Research for Learning: An 8-Step Process


research-for-learningResearch for Learning: An 8-Step Process

by Jane Healey, Ph.D.

Ed note: This article has been update from a 2013 post.

A recent popular magazine asked what education will be like for the class of 2025.  While the accompanying article mostly rehashed the ongoing debate between content and process, I saw the cover and had a one-word answer: research.

Knowledge is more accessible than ever before, and current technology allows people to tap into information anywhere, anytime.  The internet updates that knowledge every moment as we speak.

If teachers aren’t repositories of current knowledge as they might have been in the past, and textbooks contain old news the moment they go to press, classrooms will transform into labs where teachers define an overarching curriculum and guide students through a simple and natural human process to fill it in:

  • Observe

  • Wonder

  • Investigate

  • Conclude

I like using the general terms above because they describe behaviors humans do and have done throughout history.  In this model, everyone practices research all the time.  Teachers encourage students at all levels—PreK-12—to look carefully, ask questions, find answers and report on their discoveries within an architecture of course goals.

michigammunicipalleagueA Student-Led, Flipped, Inquiry-Based Learning Classroom Doing Authentic Work

As students advance in the grades, teachers grow the course design and expand the categories to include more precise steps while students approach more complex situations.  A first grade student in a unit on animals may want to know about otters while a sixth grade student studying mammals may want to know why sea otters are endangered.

And when students reach the upper levels of education, teachers modify the phrase to say “academic” research, expanding the sources they access and again advancing the complexity of the inquiry.  A high school biology student may ask, “According to marine biologists, how can sea otters be rescued from the brink of extinction?”

Each scenario fits the simple categories at the start of this post, but the advanced one follows a more precise process:

Research for Learning: An 8-Step Process

  1. Searching for information,

  2. Evaluating the credibility of sources,

  3. Reading and annotating materials,

  4. Analyzing the meaning of various documents and artifacts,

  5. Organizing thoughts into coherent reports,

  6. Crafting conclusions,

  7. Sharing conclusions with others,

  8. Reflecting on the process for future applications.

Blending Learning Trends To Make Meaning

Imagine a science class about photosynthesis where pods of students find explanations of the process, watch visual tutorials about classic experiments that demonstrate the explanations, and design a lab around a flora of significance in their local environment. Or, better yet, to solve a local problem that they’ve seen first-hand, and feel is worth correcting.  They then work while the teacher helps each group or individual students locate those sources, comprehend their meaning and apply the lessons.

To meet this vision, teachers need to feel competent and comfortable being a guide at each step, using technology seamlessly, and surrendering control in the room.  We need to start helping teachers get there—now.

That’s a student-led, flipped, inquiry-based class doing authentic work.

Image attribution flickr users michiganmunicipalleague and tulanepublicrelations; A Student-Led, Flipped, Inquiry-Based Learning Classroom Doing Authentic Work

  • wheeler

    I loved the list at the top (observe, wonder, investigate, conclude) b/c it looks like the scientific method that I teach — which is one of the best ways to learn and to guarantee what you find is valid. I can’t help but wonder, though, how we can use this method and get through the mandated curriculum, e.g. a first year chemistry course. It took 200 years to amass the knowledge that course contains. How are we expected to have our students “rediscover” it in just one year?

    • Jane Healey

      One thing that our chemistry teacher does is provide a set of content terms and concepts, credible sources, and a predetermined outcome. For example, with the periodic table, she gives pairs of students in her sections an element, five sources and the guidelines to create an ad for it. Together, the students create a wall-size reproduction of the table with their ads. It’s really cool to look at. This style takes a lot of work on everyone’s part–including the librarian–and a lot of satisfaction from the students who have less to complain about. Good luck!

  • Scott

    Although much of my curriculum is student-driven research, I have my hesitations about it. First, research and project-based learning are not effective ways to help kids build skill. They’re great ways to practice these skills, but only after they have taken root through other learning methods. Research projects often give kids the message that the acquisition of knowledge is the end game of learning, rather than the (at least co-equally important) advancement of thinking and abilities. Second, research is not a time-efficient method of learning. It’s much more like a braised dish than a stir fry. An effective learning environment needs both. Third, I don’t agree with your description that today’s discovery is tomorrow’s old news. Einstein didn’t make Newtonian physics irrelevant, the Taliban hasn’t supplanted the Crusades in importance, and it’s still hard to write a pithy English sentence. Human knowledge is being extended, exponentially, no doubt. But this is happening typically through the amassment of huge swaths of data points and details, which only take on meaning to someone who is highly-trained and knowledgeable in the relatively-stable fundamental knowledge of their field of expertise.

    Are well-structured research projects the best way to help kids develop the skills and expertise that kids need now, and will need in the future? I think they’re part of a great curriculum, but I don’t see why they should be the center of it.

  • el_guero2000

    I enjoyed this. For two reasons. First, I liked your list of observe, wonder, investigate, conclude.

    And second, I still hope our children will get a better education in the future than what they (& we) are getting today.