Sunday, April 1, 2018

If it isn't personalized, can it really be inquiry?

When given the opportunity to write a research paper about any topic that interests them, many students become overwhelmed by the task of deciding what to research. Many librarians recommendation is to survey topic collections in the databases and pick something interesting. I say this because a member of our state's librarian listserv asked for suggestions about getting started with topic selection and I was the only participant who didn't recommend the databases. Maybe this is because I am new to librarianship. But I just don't start there. Ever.

When out to dinner with a group of people from librarian world while attending the AASL conference back in November, an interesting question arose that none of us could answer. Several people grabbed their phones to start searching for the information and I offhandedly commented that I was fairly certain none of them were searching their databases. And they weren't.

Databases are fabulous resources. Access to them is not universal or forever. And, until a student knows how to manipulate a search, databases are horribly impersonal and sterile. Students should learn how useful databases are and how to use them well, but unless they are a future librarian, starting there is a big turnoff. If we want students to enthusiastically -- or at least willingly -- engage in the hard work that is research then we need to meet them where they are, embrace it, and use it to hook them. This isn't pandering; it's personalizing.

Start with their playlists, their favorite books, their video streams, their social media feeds. Look for the threads that show possible lines of inquiry. Whom do they follow who isn't an actual acquaintance? Why do they follow? What about that person, group, or organization intrigues them? Choose a topic or idea. It will be broad. Too big for a typical research project, and now we start to narrow it.

To give them practice I choose a current event with long roots for them to work as a class to narrow. Recently, I used "protest movements" and I explain how recent protests have captured my attention and in some I have been a participant so I am using my experiences as an opportunity to select a topic. The class divides into four groups. I then do a Google image search for protest movements and ask them to just look at the images and, by themselves, consider what looks familiar and what is new. While they are looking and thinking, I give each group a large piece of chart paper or a white board. Across the top I have written one of these categories: events and issues, time periods and dates, people and organizations, places and landmarks. I give them 90 seconds to work as a group and list as much as they can about protest movements that fits the category they have been assigned. At the end of 90 minutes, they put their markers down and rotate. Same group, new topic, 90 seconds on the clock, GO! We do this until each group works on brainstorming for each category.

When they finish -- which means they return to their original table -- they compile all of the ideas on the chart paper into a Google Doc that looks like this:
Then I highlight looking for threads. In this example the thread I was using was "students" and this large topic allows for many different threads. In fact, in one class they realized that even if every student in the class started with protest movements as their original topic, once they narrowed their focus, they would still be researching 25 discrete topics. I wouldn't suggest dictating to a class that they all research about protest movements because it removes student agency from the process and therefore undermines personalization. That being said, I do work with teachers who do assign the umbrella topic.

The thread provides the first narrowing of the topic. From "protest movements" we derived a more focused topic: How schools and colleges responded to student activism in the 1960s. Then we examined that topic for points that were still general and the students were able to ask questions such as: Activism about what? And, which schools? So our final topic became:

This exercise was just the model. We completed the exercise as a class in about 25 minutes. That meant they had another 25 minutes to try this protocol with their proposed topics so I provided them an organizer in a Google Doc pushed to them through Classroom.

As they worked, the classroom teacher and I circulated helping them expand their thinking and answering questions about the images that emerged from their Google search. Ten minutes into working, I stopped the class to share my observations. I told them that I noticed some students were plowing through lists and generating lots of ideas to consider. Other students were stuck, their organizers mostly blank. I hypothesized for them that the reason some were blank was because they weren't really interested in the topic, and that if that was the case, this research paper was going to be a painful experience. Some of them snickered and nodded in ascent. I told them now was the time to choose something that really mattered and that if they really didn't have any ideas they should take out their phones, get on Instagram, and raise their hand so one of us could chat with them. And they got back to work.

By the end of class, each student had chosen a topic -- each student had agency over that topic and how it was focused. Real inquiry can now happen because they will be exploring something that matters to them, not something a teacher told them matters. This week, among other things, we will work on generating a research question, another element of personalizing the research process, so that each student is seeking the insight s/he craves about his/her unique topic. They do this by listing everything they think they know about their topic and then turn each of those statements into a question. For example:

What I already think I know:
Phrased as a question:
Upheaval on college campuses during Vietnam War
How did universities respond to student activism?
Do universities tolerate student activism?
Did students organize across universities?
Did employers hold students’ activism against them?

It is key that they be coached to ask authentic questions, not questions that lead to a predetermined answer. In other words, stay open to ideas and avoid seeking bias confirmation. As they turn what they think they know into questions, they begin to realize two things: 1) they may not be sure about everything they think (or not know as much as they think they do), and 2) some of their questions will be easily answered (closed) and others are open to interpretation (open). They can then group closed questions with the open questions they help to answer. They are starting to organize their thinking and plot a line of inquiry. Of course they will revise and update this plan as they go, but with a starting point and a plan they can be more purposeful in their searching.

Finally, we get to the databases! We will also learn how to search Google like a database by using advanced search and how to search social media for field experts.

Thanks for reading. If you have other strategies and tips for personalizing inquiry I would love to hear them!

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