Making Research Relevant: What Happens When I’m Wrong?

what to do when you feel stuck


“I don’t know what to do. My main claim just kinda blew up in my face.”

The student sat in front of me–a little forlorn, a lot frustrated–her computer balanced on her lap. I was surprised by her candor. Usually, when students’ claims “blow up in their faces” they are quick to ask for help researching or decree that the research they’ve found must be flawed. This student, however, was different. She had read carefully, she had been diligent with her research, and she realized about halfway in that the claim she thought she was pursuing was just…wrong.

We talked, we brainstormed, and I was able to nudge her in a new direction. Two weeks later, she confidently turned in a finished paper. The argument was not at all the one she set out to make when we began these essays, but she was happy with her finished product.

She discovered what happens when you are wrong. Nothing explodes, the world doesn’t end…you just have to go back to the drawing board.

I think this needs to happen more often. It is uncomfortable, definitely, but our students are missing out on true research if they are always just researching to prove themselves right. Sometimes, they need to be wrong and we need to be there to help them figure out what to do next.

My theory is that this doesn’t happen enough because we have become so tied to the language of Claim, Evidence, Reasoning. Maybe that’s unique to my neck of the woods, but I’m betting many other schools use the same or similar language. Our students are writing with a Claim/Evidence/Reasoning structure in ELA, Science, and Social Studies. I get it–it is a structure that makes sense to kids. And I’m certainly not complaining about all the writing happening in the content areas.

However, when we teach students to default to Claim/Evidence/Reasoning, that inherently causes research problems. That may be an appropriate structure once we are ready to write, but when we are researching, we need to flip it to something more like this:


(Shout out to my buddy @langleyeducator –a Science teacher!–who helped me figure that out!)

Our students need to understand that evidence or information or knowledge is gathered first and then you use that to make your claim.

So how do we get kids to slow down and flip the script a little? One of the most effective ways to do that is talking. I have written before about the the importance of conferencing during the research process, and I’ll beat that drum all day long: kids need to talk about their research.  

There’s another important thing they need, too, though, and that’s time to build context. We can’t rely on only our conferences to help them figure out what they need to know. We also can’t always be the ones poking holes in their ideas. If that’s the case, what happens when they leave our rooms?  They need dedicated class time to dig into what they don’t know about a topic. They need time before they’ve committed to a topic or question to realize that their original ideas might be wrong or misguided or incomplete.

Here’s a few things I do to give my students time to build context.


This can take many different forms,  but I really think it must be at least a full day of class of digging around and falling down internet rabbit holes. Sometimes our students need a little unstructured time to see what they can find out!  I might direct my students to start at Wikipedia (The horror!) and encourage them to gather some baseline info about a topic. Other times I just ask them them to keep a list of notes in their notebook and be ready to share out some of their findings at the end of class. If you want something a tad more structured, you can ask them to keep a  KWL notebook entry.What do you Know? What do you Want to know? What did you Learn?

The key here is that pre-search is low stakes. I try to stay away from requiring a certain number or type of sources at this point; it’s about digging a little to see what’s out there. This stage is about activating curiosity and starting to discover the layers and complexities of an issue.


This is a slightly bigger commitment, but still pretty low stakes. When students are starting to dig around in topics, I have found that it’s helpful to have them blog about hot button issues to press a little on what they already believe. I can ask them to find one article that has a perspective different from their own and respond on their blog. Often, that one article with a new perspective is enough to open up a bit of a can of worms.

Another benefit of blogging is the opportunity to make their ideas public to their classmates. Now, instead of just me poking holes in their ideas, their classmates can as well. If everyone reads and comments on a few blogs, there are plenty of opportunities to push our thinking a little more.  

Context Notebooks  

A final way to build context is developing a context notebook habit. I ask my students to watch the news or use their Twitter feed or visit news sites to at least have a toe in the water of current events. Three to four times a week they make a very short entry about something that grabs their interest. Why was it interesting? What surprised you? What else would you like to know? Occasionally we share our entries in small groups or I conference with the students about their entries. Again, nothing too high stakes, just a way to deepen our contextual pools of knowledge so that when we are ready to form research questions, we have a better idea of what we don’t know and need to find out.


Our students need help coming up with research questions that will push them. They need guidance to help them develop open questions for which they do not have answers.  They need to be encouraged to move beyond seeking evidence that proves them right and instead be willing to have the experience of research proving them wrong. If we create opportunities for them to dig around in topics and wade into ideas without a firm commitment, they’ll be ready for that tough work.



How do you help your students challenge their own thinking? What are you doing to help your students develop authentic research questions? Comment below or connect with me on Twitter @TeacherHattie


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