Twenty-something years ago, when I was in 9th grade, my means of research for the projects my teachers assigned was simple: grab the leatherbound copy of Encyclopedia Brittanica off of the shelf in the school library and look up my topic.
The hardest part was when I chose to research ‘Monet’ and someone else chose ‘Matisse,’ and we both needed the only “M – Na” volume the library owned.
Occasionally, if I wanted to dive a little deeper, I would go to the Chapel Hill Public Library, which had a few more specific books on my topic, and a few extra “M – Na” volumes so that at least I didn’t have to wait for my classmate to finish.
Watching my kids delve in to research this week, though, shows just how much the nature of research has changed in the past two decades. And, after discussing the idea of digital curation in our grad class this week, I was struck by the idea of what a curative process research really is. And by how much I do to help them learn this process.
For our Unit 2 PBL project, my students are expected to research a person, place, event, or celebration of cultural significance (present day or historical), and then write an informational narrative about it, which they will record as an episode of a class podcast.
Brainstorming the topics wasn’t hard for them. Immediately they came up with a wide array of ideas based on their own cultural experiences, or ones in which they are interested: Gandhi’s Salt March, the history of Junkanoo (a Bahamian holiday), Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River, the building of the Eiffel Tower. Once again, they astounded me with the breadth of their choices.
But, when they sat down in front of the computers in the Media Center on Thursday to begin their research in earnest, the excitement and productivity came to a screeching halt. They had no idea how to go about it.
For most of them, the research process went something like this:
- Open Google and type in topic
- Click around to a few web pages. (“The ones at the top of the search are the best ones, right?”)
- Open up Pandora or YouTube. (“Need to find some tunes to work to.”)
- Turn to their neighbor. (“Wait, what are we supposed to be doing again?)
- Settle on Wikipedia. (“Why can’t we use it?”)
- Raise their hands in confusion. (“Mrs. B! Help!”)
I get it, I do. It’s completely overwhelming.
There is so much stuff on the Internet it’s hard to know where to begin. My kids may be tech-savvy, and experienced Googlers, but they are not experienced researchers. While there are many wonderful resources, there are just as many that are not-so-wonderful. It’s hard to know where to go and what to do when you have so much information at your fingertips.
There is a certain literacy to researching. Not just in reading the information, but in reading the information. In being able to pull out the specific details needed to support a specific topic and leaving the rest. In knowing where to go to find the exact information needed. In knowing what questions to ask, and what keywords to search. In knowing how to keep track of the information, how to cite it, and how to incorporate all of the information uncovered into the final product.
Part of our job is to help them develop this literacy.
Of course, I did not want them to struggle all class period. So, with the help of our Media Center Specialists, I began the process of guiding them through the research process.
First our MC Specialists showed them a carefully culled list of research sites and apps to point them towards reliable information. We’ll dive into resource reliability and bias later in the semester. Until then, while teaching them the steps, it’s less overwhelming to give them a menu from which to choose.
Next, I gave them a digital Research Tracking Chart, where they can type information they find on these sites, as well as keep track of the URLs and MLA citations.
Through just these two steps, many of my students were able to refocus and gather at least a basis of information about their topic. And, by the end of the period, most of them had at least a solid idea of where they are headed.
They are not finished yet, of course, as there are still many more steps left in the process. We will continue these into next week, as I guide them through pulling out specific information, incorporating it into their writing, and creating MLA citations.
Stay tuned for Part Two about the next steps in our process.