Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Research Process as Lifelong Learning

When I was teaching second and third grade (combined) I began to develop a research process that focused on the mode of inquiry, that is the “how to do research” part while engaging the students through a variety interesting Social Studies topics. As a graduate of Hampshire College, I believe that the most valuable lessons we teach are those that prepare us for lifelong learning. Therefore, research at all levels is not just about finding out more about a specific topic, but it is an experience in learning how to learn more in an area of discipline.

Since I taught a 2-3 combination class, I had the luxury of teaching these student for two consecutive years and thus build on the work we started in second grade so that, by third grade, they were able to take charge of much of the process. I stepped away from the typical method of doing research in elementary school in which a teacher hands out an outline with topics and questions already prepared and students fill in the blanks. Or another popular method, in which the topic is handed out at school, but the research and writing is done at home leaving the family to take charge of the process, for better or worse.

To help students understand research as a process we wanted them to feel in charge of their topic. We chose a general topic (e.g., the Lewis & Clark Expedition), which we had studied and read about at length before starting our research. Students knew enough about the general topic to be able to list a wide range of possible smaller topics to focus on (e.g. Sacagawea, Fort Clatsop, Nez Perce Indians). Their next job was to generate all the information they already knew about these topics and then to ask a series of questions about things they would still like to find out. Once they knew what they were looking for the teachers and librarian help guide the discovery of sources that were appropriate to the student’s reading level. Throughout this time the teachers read aloud from a wide variety of research-based books and the class discussed the style and presentation of the material in each format, from picture books to journal articles to historical fiction. As the students became more aware of the many ways research can be presented, we encouraged them to decide on an audience and a writing style for their own project. This literary analysis of the texts also kept the question of whose creative work we were reading and how the author’s unique perspective is stamped on their work. This, in turn, made the discussion of plagiarism straightforward: the author you are learning from spent a lot of creative time and energy producing this unique set of materials. You are also spending time creating your own unique work. You wouldn’t want to claim their hard work, nor would you want anyone else to claim yours. The result of the project was a wide range of research presentations, some written in first person, some written as a travelogue, some to a younger audience, etc. We hope that the experience helped out students develop a lifelong perspective on the process of research and the process of creating uniquely personal projects.

While approaching research from this, perhaps more constructivist perspective students have learned to research now and in the future, rather than seeing the project as a brief focus on a series of facts which are soon put aside and forgotten.