Please transport me back to the exact moment and exact person who thought, “I know, let’s make teaching research skills the most awful experience possible.” I’d like to give that person a piece of my mind.
What are we doing? Research is incredible. Look around yourself right now: every single thing you own, are wearing, are eating, are talking on or tapping on, came from someone or some group of someones researching, studying, communicating new findings with one another, and developing all of it. All. Of. It.
Research is tremendously empowering. Don’t like the price of that used car the salesperson is offering you? Research. Wondering if there are other ways of dealing with a disease? Research! Baby on the way? Research. iPhone-this or Galaxy-that? Research. Where to eat, where to go, how do I unclog this drain, what song is on this commercial, what do mosquitoes do anyway, what good book should I read next, flipped classrooms are what exactly, how do I help my readers,… Research!
So why, then, is the first image that pops into many people’s minds (and I have asked a lot of people): students, or themselves as students, recopying book information onto little cards (e.g. photocopying) and then recopying the information from those little cards onto paper and doing so in the approximate shape of paragraphs (e.g. photocopying), ending in a horrific inferno of last minute final draft making, that–when all is said and done–results in the answer, “I dunno,” to the question, “so what have you learned about this topic?”
We are better than this, people. Rise up teachers. Rise up.
I undertook this mission, to rescue research, and began in an obvious (and Dr. Suess-ian) way: by researching research to rescue research by teaching kids researching in the way we all research. This resulted in my new book: Energize Research Reading and Writing. In researching for, and during the process of, writing the book I came to some new understandings of what we are mostly doing now in the name of research and what changes we can make (or some are making) that can dramatically transform both how we teach and students’ relationship to these skills. I would like to share three essential moves in this post:
1. Stop Handing Out So Much Stuff
The Common Core has devoted an entire strand of the Writing standards to research (7, 8, 9):
and the tests that are chugging on down the track toward us aim to make research skills a big portion of how students are assessed (PARCC-one of the three performance tasks and SMARTER Balanced-see page 17-18). Meaning, students will be expected to be independent with these skills, not co-dependent. Not expecting us to dole out each bit.
So one place to start is actually to stop. To stop assigning specific topics or ways those topics should specifically unfold (“on page three describe the state bird and draw a picture of it, on page four write three facts about the state’s agriculture…”). Also, stop handing out the sources students should use. Instead teach them the very habits you use when you think, “We’re having a baby… now what??”:
- You start broad, let your possible topic guide you to possible sources.
- Then let those sources guide you to a more specific focus.
- Repeat as necessary.
The start of research is like dating: you really only know what you are looking for after you have been looking for awhile.
Chapter 2 of my book describes this in way more detail and is a free read here.
2. Take Notes On Your Mind, Not Your Book
We need to cure the I am pretending to take notes but actually I am just copying everything disease or its related strain I am mostly just writing down numbers I come across but I don’t know why virus.
A way to do this is to shift students’ perceptions away from taking notes on books to taking notes on our minds. More specifically:
- First, read and focus on what you are learning
- Then, stop and look away from the text
- Next, take notes on your learning, ideally without looking at the book at all
- Finally, perhaps, look briefly back to see if there is something really essential you missed such as “domain specific language” you could use in place of other words – a la Common Core.
It takes a bit of practice, even sometimes an overly exaggerated policing-coaching, “nope, nooooo notes now, just read.” or “now before you write any notes, teach me about your topic, tell me what you just learned….. …great! now right that down in the same way.” I call this strategy Read, Cover and Jot, Reread. It’s cousin is Read, Cover and Sketch, Reread for students that just won’t stop copying: if they are reading text, take notes in sketches and labels; if looking at a diagram, take notes in words.
3. Add a New Process Step: Teach-Through-Writing
Lastly, to counteract dry, dull or I didn’t really learn anything even though I wrote 8 pages research writing, I argue that we need to add a new step in the research writing process.
- What Happens now: students tend to jot notes [from books], then write a draft.
- Instead: we need to jot notes [from our mind], then experiment with a variety ways of teaching those ideas and facts through writing, ONLY THEN draft–drawing on the best experiments.
One example is you have a fact or few – say “cuttlefish subdue their prey by making their skin flash” – you can experiment with how you will teach that fact:
- try making surprising comparisons: “If you have ever been around a strobe light, perhaps in a haunted house or at a school dance, you know how they can both mesmerize and disorient you. Cuttlefish use a similar technique to make their prey freeze long enough to be caught. They actually make their skin pulsate a lot like those lights.”
- try teaching instead by creating a story: “A cuttlefish swims slowly through the ocean, a small crustacean crawls into view. Lunch! The cuttlefish approaches slowly, but cannot let the fast moving crustacean escape. So, he extends two large tentacles and starts flashing. The small prey looks up and is instantly so confused it freezes in place. Just long enough for the cuttlefish to SNAP! Catch it.”
These are just two examples of this type of teaching-through-writing. In working with students, I was amazed at how this shift in the process not only lead to students doing better and more interesting writing, it also helps them continue to learn about their topic because they continue to manipulate it in a variety of ways–all with their readers in mind.
Let’s Talk More About Rescuing Research
On Monday, Oct 1st at 7PM EST I guest moderated #Engchat (YAY!) with the topic “Teach Students to Research, Not Regurgitate.” The archive (and a funny story) is at my post: “I Broke Twitter. And It Was Worth It.”
As always, leave comments or tweet me, I’d love to hear ways you are helping students have the excitement and deep learning that real research provides.