Saturday, February 4, 2012

Demystifying Student Research: Part 1

I love and hate the messiness of research. I don't mind messiness myself, but it is a matter of providing support to students so that they too can navigate messiness. I think that is the challenge and the reason why so many of my research activities have blown up in my face in the past. Without a doubt the biggest mistake I've made is trying to do too much at once. Giving the kids too much responsibility at once is the easiest way to have a research project fall apart.
It makes sense, too, when I put it in context of my own life. I love sewing, but there are certain skills I have not acquired. I choose projects that stretch me to learn one new skill at a time, but for the most part, I choose projects that will be fairly easy for me to complete with a high degree of success. It is the same way with our students. I think our best bet for success is to structure research projects so that children can experience a high degree of success.

At Dudley STEM School, we've adopted a schoolwide inquiry pedagogical model for teaching content in every subject area. Subject-specific inquiry models and practices aside, a general model for inquiry reveals several different skills that students must master to be skillful researchers. Within the inquiry model is a gradual release of responsibility, as exemplified in this model from the Ohio Resource Center:
Inquiry Model from Ohio Resource Center. 2012. Retrieved 4 Feburary 2012. <>
While models like this help us understand that there is a continuum of inquiry designs and might help us see that we must start with lots of supports and move towards greater student independence, they fails to show us exactly what that looks like. The oversimplification of a model like this fails to show us the continuums that exist within each of these activities within the inquiry model. It suggests that moving our students toward independent research and inquiry simply means releasing one activity at a time to our students, when we, as skilled educators, realize that the release of one activity from teacher to student takes a considerable amount of scaffolding. I also believe that your inquiry might be several places at one in this model depending on what skills your students have and the type of inquiry lesson you've developed.

A discussion into inquiry and its complexities could easily overwhelm this blog post (as well as several more to follow!), and that's not my intent. Over the next few blog posts, I want to break down the materials substrand into what I see as a path to follow from teacher-directed to learner directed that helps develop learner capacity to conduct research and navigate the decision-making embedded within research. These are the tools that I use when I conduct inquiry with my students to help them move from structure to independence in my own classroom.

Teacher chooses. Find a great article, video, or resource for students. This works well in highly-structured inquiry where the teacher has posed a specific question aligned to curricular goals. It's also a great way to build background knowledge at the beginning of a unit and help students to start generating their own questions about a topic. This si also a great approach if you need to help students learn how to find and pull out relevant information from a source. By choosing the research material for students, you allow students to focus on finding answers and making meaning, which in of itself embodies a great number of meaning-making skills! The key here is to find quality materials. This takes time, but if you want to engage your students in the process, it is well worth the time invested.

Teacher choice of material does not have to mean kids all read the same thing or view the same sort of media. Think about differentiating media based on student reading level, specific interest, or skill set. Podcasts, videos, books, articles, and interactives and simulations online can all be great resources. For content-specific resources, consider starting at a national or state association site as a good starting point for quality resources. Here are some other places for digging up great materials:

Discovery Education: Even if your school doesn't have access to a Discovery Education account, there are thousands of free materials available through Discovery Education partnerships. Check out their free resources. If you do have a Discovery Education account, don't forget that your students can have accounts, too. You can assign specific videos and resources to them, or have them search for their own to view. If you are fortunate enough to have access to iPads, don't forget to check out the Discovery Education site optimized for the iPad: Login required.

Michigan e-Library: Michigan e-Library provides free access to Michigan citizens and schools a wide variety of databases and research tools. My personal favorite is Kids InfoBits (under Kids section), a database of full text resources intended for elementary students. Some materials are available for download as PDF. Reading materials such as magazine and newspaper articles are delineated by easy and harder reading levels. Not a Michigan citizen? Check out your state and local libraries for an online presence! What is available for free could really impress you!

Schooltube, Teachertube, Youtube for Schools: Don't underestimate the power or quality of some of these crowd-sourced video collections. While there are dozens of video sites out there, I note these three for their dedication to materials that are educational and appropriate for school. Accounts for all three are also free, a big plus.

DogoNews: Contemporary issues need contemporary resources. Dogo News is a free news site that features high-interest news for young minds. In future posts in this series, I'll go more into depth with some of the features of creating a free Teacher account, but for times when you need a single article or video, this is a great site. All news are multimedia and full of videos, photos, maps, and other images that help students comprehend the topic. Articles are short and are sure to appeal to a variety of readers.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but like Rebecca and Richard DuFour are famous for reminding us, we need to, "get started then get better." These resources are a great starting point.

In Part 2 (and maybe even Part 3!), we'll look at some digital tools that help teachers organize multiple sources to allow varying degrees of student choice over resources. Stay tuned for more research fun!

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