this resource was blocked at school, though the student realized he could get to similar resources easily at home.
How ironic – and sad – that these young researchers came to realize that their learning can continue in some environments, but be shut down, even with the best of intentions, in others. Open access would allow students to begin to learn the skills of filtering and sorting for quality resources pertinent to their legitimate questions and budding curiosity.

3. Parents need (and want) coaching.

Let’s face it, most folks of parenting or grandparenting age Google the same way our students do. We look up the last Downton Abbey episode on Wikipedia, shop for vacation deals on Travel Zoo, and Mapquest the route to our kid’s soccer game or dance recital. We rarely go past the first page of our search results, we haven’t the faintest idea of how to do an advanced Google search, and we’ve never heard of Creative Commons licensing.
So, if we want our students to do research at home, we need to give parents themselves a crash course in 21st-century researching strategies. Then parents can support the research process in appropriate ways, for example, by helping students define the focus of the research and locate effective key words for conducting a search. Self-directed research, by its nature, is a problem-solving process, so parents can play a crucial role in helping their children ask the right questions and allow them to answer them on their own (that is, not doing it for them).

4. The research process needs an update.

I love many things about Big6 research process, which is based on how we used to do things. It adds bookends of meta-cognitive thinking: students restate the project requirements in their own words at the beginning and reflect on their learning at the end. It slows the process down so that students can be deliberative in their brainstorming, questioning, and strategizing.
But for today’s students, the traditional research steps feel completely alien to their experience. Yes, we need students to learn “proper” research skills (not writing notecards, necessarily, but perhaps tracking their research in a log on Excel), but those skills need to start with where students truly are, not where they used to be.  My fifth-grade researchers already know they have the world of knowledge literally at their fingertips.
My students are not likely to ask a librarian or other adult about how to start. Why would they, if they can ask Siri? They are unlikely to think of using print sources first; in fact, more often than not, they conduct an image search before they look for online text. They don’t know when a blog might be a legitimate source and when it might not. They get mixed messages about copyright and documentation, as well as about the efficacy of Wikipedia. They know how to type in a basic search that might or might not come up with what they are looking for. They are experts at finding quick and easy Askme.com-style answers and lack the patience for anything deeper.
As I continue to review my teaching of research skills, I know I need to check out Google’s “Search Education” resources, recently recommended to me by a fellow educator. I need to introduce my students to the baby pool of a Sweet Search before we dive into the ocean of the Internet. I need to give serious attention to helping my students develop better key word skills – a strategy that was much harder to teach than I thought it would be.
We all need to re-think the research process knowing that the Ancient Library of Alexandria is in their pockets, waiting to be discovered.
Photo Credit: robbiee via Compfight cc

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