What Are We Asking Kids to Do? Designing Research Projects That Ignite Creativity

What Are We Asking Kids to Do?
We’ve all collected research projects that have been less than inspiring. A list of facts glued onto a poster board. PowerPoint presentations with ten bullets on a page that are all but plagiarized. Essays that are five paragraphs of formulaic, at best, disorganized, at worst, boredom. Let’s agree that this is not the kind of research that encourages critical thinking or creativity.

Too often when students (and let’s be honest, teachers) hear the word “research” they associate it with the tedious, boring process of gathering and reporting out on collected facts. And, indeed, the base of all research is fact-finding. But fact-finding is no longer enough in the data-rich society we live in. Instead, we want assignments where students do something with their facts. I don’t mean put them in a brochure or on a website–no matter how beautiful you make it, regurgitating information is still regurgitating information. What I mean is research should always build to something greater in either an organized classroom conversation, writing, or presenting. Students need to make meaning of their facts–they need to draw conclusions, argue points, prove ideas, and produce solutions. They don’t need to know a list of facts they can look up anytime; they need to understand how their facts work together. And this should be challenging and fun! It should be the inroad to our curriculum where students can freely explore.

If we want research to engage our students and jumpstart creative and critical thinking, we have to intentionally shift our assignments. So how do we shift from these kinds of assignments to those that engage students? We ask ourselves two big questions:

Do Our Assignments Offer Choice and Autonomy?
When students have a voice in which direction they will explore, they will pick subjects that interest them, which will encourage them to work through the harder parts of research. When students feel ownership of their course, these changes in direction feel more natural to the process and less like they aren’t “doing it right.” It also makes research something they do rather than something that is being done to them. Choice doesn’t mean providing students with a list of topics to draw from though, nor does it mean asking students to lone-wolf it through curriculum. It is just shifting the locus of control, making the teacher a guide and a resource through the process.

Is There Greater Purpose and Relevancy to Our Assignments?
Stop and and think about yourself as a learner for a moment. I’m certain I am not the only teacher who has sat in a stuffy gym for district-provided PD listening to somebody talk about a topic that doesn’t feel applicable to me, wanting to get back into my classroom to dig into the work I know is important, wondering what is the purpose? How is this relevant to my practice? The documentation I’ve produced after such sessions has been forgettable, dryly written work that I stuck somewhere in a folder.  In contrast, I have spent countless hours researching for this book, building websites for initiatives, and reading and writing about educational issues that matter to me. I have produced work that I am proud of and that I continue to reflect upon.

Purpose drives the paths we take.

And purpose looks different for every person. Sometimes it is about making ourselves a better person. Sometimes it’s about sating curiosity. Sometimes it’s to serve others. Often it is about proving a point. It always results in intentional learning.

The next time you sit with a teacher to plan a research project, frame your conversation in a way that encourages these two big questions to be explored.

This blog post is an abridged excerpt from Miller’s new book, It’s a Matter of Fact: Teaching Students Research Skills in Today’s Information-Packed World, available from Routledge Publishing on April 5.



Author: Angie Miller

Angie Miller is a 7-12 school librarian in Meredith, NH. The 2011 NH Teacher of the Year and the recipient of the 2017 NH Outstanding Library Program of the Year, Angie is a TED speaker, National Geographic teacher fellow, and freelance writer who writes for her blog, The Contrarian Librarian, and is a regular contributor to sites like EdWeek and the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet. As a co-founder of the initiative, Let the Librarians Lead, Angie leads professional development, speaks to audiences, and advocates for school leadership through librarianship. Her book, It’s A Matter of Fact: Teaching Students Research Skills in Today’s Information-Packed World, published by Routledge, will be on shelves in April 2018.

Categories: Blog Topics, Community/Teacher Collaboration, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

3 replies

  1. I love this! Purpose and choice are so important! I would also add audience: who will see the results of all of this work? If it is just the teacher, motivation is low. An authentic audience is a huge motivator!

  2. Really inspiring article! I am looking forward to reading your book! I would love to hear examples of successful research projects your students have accomplished.

  3. This was such an inspiring article and I look forward to reading you entire book. I appreciate most of all your ability to help me think about why I do something in library instruction and how it benefits the students. Is there a place where we can pre-order?

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