Questioning the Research

What types of research skills should we be teaching our high school students?

We recently sent home a survey of our 2007 high school graduates, and one of my primary aims was to find out how they are conducting their major research projects in college.  The method we teach currently, which is similar to the one I was taught in high school in the early 1990’s, is the standard research format taught in American high schools: Select topic, narrow topic through cross-referencing and research, select sources, write source cards, craft an outline of your paper, write notecards, categorize your notecards into where they will fit into your outline, write draft, revise, create works cited list using current MLA formatting rules, write 2nd/3rd/4th draft (if necessary).

I am in need of some assistance from the collecitve mind:

  • Do they need to do notecards?

This is one I struggle with, if only because I understand the need for students to be taught a method for categorizing information.  We often complain that while our students today are able to entertain themselves online in myriad ways, their ability to cull information from larger sources and categorize that information into useful chunks is lacking.  Let’s face it, to a 15-year old, Facebook is infinitely more appealing than tracking an online debate series on The Economist and pulling quotes into your Google Notebook titled “World economic issues.”  Broad generalizations aside, the majority of students I have worked with can handle themselves academically within systems that they view as academic: MS Office, Email, Google, but when we require them to go further into areas in which they need to transfer skills and apply them in unique ways we often hit a wall.  My question here is what now?  Do we use the system that we have known and trusted forever to prepare them for a world that may not use that system?  Will they ever use it again?  Or, do we give equal footing to other systems which we are experimenting with now?  We have teachers on both sides of this issue, and due to limited access to computers during the school day, teaching the students how to use online research tools becomes an issue.  But wait, the power of the screencast!

  • Do they need to know MLA style and APA and what the citations look like?

A large part of our research guide, last revised fully in 2005, but updated once a year to include changes, focuses on how to cite sources at the end of the research paper.  Because the pace of the change of the information landscape and the new types of media available for research, MLA and APA change often.  Are these the types of ideas that authors like Friedman and Pink have talked about: if the machine is more efficient, shouldn’t we let it be?  Will this free us up to do better quality thinking and writing?

  • Is the ability to use digital tools to synthesize and record information more important than using print sources?


  • Does our ability to do research hinge on our changing reading aptitudes?

There has been a lot of buzz lately about Tim Lauer’s NY Times article from this Sunday about the nature of reading today, especially in the youth.  Carolyn Foote wondered aloud about a few things that I really enjoyed:

So my question is, where do these findings leave us? What should we be doing differently?
  • Trying to engage students more in printed texts?
  • Engaging more with the types of online texts they may already be reading?
  • Teaching more evaluative skills?
  • Teaching more “connections” between texts–so that whether students are reading online or offline they are focused on how things connect to one another?
  • Helping students slow down sometimes in their reading so as to have the “back burner” time to ponder things?
And the last point she makes in this bullet series got me thinking:
  • Creating a mixture of methods for students to engage in all sorts of texts by bringing them into connection with printed texts via online tools?
  • The more I look at where the solution to this problem lies, it’s not going to be an “us or them” issue, an “old school v. new school” issue, but rather one in which we blend the thinking and categorizing we have always taught with a tool or set of tools that matches the need.  We need to categorize and sort, what can do that?  How can I avoid the boxes of note cards that are inevitably spilled in the hallways and thrown into color-coded confusion?

    I would like to know, if you don’t mind sharing, what your opinions are on conducting research in 21st Century classrooms.  Are we preparing our students for success by teaching them in the ways in which we were taught?

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    Image Credit: “Dewey or Don’t We?” from scampion’s photostream


    9 thoughts on “Questioning the Research

    1. Patrick: Thanks for raising the research issue with so many great angles to ponder here. The issue of “how to do research” has come up every time I’ve taught college seniors. I have a low tolerance for the voice in academic research papers. They read as “dry and boring” to me, just as they do to the students who write them. I tell them that a small minority of the “knowledge workers in the world” ever use their school experience of writing research papers again. The few that do are either college professors, research scientists or members of think tanks. Most everyone else is doing write-ups of field research. That includes journalists, authors, screenwriters, management consultants, counselors, social workers, law enforcement officers, anthropologists, an every kind of manager (product, HR, team, market, team, etc). The data is gathered from informal conversations, casual observations, formal interviews, photographic records, background reading, and comparisons with colleagues’ similar research. There’s an emphasis on seeing patterns, drawing inferences, and creating narratives out of the conflicting characters, agendas, perceptions and experiences. The write-ups are much more readable and more fun to write. The process build confidence in the students own voice, viewpoint and ability to synthesize diverse sources. The research itself is far more useful for making decisions, recommendations, changes and designs for subsequent interventions.

      On the mechanics, index cards or Post-it notes work for some, online mind-mapping tools work better for others. Rather than ask for footnotes, I prefer quotes in the body of the text like newspaper articles and non-fiction books like “Here Comes Everybody”. Drawing a chart or diagram from the diverse sources helps them organize their thoughts and convey the big picture they’ve synthesized. In this context, printed text vs. online digital text is a non-issue

    2. Patrick-

      We are struggling with similiar questions. Rather than attempt to add more noise to a question I can;t fully answer, may I suggest that you reach out to folks in higher education, especially those teaching college freshmen. What skills do they demand of their students? What are they seeing in response to the demand?

