samedi 1 juin 2013

Research vs Research Projects

Just a few weeks ago, I attended a day with Mike Schmoker. His ideas caused quite a controversy in the room, after which he left to catch his plane back  home. The discussions that followed were most interesting. In summary (and please feel free to add to this if you were there) he stated that reading and writing were the goals and that all the projects we throw at our students are quite often a waste of time. He confirmed a few things that I have observed and quite admittedly become frustrated with in my own classroom. When students are working on a project I assign, a few have managed to  create a plan, have a list of questions to guide their research and have sources that will support or contradict their hypotheses. And let’s be honest, this description is very much an exception and not the rule. Most students will fool around, unless I am standing directly over them, and even then have no idea what to do despite a co-created list of criteria and expectations.

When I grade the project, I barely even glance at the product. The grade is based on my observations and most importantly on the process paper I require as the proof of their learning, which is often devoid of real learning and sources. So when Schmoker stated it (reading and writing) was what we should focus on, I was not appalled like most of the room. What I have noticed, however, is that the papers I have gotten this year (one grade younger than I am accustomed to) are beyond pathetic. This is not to criticize my students, but to bring into question the way I teach them how to research.

Because I have been blessed with the occasional fluke, I have begun to believe that most of my greatest “ideas” are a result of accidents. This week, because I have reached the end of my rope and I have moved into survival mode, I stumbled upon something and I think it may be the start of something for me. In my Social Studies class, I assigned a photo presentation. I asked the students to choose countries (aside from North America) and to identify things they do that are different from what they know from living in Canada. They collected a number of photos from the internet – no words allowed except for a title (with a flagrant lack of respect for copyright etc), but let’s focus on the important part here.

One of the groups presented a photo of citizens in Pakistan burning an American flag. This one photo inspired a heated discussion about why Pakistan hates the US. Many of the things the students said were obviously false and overheard from their parents and other sources – but this flood of thoughts and ideas was enough to get them asking great questions. We have a variety of nationalities in our school and I have students from various religious groups as well. Discussions on terrorism, religion sanctioned murder and other false stereotypes captured everyone’s attention! Now they REALLY wanted to know. Another group presented a photo of a matador in Spain and explained to the class that the colour red infuriated the bull and that is why they use red. Another student contradicted him and another discussion broke out about whether or not bulls were colour blind. A third group spoke about the coliseum in Italy and they shared how gladiators fought there for the amusement of the Romans. What they didn’t know is that the gladiators were slaves and how they were recruited. When one student shared this bit of knowledge, questions came flooding out about the powerful empire and its decline! Again, they REALLY wanted to know.

I think that assigning something (with a project) in order to get them to do research,  is putting the cart before the ox. (Does this expression work in English?) We need to create the curiosity to teach them how to ask questions first. We need to have these discussions to get them thinking beyond their four walls and to open their minds to the worlds which exist elsewhere on the planet. I don’t have the answer about the whole how-to, but these little discoveries (mostly by accident) have certainly gotten me to think about research in a whole different way.

The discussions which occurred in my classroom this week will certainly change the way I encourage students to find inspiration for their research. The project has become the least important part of it, but this is not to say that it has no value. I have begun to wonder if I should use it as an enrichment for those who are ready and willing to create something new – beyond the reading, writing, discussing and listening phase… The great part about this is that it is not limited to the strongest kids. A student who is not at that point in September, inspired by those who launch themselves into these projects may join in later in the year. The quality and authenticity of their work will be improved because it is truly theirs – at their pace and guided by their questions and ideas – even though it might not start out that way.

This piece is in response to an article forwarded to me by Syd Korsunsky. 

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