The Struggle Must Be Real: Reflecting on Best Practices in Teaching Research


Today’s Contributor: Shawn Mauser

Before her students dubbed her the “Magical Ninja Librarian” of the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders in 2007, Shawn Mauser spent 16 years teaching Language Arts and Social Studies in traditional classrooms.  Her passion for literacy in all its forms lead her to the library sciences, and she loves that her role as librarian allows her to be a teacher, a technology leader, and —according to her students—a ninja. She spends days helping students and teachers navigate and master the 21st century skills required for success in our world and matching readers with books that could change their lives.  She holds a Masters in Information Science from the University of North Texas, is a National Board Certified Teacher-Librarian, and has presented sessions at several professional conferences, including the Texas Computer Educators’ Association and Texas Library Association.


Back when I was training to be an English teacher many, many elliptical orbits around the sun ago, the ability to teach writing was assumed to be directly linked with one’s ability to teach reading. The idea being that if one could read, one could write. The extent of my own writing instruction was 1. Write a rough draft. 2. Write a final copy. I don’t remember seeing any of my teachers model what needed to happen between those two phases. Ever.

When I was studying to become a teacher, there was never a course offered about understanding or applying the meta-cognitive components required to write, much less how to teach it. Of course, then Donald Graves, Nancy Atwell, and Linda Rief brought the teaching of writing into the spotlight, and slowly teachers began to realize how much we didn’t know about the intricacies of teaching the writing process. The most important takeaway for me from that renaissance of pedagogy was the idea that in order to teach writing well, I had to write. I needed to struggle with the tools and processes alongside my students in order to be able to reflect on, understand, and model my own writing process.

Around that same time, we had teachers like Carol Kuhlthau, Michael Eisenberg, and Bob Berkowitz begin to ask the same type of questions about the intricacies of teaching the research process that Atwell, Graves, and Rief were asking about the writing process. What are the non-negotiables required to teach research well? What is the natural progression that makes up the research process? What scaffolding needs to be in place for students to have success? What are the commonalities of the research process among professional researchers? Once again, the extent of my own teachers’ instruction on research was, well, lacking. The instruction was 1. Use notecards. 2. Take notes. 3. Create an outline. 4. Write a paper, and don’t forget the footnotes. Again…not that helpful.

So, the pedagogical discussion around writing and research began around the same time. However, while I remember having numerous school initiatives, staff development sessions, and workshops around the topic of the best practices for teaching writing, there was nowhere near that level of intense examination for the teaching of research. In retrospect it seems that the same assumptions that misguided the teaching of writing in the beginning were/are also a problem with the teaching of research. Many things were assumed about the process, like the idea that it was a natural extension of reading and writing.

Considering where we find ourselves right now, drowning in fake news and opinions masquerading as facts, it is way past time that research skills take a driving seat in curriculum design and staff development. To this end, we need to invest in an intense, earnest reflection about how we go about teaching the research process with students.  In order to improve our teaching, no matter our subject area, we must continually question our choices in research project design. To do this effectively, we must be willing to struggle with the research process ourselves.

Research is the key to being an effective lifelong learner, and, therefore, it is the responsibility of all teachers to incorporate it into their curriculum. It must be a school-wide focus for professional development, and it must be an intentional and ongoing implementation. I call on us all to delve into our own beliefs about the research processes and to challenge our own assumptions about how we teach research. That struggle is at the heart of great teaching.

Questions I have used to guide my own reflection on this topic:

  1. How am I designing research projects that scaffold those complex skills necessary for research success?
  2. How well do I understand the research process in terms of its requisite components? Am I incorporating that understanding into curriculum design?
  3. Who are my pedagogical mentors for the teaching of research? Is it Kuhlthau and Guided Inquiry Design? Eisenburg and Berkowitz and Big 6? Other? What professional reading can I do to help improve my teaching of research? (Note: I used to be all in for the Big 6, but I’ve recently converted to Kuhlthau’s Guided Inquiry approach. I feel like it does a better job supporting the amorphous opening stages of the research process.)
  4. Am I setting an example for students in the ethical use of information and the use of proper citation methods to give credit where credit is due?  
  5. How am I modeling desired outcomes? Am I allowing my students to see my own vulnerabilities and struggles with research?
  6. How effective am I in evaluating our own sources and modeling that behavior in our classes?
  7. How can I do a better job steering students away from the Google solution and toward more consistently reliable academic sources, such as Ebsco, JSTOR, and Gale. How do we increase the contents of our students’ researcher toolbox, so they have the knowledge and ability to select the best tools for the job?
  8. How well do I know the academic resources available for research?
  9. Am I thoroughly vetting the resources I want students to use or do I just allow them dive into Google?
  10. Have I ensured there there are developmentally appropriate (reading level and content) resources available that support the assignment? Do my students have the search skills required to locate and access them?

 

Recommended Reading

Assaf, Lori Czop, et al. “Renewing Two Seminal Literacy Practices: I-Charts and I-Search Papers.” Voices from the Middle, vol. 18, no. 4, May 2011, pp. 31-42. National Council for Teachers of English, Accessed 15 May 2018.

Eisenberg, Michael, and Robert E. Berkowitz. The Big6 Workshop Handbook: Implementation and Impact. 4th ed., Santa Barbara, Linworth, 2011.

Kuhlthau, Carol Collier, et al. Guided Inquiry: Learning in the 21st Century. 2nd ed., Santa Barbara, Libraries Unlimited, 2015.

 

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