Last year turned everything I thought I knew about teaching and learning upside down, and I don’t want to rush back to old practices. To avoid that, my blog focus this semester is on places where I want to hit the reset button. In September I reset by reading Writing Rhetorically and figuring out how to reclaim my excitement for teaching. Now that I’m a month in, I’m starting to dig into practices in my room that need resetting.
First up: research.
That word has become a bit of a controversial one these days, right? How many social media arguments have gone sideways when someone haughtily declares, “Well, I did my own research.”
Though I’ve been tempted to push back with definitions of what it means to actually research, for me it has been more useful to think about how we got here.
How often do we ask students to research when it’s not in the service of an argument?
How often do we tell students to disregard a source because it’s biased?
Why, then, are we so surprised that most adults only research to prove themselves right?
Why are we shocked when they are so quick to label things “biased” and completely disregard them?
To be clear, I don’t have the answers to this yet. I teach (and will continue to teach) a lot of research based argumentation in my courses. However, this fall I’ve been resetting how my students and I think about research in two specific ways.
My students are insistent on finding unbiased sources. But is that even possible? In our well-meaning rush to help kids identify source quality, we’ve started giving them charts like this or this and those are helpful in their own way, but still…not quite right. Kids faithfully use those charts, but many have started justifying their source choices or rejections with things like “this is from a neutral publication so I know it’s good” or “this is from a left-leaning source so it’s biased.” That’s not enough. I’ve tried all the acronyms (RAVEN, CRAAP, etc) with varying success but I still need them to do more thinking about the sources they’re finding:
Sure, this is an editorial written by a left-learning politician, but that doesn’t mean the data he’s citing is untrue. How do his beliefs impact how he’s using the data? What does that say about what he values? Why is his voice important in your research? If he’s saying this, what are other voices saying?
My Re-set? One-on-One Conferences
Virtual learning taught me the power of simplifying and I think that applies here. This year, we have tossed the acronyms in favor of conferences that begin with one question:
Is this worth your time?
Clearly, that’s not a simple question at all, but it simplifies the purpose of source evaluation in a way that’s finally making sense to my students. Instead of dedicating class time to learning and practicing an evaluation acronym, I’m using one-on-one research conferences to walk them through the process of considering a source. I thought it would take more time, and I worried that students would need their hands held for every source, but it doesn’t and they don’t. One source evaluation done together–is this worth your time?— leads to all kinds of great questions. Who paid for this website? Who is the writer? Why should we listen to this writer? What’s the background of this publication? What voices are missing from this? All of those questions are represented in the acronyms, but when we approach it this way, googling together and looking for answers, the complexity of source evaluation is clicking.
Working With Sources
Once a source has been deemed worthy of inclusion in the student’s research, the cherry picking and quote hunting begins! Again, this leads to so many problems.
High quality source: check.
Things that support my point of view: check.
Obligatory counterargument I can easily stomp down: check.
None of this is wrong and students can produce very proficient writing using this method. I worry, though, that this is where they develop all the wrong ideas about what it means to research. Research is meant to inform us and build our understanding in ways we didn’t have before. If that’s our intention, we have to move beyond the “what can this source do for my argument” mindset.
My Re-set? Who not What
One of the best ways to help this click for my students was a recent activity lifted straight from the pages of Writing Rhetorically by Jennifer Fletcher (no, this is not turning into some weird stan column…I mean…I don’t think it is??). She suggested having students create Annotated Yearbooks instead of annotated bibliographies. Find a picture of the source–my kids thought this was so odd, yet it led to them talking about their sources as if they were their buddies! Add a senior superlative–how would you describe this source in a one-liner? The results were fantastic. My students were evaluating the perspectives presented in the sources and not just hunting around for “good quotes.”
Once their yearbooks were complete, the voices missing were much more obvious, too. For example, a student researching electric vehicles realized he had all kinds of scientists and not a single voice representing the car industry itself. Had he not been pressed to think about who his sources actually were as people, I don’t think he would have noticed that gap.
Before they used their sources to write, we talked about all their new friends–their sources–and what a conversation between those people would look like. Who gets the megaphone? Who should probably not say much at all? Who should sit by whom?
The resulting argumentative essays were richer and more thoughtful–in September!– than what I usually get by the end of the year largely, I think, because of these two resets. We still have a long way to go, of course, but I will continue to revisit the messages I’m sending to my students about what research is meant to accomplish in the hopes that someday when they crow “I did my own research” on social media, they’ll actually know what they’re talking about.
What does research mean for your students? How do you help them understand its purpose? I’d love to hear how you approach this with your students in the comments below or on Twitter @TeacherHattie.
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