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Research revolution in schools

Students need new set of skills to navigate wide world of information
High school student interns at Frederick County Public Schools interview a teacher to learn pros and cons of the district’s next textbook adoption process.
High school student interns at Frederick County Public Schools interview a teacher to learn pros and cons of the district’s next textbook adoption process.

Teaching research skills once meant asking students to turn stacks of library books into essays on the poetry of Emily Dickinson or the causes of the Civil War.

But today, it’s just as likely to mean asking second-graders to design a museum exhibit on the physics of flight, encouraging a 10th-grader to make the case for backyard chicken coops, or helping a high school senior develop a water-usage spreadsheet for the county public works department.

Whatever the project, educators agree that teaching students to find reliable sources, synthesize research findings and communicate results is more urgent than ever in a world where every blogger with a keyboard can pose as an expert.

“Information is so readily available, and yet being able to authenticate and validate that information is much more challenging than it used to be,” says Leslie Preddy, an Indianapolis middle school librarian who heads the American Association of School Librarians. “It’s really imperative in a democratic society that we build this life skill in children.”

A library at their fingertips

Research skills have always underpinned academic preparation, and they are threaded through the Common Core language arts and literacy standards from kindergarten through high school. But the Internet’s speed and ubiquity have created new challenges, educators say.

Students can access the virtual libraries in their smartphone with no adult supervision, shifting the traditional teacher-student balance of power. “In the old days, research would take place in the library or in the computer lab,” says Mark Ray, chief digital officer for Washington’s 23,000-student Vancouver Public Schools. “Now research takes place anywhere and everywhere.”

Librarians: The lifeblood of research

Invest in staff to be ‘future-ready’

School librarians think they should spearhead efforts to teach research skills; after all, they are supposed to be experts in locating information, documenting sources and using new digital technologies.

But superintendents, principals and teachers don’t always recognize this expertise or know how to deploy it effectively, librarian advocates say.

Pre-service teachers typically learn little about how to collaborate with “this information specialist that is right in your building,” says Jennifer Boudrye, director of library programs in the 47,000-student District of Columbia Public Schools.

“All of us in ‘library world’, we know what we can do and what we should be doing, but the other side hasn’t had that same training and experience.”

In the past two years, the D.C. district has invested heavily in staffing and materials for its libraries.

Librarians helped design the curriculum for a new set of hands-on, districtwide projects, which will involve students at every grade and cover topics ranging from cross-pollination of plants to the history of pre-World War I diplomacy.

And as the projects roll out this year, librarians will stay involved, Boudrye says that the curriculum incorporates information literacy skills and explicitly spells out which lessons or skills librarians should teach.

Elsewhere, a lack of understanding of librarians’ roles may make it easier for schools to cut their positions when budgets get tight, advocates suggest.

However, national statistics on school-library cuts apparently do not exist.

Two years ago, Follett School Solutions, which provides software and content to school libraries, launched a campaign, Project Connect, to develop standards for “future-ready” librarians—for example, that they should be digitally savvy and involved in curriculum alignment—and to educate school leaders about the importance of the job.

The University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies hosts the Lilead Project, a somewhat similar program that aims to collect data about school librarians and support their work with professional fellowships and online community.

“Unfortunately, librarians do not toot their own horn very well,” says Britten Follett, director of marketing for Follett School Solutions, who heads Project Connect. “They’re wonderful at what they do, but they don’t tell anyone.”

But even today’s young digital natives need to be taught—intentionally and repeatedly—how to use technology for something other than entertainment, educators say. The open-access blogosphere doesn’t vet sources the way publishers and librarians once did, leaving inexperienced student researchers in danger of swallowing or believing false or misleading information.

“Checking and comparing multiple perspectives and multiple sources I think probably is more important than it’s ever been,” says Mary Reiman, director of library media services for Nebraska’s 36,000-student Lincoln Public Schools. “And I would say that it is probably done less than it has ever been, just because it is not fast.”

Grounding research in real life

To be taught effectively, research skills must be embedded in the curriculum, not taught in isolation, educators say. And ideally, the research projects students tackle should have some relevance beyond the classroom.

