Over the years that I’ve worked with students on research, I’ve had the opportunity to think about how to do it right. Now, these aren’t unique observations or things we wish students could do/teachers wouldn’t do, they’re just 30+ years of thoughts that if I were in charge would be put in place.
Example? The best research lesson I’ve ever done was about the H1N1 flu. Now, I’m not saying that you need a pandemic or another global event but it does help to give students the opportunity to see how doing research really is a life skill. Doing projects like this early on, say, in middle school, can help them as they go through their academic careers.
Another example? Don’t make them speed research. Especially in the lower grades, more time equals better projects. If you can’t give students over a month to do their research, think about what you’re asking them to do and reassess your expectations.
I’d love to start a three year sequence, something like this:
Year One — learn the steps to doing good research (I’m partial to the FLIP-IT mnemonic, but I suspect most librarians of my era are still thinking Big 6!) and research some current event. Could be a pandemic, could be an earthquake, could be an election. Something that a group of students find relevant so they aren’t groaning and resisting. Have them think about the questions “What do I know?” and “What do I need/want to know?”, and then “Where can I find that information?”. Teach them how to evaluate the information they find using SIFT (or lateral thinking). And then wrap it up with some fun presentation, like a video or powerpoint or TikTok or whatever else they want to use.
Year Two — using an academic topic, start working on a research project. Have them search for books, use the databases, etc. and practice citing their sources, taking notes and creating an outline. They should have a good research question and develop their thesis statement. But then, rather than write the actual paper, have them turn in an annotated bibliography explaining why this source was useful and why that source wasn’t. Give them a long time, maybe even do little pieces over the course of the year.
Year Three — time to put all that work to use actually researching and writing a paper. They’ll have had many opportunities to analyze and synthesize sources in earlier classes, so this is taking all the pieces of the research puzzle and putting them into a picture that makes sense.
I’d require all classes to teach research skills, along with a bibliography (annotated if possible). Where did the students in statistics find their data sets? If they’re creating their own experiments in science, where did they get any of their information from (aka “a review of the literature”)? It also helps if teachers model good citation skills when they pass out readings and class materials. The requirement to write the long paper? Make that a capstone project, one that every senior does in some topic of their own choosing and have a few months to complete.
The problem with being a college preparatory school is that we tend to get stuck there, at college prep. In the “real world” what we think of as research papers aren’t as important. Creating a two-page summary, writing a legal brief, presenting in public, however, are important. Knowing how to evaluate and assess incoming information and share that knowledge with others is important. We need to create opportunities to teach those very necessary real world skills to our students. We also need to reach out to colleges and find out what kinds of outputs our students will be creating in their classes there and then prepare them for that.
As a librarian, I know that things have changed a lot very quickly. The library my grandparents and parents and I used in school looked pretty much the same. The library my child (the imaginary one) would have a completely different set of resources and configuration than that earlier, familiar space (I’ve been back to my high school and trust me, even though the footprint of the Emma Willard School library is the same, it is nothing like it was Back When). Too many teachers can’t see that their disciplines have also changed in similar ways, particularly when it comes to creating a research project.
But if I were in charge…