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Should They be Asking This Question?

April 8, 2004

I am so pissssed off, and the hardest thing the person who pissed me off is someone who has done workshops focusing on good research skills…. and then I witness a whole facilitation leaving kids in complete information overload……and most importantly of all in information the kids can’t digest or have an idea what this means, you hear their liitle heads saying I have no idea what my questions is about……actually have no idea why I am asking a question, oh actually have no idea what a question is? Local medicine BLOG 🙂!

A group of second graders came to my lab to work on class research projects. The students had been asked to generate questions which would interest them to guide their research. They were planning to use the school library books and internet resources to find the answers. Here are some of their questions.

How much gasoline do planes at Narita Airport (Tokyo Japan) use per day?

Why do people in London think they are special?

Who invented the onion?

A student walks into the library and asks the librarian for information for her research project. “What information are you looking for?” asks the librarian “I need information about plants.” The librarian responds, “What topic are you looking to focus on?” The student says “Plants.”

Today many schools have made research projects part of their curriculum. There is a push to start having kids work on research projects at an earlier age, in an effort to expose them to the skills of information literacy. There is a growing belief that we as educators need to better prepare our students to be able to work with information as critical thinkers. This belief comes from the fact that we are surrounded by a hailstorm of information in a multitude of mediums on every topic imaginable — be it on television, the internet, print, the local library, or an electronic signboard on a street corner. I fully support this notion, and agree that today information literacy is an important, even vital, component of any curriculum. Too often, however, we set off on these projects forgetting who are students are and what, realistically, they can do.

Can a primary school student honestly develop good essential questions for a research project? In my opinion asking children at these grade levels to generate questions often sets them up for failure. Is asking the question what we want to start with when working with this age group? Based on my experience working with elementary school students as a technology integration specialist, I have come to believe that setting up the students for a successful research experience is the key to future learning and understanding of the research process. I believe that in order for primary students to be successful in research, they should not be generating questions without parameters. Nor should they be going to the internet on their own to find answers.

So what should they do? If you want kids to develop research questions, instead of leaving them carte blanche to choose a topic and generate questions alone, provide the direction and clear guidance.

First of all, what grade-appropriate resources does your school have to offer on the topic? Does the library have material that your students can read? Is there information available on the internet that is accessible for your students’ age group?

One suggestion is to create a set of learning links or curriculum links, by gathering and bookmarking a set of previewed websites specific to the topic you want students to study. This can be posted on your class website or school site. Make sure the text and content is something your students can read. A good example is the site Enchanted Learning .

Once you’ve determined available resources, list a selection of suggested topics for students based on them. Allow the kids to pick a topic within the list you have pre-selected.

It is often possible to model a set of questions students can use for research. An example would be say for an insect project: have the kids pick an insect and you with the kids use a set of standard questions, which they all use for their respective insects. i.e.: What does my insect eat? What is there life cycle? What do they look like? What color are they? This linked to specific resources you know they will find the information. The real focus for younger students should not be generating questions but being able to locate and understand the information. The key is getting them into the process of doing this. Simple is better.

Identifying keywords that will help students locate information is essential. Primary students can learn what keywords are, how to recognize them, and how to use them to retrieve information from a text.

As students locate information, have them record key points in their own words. A good strategy to use is the research grid, which I have seen used very successfully by primary years teachers. The research grid guides the students in their research by giving keywords and organizing information into a grid. Once the grid is completed, students can use their notes to write full sentences to be added to a simple multimedia presentation, mini research paper, slide show or oral presentation.

Too often in our rush to work with the whole research process we forget that young children have only limited ability to access and synthesize the onslaught of information available on the internet or in our libraries. Students in higher grades can realistically learn to generate good research questions and locate and begin to evaluate information from a wider variety of sources. There is nothing wrong with introducing primary students to the research process in small doses. By experiencing the research process in clear, simple steps with guidance, the primary student is gaining a strong set of skills, with a feeling of success which they can build on as they come across this process over and over again.

Don’t have them ask the question please.

John @ ISETS

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