“It is much more effective if it is grounded in real-life problems,” says Helen Soulé, executive director of the Partnership for 21st Century Learning, a national advocacy coalition of educators, policymakers and businesspeople

. “It’s not research for research’s sake—it’s more delving deeply into a problem that affects them or their lives.”

In Virginia’s 13,000-student Frederick County Public Schools, high school seniors in “Government Service Learning” take a traditional government class and then spend a half-year interning with a county agency, where they seek solutions to community problems. Interns have created a mobile app for reporting traffic problems, designed an African-American history trail, and devised a spreadsheet allowing the public works department to track local manufacturers’ water usage.

“Kids learn that there are answers to their questions out there, but that the path to finding the answers isn’t always as direct as they hope,” says Tara Woolever, the district’s supervisor of social sciences and health and wellness education. “They learn there are many stops along the way that often change either the question or the answer they’re looking for.”

Preferably, those lessons should start long before senior year, educators say. In Wisconsin’s 280-student Green Lake School District—which uses the International Baccalaureate curriculum in all grades—first-graders studying the rainforests of the world develop their own questions about animal habitats and environmental damage.

By high school, Green Lake students are at work on personal projects—one sophomore, for example, campaigned to repeal city ordinances banning backyard chicken coops. This particular student wanted laying hens in her yard. Research “is something that we want to start very early, so that it’s something that is intrinsic,” says sixth-grade teacher Gina Baxter. “They develop this internal need to research something or to find the answer to a burning question that they have.”

More than a Google search

Through such projects, educators say, students learn that research, whether it was decades ago or even now, can involve reading books, consulting government archives, collecting soil samples for scientific analysis or interviewing living witnesses to history—all activities that don’t require Google.

“We’re trying to help them learn that, when you are researching something, it does not mean you are only going to the Internet,” says Jessica Wodatch, executive director of the 700-student Two Rivers Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. “It means you are consulting multiple sources, you are consulting people, you are viewing art from that time period—that you’re trying to really get a well-rounded picture from as many sources as are available to you.”

The Two Rivers charter follows the Expeditionary Learning model, which requires students to do extensive fieldwork in long-term group investigations that often produce results benefiting the larger community. Second-graders, for example, designed the child-friendly exhibit on the forces of flight, including lift, drag and thrust, for a Maryland aviation museum.

In the early grades, educators say, teachers and librarians can make the research process less overwhelming by curating the sources that students will consult. Years ago, a student researching spiders might have found two encyclopedias and 10 books in the school library, says Reiman, of the Lincoln schools. Today, a teacher or librarian might use an online tool like LibGuides or LiveBinders to present students with a manageable range of reliable sources.

As students get older, they must learn to do more of this curating for themselves. In her Indianapolis middle school, Preddy teaches students the difference between dot-com and dot-edu websites and encourages them to apply the so-called CRAAP method—assessing sources for currency, relevance, authority, accuracy and purpose. '

“Just because they know how to Google at a very young age doesn’t mean they know how to evaluate what they’re looking at,” she says.

Life skill

Making research central to a school’s mission need not cost a lot of money, educators say.

At the Genesee Community Charter School in Rochester, N.Y., another Expeditionary Learning school, school leader Lisa Wing budgets $250 per student, a small percentage of New York’s roughly $12,000-per-pupil allocation, for the fieldwork that underpins the curriculum. Targeted professional development for teachers and librarians can also be valuable. And educators guiding students in interdisciplinary investigations need to be given time for joint planning, administrators say.

Most important of all is a clear commitment to teaching research skills. “It needs to be made an explicit priority,” says Ray, of Vancouver, where the district’s six-year strategic plan mandates that every student develop information literacy and “skills to be safe, responsible and effective users and producers of information and ideas.”

In Ray’s district, that commitment shows up in low-cost ways—an annual language arts research project for every student in grades 6 through 12—and in expensive ones. Vancouver is phasing in a $24 million technology initiative that will eventually give every student a tablet computer.

After all, educators note, research skills are genuine life skills that students will need long after they leave the classroom. “Whether you’re writing your Christmas wish list or your dissertation or looking to buy a house, it’s the same process,” says Jennifer Boudrye, director of library programs for the 47,000-student District of Columbia Public Schools. “Once those skills are set and solidified, they’re applicable to everything.” DA

Deborah Yaffe is a freelance writer based in New Jersey.