Friday, May 1, 2020

Getting Ready for Research, Part 1

Since the 2019-2020 school year marks the 10th Anniversary of this blog, on Fridays, I’m resurrecting and updating old posts that sparked a lot of conversation or that still have a lot to offer people teaching or writing nonfiction. Today’s essay is the first in a six-part series that originally appeared in spring 2016.

Here are some words I associate with the act of researching:

--Treasure hunt
--Discovery
--Exploration
--Curiosity
--Fascinating facts
--Prospecting for rare nuggets of knowledge
--Developing unique perspectives 
--Books, databases, observations, interviews
--Travel

As you can tell from this list, I enjoy the process. So when Ellen Brandt, the Teacher-Librarian at Westford Middle School in Westford, MA, shared this word cloud based on words her sixth graders associate with the act of researching: 

I was surprised and disappointed and confused. Why did these students have such a negative attitude about what I consider a fun adventure? 

Are these students alone? 

Unfortunately, they aren’t. The more I talked to educators about my concern, the more I realized that Ellen’s students aren’t an exception. They’re the rule. 

Why, I wondered, didn’t students enjoy the hunt for rare nuggets of knowledge? As I searched for an answer, I started looking closely at the kinds of research experiences elementary students are having. 

At many schools, early elementary students are handed fact sheets. For them “research” consists of picking facts off that sheet and incorporating them into a report. Older elementary students are often given a list of acceptable websites and told to use only them. 

Suddenly, the word cloud started to make sense. Students were bored because they weren’t doing authentic research. 

Real research is active and self driven. It requires creative, out-of-the box thinking. That’s what makes it engaging.

But in the same burst of understanding, I recognized the heart of the problem. It’s difficult to create authentic research experiences for early elementary students.

And so, I asked myself a question: Is there a fun way to teach research skills—visual literacy, information literacy, digital literacy, critical thinking—to early elementary students without actually doing research? 

I think the answer is “yes!” and for the next few weeks, I’m going to share some ideas with you.

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