      In speaking with several recent grads, they lament the ‘low-techieness” of many fo their professors. In that case, note cards might prove to be a needed skill…..

      Great questions.


    3. I haveseen fellow educations shun away from using on-line texts and resources. I believe this to be a major shortcoming, because today’s students will obviously need proficiency with such. It is my experience that students prefer to use those methods compared to written texts anyway. It is easy to get specific information fast and get assignments done. As their educators, it is our job to embrace these new resources, because they have become an inevitable part of our lives.

      With that said, I definitely am concerned with the loss of traditional literacy. Technology can only take us to far. For example, when spreadsheet software started to become popular many predicted that we would do away with paper work altogether. As wonderful as Excel is, we still use paper everyday. It is not going away. Therefore, it is imperative that we do not abandon traditional methods of research. I believe that our students should still be exposed to it, even if it does slow them down a bit.

    4. Patrick,

      The concerns you raise are valid ones, and also bring to mind a response on my blog post as well.

      I think your conclusion that it has to be some blend of the traditional and the new is an apt one.

      I think we need to first think of the skills needed and then move back to the tool involved.

      For example, with notecards–the purpose of the tool is to help students gather notes in an organized fashion and to keep track of their sources correctly so they are honoring the original author. (personally, I’ve never been a fan of notecards because I think kids get so caught up in the “format” of each card that they don’t focus on the content!) Anyway, if the purpose is to help them with organization of information and sourcing, then any tool used for that will provide similar scaffolding, whether it is Google Docs, a template in Word, printing and highlighting articles, Diigo, delicious, etc., etc. (and frankly, even though I was in college many moons ago, we didn’t use notecards then, nor did professors care how we did our research—only in high school English did I use them).

      As far as MLA and APA, again, the key was never “memorizing” the structure of the citation, but just knowing how to ‘plug in’ the source information into it. So, students need to know how to find the publisher of a book or a website, how to sort out the information in a database article title, etc., but the action they are taking is similar–just plugging it into the correct ‘slot’ in the online tool.

      I think the same skills that have been critical to good research all along still are– the skills of finding what is pertinent, of collecting things in some manner that makes some sense and saves time, of evaluating what you find and use, and then reflecting on it and organizing it in some fashion that brings new meanings.

      I think I may have mentioned Carol Kuhlthau’s models to you before in another post, but her work definitely speaks to the process behind research, if you are interested in it.

    5. Tom,

      The format you describe can best be termed “life-like” in comparison to the writing that is most associated with academia. I remember, not fondly, laboring over some of the topics I wrote about in college and graduate school. Your format lends itself to voice beautifully. The question is, however, is this type of writing the norm? If I advocate this, which I am truly leaning towards, am I doing a disservice to all of the students who are not going to be taking your class?

      Or perhaps the answer lies somewhere else. We teach the research process in multiple grades from 6-12 here. What if the traditional processes and formats are taught at various levels, and the style of “action research/citizen journalism with sources” style you use is introduced as students begin to push against the structure of academic style writing? Very rough, I know, but it may be a start.

    6. Barry,

      I can’t deny that you were in my head as I wrote this post, and while I thought about taking on this challenge a few days ago. One of you most “sticky” remarks you made on a post from a while ago was the idea that one of the roles of schools is to introduce students to ideas and concepts that are foreign to them and they wouldn’t normally access without being prodded to.

      Is research and the process associated with it such a skill? And if so, is the format we have been taught the right way to introduce it to them? Can we make it palatable–still push the critical thinking and organization and research skills, but tie it to something meaningful? I think your high school does a great job of that.

    7. Carolyn,

      I was really hoping you would chime in here. Thinking backward from the skill–sounds an awful lot like UbD!

      It makes sense, however, to do just that. What are the essential skills we are looking for during this process? In looking at our research criteria, I am going to take a long hard look at how we are doing that.

      This quote from your comment:

      “the skills of finding what is pertinent, of collecting things in some manner that makes some sense and saves time, of evaluating what you find and use, and then reflecting on it and organizing it in some fashion that brings new meanings.”

      wraps it up for me. I am not changing the skillset, just the means that the students can access and catalog the content.

      Thanks for the reminder about Kuhlthau. I am pulling her material down now.

    8. Patrick
      Thanks for tuning into my intentions for creating valuable learning. Rather than framing the challenge as prep for ‘taking my class”, I see it as prep for “the world after they graduate”. I view academic requirements are ideal for breeding fellow academicians, but not for spawning a creative culture, free agent nation, or global village. The students are already researching when they are checking out people who want to be their friends online, going shopping at the mall, watching uploads to YouTube, or reading whatever RSS feeds they’ve subscribed to. I believe it’s possible to “start where they are at” and take the skills up a level from there. That sends a better message than “you ain’t got it yet but you’re about to get fixed “.

      The approach at your school of practicing the research process thru 7 grade levels seems ideal to me. Timing the introduction of action research after the students are beginning to push against school requirements — seems wise to me. I very much like the direction you’re contemplating and how well it works with your current program.

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