Monday, April 27, 2009

The Digital Curriculum, Student Research, and Diigo

As schools move their curriculum into the digital format, bypassing printed resources in favor of digital resources, there are fears abound about rampant cut and paste. The popularity of Wikipedia, and its accompanying scrutiny by teachers, exasperate the issue.

But exasperating the issue of research is not a bad thing. What passes as "research" in many of our nation's schools is troubling, and in many other cases, teachers set up high expectations for research without any scaffolding to help students get there.

What often students expected when it came to research (and very likely what was expected of them), was being given a topic to find some information about, going to some sources, finding the information, and then writing the information in correct essay form. Often, students were somewhat familiar with citing sources... perhaps they had exposure to it one time.

This, of course, is not research. "You've done book reports," I told them about their earlier years. And don't get me wrong, book reports have their place. It's the skills of summarizing the main ideas and communication through composition. And, sharing of information to the rest of the class is an effective way of individualizing learning and even sparking engagement.

Problem is, that is done way too much. Students "researched" an element of the periodic table, only to write up in an essay what its atomic number, mass, and isotopes are. Students "researched" Costa Rica to regurgitate what its chief exports, GDP, and style of government were. Students "researched" an artist to state what years they lived, what style they painted, and how they died. Fill in your own example here. All of these are book reports.

What made sense to students was the analogy of buying a car. This is mainly because, students were already actively researching which car they would be buying next year without even knowing it qualified as "research". (Probably the lack of a bibliography threw them)

Students have trouble seeing that research is the act of finding an educated answer to a question... a question that isn't a cut and dry question. By all the book reports they have done throughout their years, they have learned that the answer is always there, but you have to find it in three places to make the teacher happy.

But what if the question is "what car should you get?" Suddenly, students see the answer depends on a lot of variables. It's not cut and dry at all. It's an argumentative/persuasive process. Go and find the answer, and then assemble your supporting evidence to convince everyone else you found the right answer.

What helps with the car analogy is the next question, "what resources would you use to find your answer?" No, you aren't going to start with Motor Trend. You are going to look at statistics--horsepower, cargo room, gas mileage, and most importantly, price. You are going to ask experts for their opinions, such as your mom and dad, or the non-academically/athletically inclined grease monkey student who now has become the most valuable student opinion in the room. And most of all, you are going to experiment, as in go for a test drive.

That's research. You get a variety of information from all these places, and then you synthesize it to answer your question. And your answer could very well look different than your neighbor's. In fact, as a teacher, if I'm assigning a research project where I already know what the correct answer is, I'm not doing an effective job. That's reason #1 we get cut-and-paste.

When we taught a cross-curricular 1960s research unit, students didn't research a topic. We started with the following research question:

The 1960s have been a labeled as a decade where people tried to go against tradition (or the status quo) wherever they could. They did so in the form of a “massive cultural revolution”. But, how revolutionary was it? By selecting a specific topic, argue whether the 1960s have been more revolutionary than the 2000s or not. Use research to back up your conclusions.

And the results were exciting. Students having to determine whether the Beatles were more revolutionary than Eminem. The miniskirt more revolutionary than the women's pants-suit. The Civil Rights Act more revolutionary than Civil Union legislation. There even were students who neverbefore had an interest in social studies, language arts , or math, do a statistical analysis on the 60s muscles cars vs. the cars of today.

Individualized. Rigorous. Authentic. That's the power of a good research unit.

But it doesn't happen with just a good research question. The second big problem is that students are often expected to do research without ever being taught how to.

Students need meta-cognitive help to understand each step to the research process. A teacher should not assume this is done somewhere else in a student's career... it needs to be done in their classroom. Break down the steps.

  • Formulate your research question
  • Determine what type of information you will need
  • Identify what good sources would be to find that information (including sources from "all angles")
  • Find and critique sources for quality, bias, etc.
  • Process those sources for information (note-taking)
  • Draw a conclusion from the information (or a hypothesis)
  • Synthesize your information into a composition or presentation (which of course has its own process)
This is where we often fail. There aren't many great lessons which teach students how to do these steps, and when there are, students often have problems transferring that meta-cognition to a different occasion and a different subject area.

One of the steps in particular, "process those sources for information", is always assumed to be known. The fact of the matter is, if you give students an article to read, students have a difficult time identifying what information is important for another purpose.

Diigo helps immensely. It is a social bookmarking tool that allows students to highlight and annotate an article, and then share annotations with others. You can share them publicly or with other invited people, like classmates.

After a teacher model and discussion about how you would do the process, students can each analyze an article separately, highlighting the 5 most salient points to proving X. Then after students are finished, everyone can turn the shared annotations on and see what others (including the teacher) have identified. Now you have working examples to use as a springboard about the "why is this fact important and this one not" discussion.

For more on Diigo and the research process, check out Will Richardson's recent post.

No comments: