History is complicated; so is doing research on it

Posted on 05.09.2013


After writing this post I realized that I will need a part II to discuss how to build inquiry and scaffold actual research skills into a lesson; I’m hoping I can write that post later this week.

Over the past year I have been experimenting with helping students use inquiry to do research.  In the past, students get a focused question or prompt and look up information that attempts to ‘shed light’ on an answer.  With scaffolding and love they usually have a final product that provides a coherent and well reasoned answer.

Giving them an assignment like this is reasonable and makes them into better writers and proficient at finding information.  I wonder if it’s a representation of how complicated the world is.  I worry that students haven’t adequately drawn their own conclusions about what the information they gathered tells them about the world and more importantly, about themselves.

I’ve tried to solve this in two ways: first by providing more structure and steps to the research process.  Second, by providing more modeling before they conduct their research and start their project.

The process of research and reflection needs structure and steps

I’ve adapted the International Baccalaureate Internal Assessment structure to writing a research paper.  I did this for two reasons: first, some of the students I take need practice with this format before they begin IB; I wanted to set those students up for success later.  Second, each section of the research paper provides wonderful scaffolding that leads to a great end product.

We call the research paper that students write an Investigation Report.  The total report has 6 parts to it; I’ve only formally asked for 4, but their final year end project will have the follow parts:

  1. Plan of Investigation – where the research topic/question/inquiry is framed and how the research will be conducted
  2. Bibliography
  3. Summary of Investigation – simply put: this is where all the data and research is laid out
  4. Reflection/analysis – In this section, students are doing more critical thinking about what the information means in respect to their inquiry question.  
  5. Analysis – are the conclusions and information I gathered valid? Why or why not?
  6. Further implications – this is where students get an opportunity to be introspective about themselves and the larger implications of what their information means

It’s an exciting model because you can do each step all at once or practice the steps throughout the year.  Also, each step informs/supports the next one.  By creating a plan of investigation you can then create a bibliography and summarize information in the summary of investigation.  Other times in the year, I just have students write reflection/analysis journals based upon already existing information.

Each section of this report is hard to do; it takes time and practice and lots of care and love.  Different students struggle with different parts and that is why it’s so important to scaffold and model each section.

Modeling the process of research

Before students do any sort of Investigation Report I do a mini unit or series of lessons with them that model the type of work they will do.  This is effective for a few reasons: first, it teaches and/or reinforces valuable skills they will need to do their project.  Secondly, it provides content they might use later and gives me an opportunity to asses where my students are at in terms of their own critical thinking abilities and skills for when they do their project.  Lastly, when students are working on their own Investigation Reports I can refer to a similar step we had just done one week prior.

There are multiple ways to model the Investigation report:

  1. You can do all the steps as a class on a topic and then let the students go and run with it
  2. You can model a step as a class on one topic then have students do the same step on a different topic but that relates to your unit.
  3. You can just model and practice one step and slowly build their abilities until they can piece each step together into a complete Investigation Report.

There are many ways to model these steps, I’m guessing I have left many out.  This is the first year I am using this structure to teach and practice research and I’m still scratching the surface.  Below is a unit plan of my latest attempt to use this model.

In this unit, we profiled the Rosa Parks and Montgomery Bus Boycott story.  I model how we can get to the bottom of the ‘true story’ behind this event(s) instead of just the generic one.  Students pick another story about change (related to civil rights and social justice) and retell it as well.  So far it’s been a fascinated project.

UbD – Movements of change

In this unit