I used to cringe when my teachers said, “Okay boys and girls, today you are going to choose your research topics.” NOOOOOOOO! I used to think. I hated research projects as a student. Research always seemed like such an evil word that basically meant lots of reading and notetaking. And on top of all that unnecessary work, I usually had to research a topic that I cared nothing about. What’s the point? I just jumped through the hoops to get a grade and didn’t learn anything. My teachers never taught me how to pull out the main ideas from a text, how to paraphrase information learned to take effective notes, how to properly cite sources, or how to synthesize information learned to write a cohesive essay or report. It wasn’t until college that I learned how to effectively complete a research project.
To make sure that my students don’t see research in the same way I did when I was their age, I teach the research process like a journey or adventure. I want my students to see the fun in digging into sources and searching for answers. It’s like a giant mystery. In the sixth grade, we use the I-Search approach to teaching the research process. This method transforms the research process from boring and tedious to engaging and reflective.
- The students choose a topic that interests them. We make sure that they are in love with their topic before even beginning the finding sources phase of the process. If they are not thoroughly interested and devoted to their topic, then the process will quickly become banal. So, we have them brainstorm a list of questions they want to know about their topic. This helps us understand how engaged they are with their topic. The more curious they are, the more invested they will be in learning about what they choose. For many students, this is the easy part of the project as they are often very interested in many different topics regarding our units of study. Sample topics used by our students this year include the hanging gardens, the rise of terrorism in the Middle East region, Buddhist traditions, and Muslim headscarves.
- Once they have their topic, they generate a guiding question or two regarding their topic that will drive their research. We take the time to teach the students how to create guiding questions. What makes an effective guiding question? What question words will allow for a question to have multiple answers? How can you make sure that your question will allow you to dig deeply into your topic? This phase can be challenging for some students who struggle to think critically. With guidance and support, they all eventually have an effective question that will guide them through their research journey. Some questions students generated this year include the following: How does the parliamentary monarchy form of government affect the country of Jordan? Are there different kinds of Islamic clothing worn by women, and if so, what do they represent? How did the religion of Hinduism begin? What are the different string instruments used in the Middle East region?
- What many people commonly refer to as the first stage of the research process only begins once the students have a road map for where they would like to go. Now, sometimes, that destination changes because they were unaware of the many scenic detours their research journey takes them on. For the most part though, when the students construct an effective guiding question, they know where they hope to end up when all is said and done. The third phase of the project involves carefully choosing reputable resources from which they will extract useful information. We have the students locate two web resources, one book, and one interview source. The students need to create a proper MLA citation for each source found, after they fully investigate the source. Is it useful? Will it help them answer their guiding question? Is the source reputable and trustworthy? For each source they choose, they have to answer a series of questions that will help them determine if they have indeed found effective research sources. In this phase, the students get to apply the skills they learned earlier in the year regarding proper MLA citation, conducting an effective web search, and identifying reputable Internet sources.
- Once they have mapped out their research journey, then, and only then, do they begin learning about their topic. They read pages and pages of information regarding their topic. As they read, they extract important knowledge nuggets in their own words in their I-Search document. This allows the students yet another chance to practice paraphrasing information learned, as this is a skill many students struggle to master in the upper middle grades. Once they finish extracting all they can find from each source, they reflect on the source itself. Was it as useful as they thought? Did it give them the information they had hoped it would? What else do they still need to know and learn?
- After they have found the buried treasure they searched so hard for, they then need to create a final, revised treasure map as the map they originally created most likely changed throughout the research process. What did you learn about your topic and about yourself as a researcher? They create a What I Learned report all about their research process. While they do discuss what they learned about their topic and guiding question, they also focus on the various stages of the research process. What phases of the research process are most important and why? This turns into a very reflective report regarding their research process.
- Once the students have had a chance to learn about themselves as researchers and found many knowledge nuggets regarding their chosen topic, they then get to share their findings with the world? What did you learn? Why was it interesting? The students choose a method in which they will present their process and information learned to the class. Some students create iMovies and slideshows while others get creative and make posters and dioramas. The possibilities are endless. This phase is all about creativity. How can they make their topic and research process memorable and engaging to others?
The threads that tie the entire process together are the daily reflections the students complete at the end of each work period. We have the students address two or three questions at the close of every period so that they can stop and think about themselves as a researcher. What went well and what struggles are they encountering? They add these reflections to their I-Search document that showcases all of their work. This document is what we, as the teachers, use to assess their work. As many skills are being applied in the completion of this project, it is a very large task with many objective grades.
To make this project seem engaging to the students, we introduce it as a journey. On Tuesday in Humanities class, I strapped on a fancy prospector’s hat and got out a hammer to explain the fourth phase of the I-Search process. I had the students imagine that they were living on the east coast of the US in the 1800s when word of the California gold rush spread to them. They of course got the itch to move west in search of money and dreams. I acted out their journey west and the problems faced as metaphors for the research process. I then got down on the floor of my classroom and pretended to sift through a river for gold. I pretended to wipe sweat from my brow as I sifted and sifted for gold with no luck. I made sure to highlight how I didn’t give up and persevered just like they will have to do when they read through their sources and don’t find the information they are looking for right away. Then, I pretended to find gold and got all excited, like they will do when they learn about cool information regarding their topic. After this little dramatization, the students seemed fired up. They were excited to go on an adventure to mine for knowledge nuggets. Making the research process come to life for my students helps make this vital life skill more engaging and relevant, thus, allowing for more deeper and genuine learning to take place. Research isn’t about reading boring information and taking copious notes. It’s about exploring unchartered territories and learning about new topics. The research process is an adventure filled with unexpected twists and turns. Utilizing the I-Search process helps our students see the excitement and fun that can be had when completing a research project.