Wednesday, March 13, 2019

What Is Research, Really?

From an ELA point of view, “research” is something you do to gather information for a report or project. But if you’re a scientist, research has a whole different meaning. It’s a way of developing a new understanding of the world and how it works.

Every once in a while, my husband and I have a conversation about why two seemingly different pursuits have the same name. So recently, I decided to do a little, er, research to track down the origin of the word and, if possible, find a connection.

It turns out that our modern word “research,” traces back to the Old French term recercher, which means “seek out, search closely.” This could apply to both types of research, so I started looking at all kinds of contemporary definitions. Eventually, I came across this one, which I like a lot:

“creative and systemic work undertaken to increase knowledge”

Here’s a way of thinking about research that encompasses both kinds of research. From the ELA point of view, an individual increases his or her personal knowledge about a particular topic. From a scientific point of view, we are increasing our overall body of knowledge about life, space, Earth, and the physical laws that explain how everything works.

Another reason I like this definition so much is that it includes the word “creative.” In fact, it puts that word right up front.

Doing research for Seashells: More
than a Home in Hawaii. Love my job!
Why is that so important to me? Because that’s what makes research exciting. To me, gathering research for a book is like a treasure hunt—a quest for tantalizing tidbits of knowledge. It’s an active, self driven process that requires a whole lot of creative thinking.

Ideally, I want my every one of my books to feature fascinating information that no one else has ever included in a book on the topic. To find that information, I think creatively about sources.

Who can I ask?

Where can I go?

How can I search in a new or unexpected way?

Unfortunately, kids often don’t bring that same kind of creative spirit to their research, and that’s why they often find it boring.

Ideally, research should employ as many of the five sense as possible.

We can use our eyes to watch documentary films, observe animals firsthand in the wild or on webcams, and search archival photographs for clues about the past.

We can use our ears to listen to podcasts, radio interviews, or experts we interview ourselves.

We can use our hands to feel artifacts and get a sense of what it would have been like to hold them and use them long ago.

It may be a bit harder to use our mouths and noses to experience smells and tastes related to a topic, but it’s certainly a goal to keep in mind.

Can you think of some more creative ways of conducting research?


  1. Excellent post! I have found that using Project Based Learning enhances students motivation, engagement and ownership for their research. It gives students a concrete reason to connect to and want to learn more about a topic. There are a lot of great resources on the Buck Institute for Education website

  2. I love the description of research as a treasure hunt--that's a sure way to get kids excited about it too! I love research too, especially field research. The best way to learn IMHO :)

  3. As a parent, I see kids often being given the websites where they're expected to do their research, partly because it's so easy to go astray on the Internet and partly due to limited time. There's not a lot of thinking about "where," "who," "how," or even "why." So research becomes this rote activity. With my son, I try to make him think about these questions, but I know that many parents don't have time to guide this kind of thinking.