Clearly, a lot has changed since then.
But what hasn’t changed is the approach most teachers take to teach research skills. Teachers expect students to master the incredibly complex research process that involves: finding and vetting credible sources; choosing a strong research question; using evidence appropriately; citing sources and preparing a Works Cited page; drafting strong paragraphs; and finally, writing an appropriate introduction and conclusion that put the research in context as well as succinctly relates its importance. Students get one shot at all of that, then move on.
Is it any wonder that students need to be retaught research skills every year?
That’s how I developed the Flash Research Project. The format is quite simple: a student-generated question, three credible sources, a Creative Commons image with citation, and a summary that synthesises their findings in their own words. These projects begin from the study of a text. It could be a documentary, an article or even a picture, so long as it has lots of potential hooks to spark curiosity in my students.
We started Flash Research Projects during our study of Egypt, specifically, the importance of the Nile River to the civilisations built around it. Students chose questions that ranged from “What animals live in the Nile River?” to “Why are hippos so dangerous?” to “How do the Mundari tribe live only on milk from their cows?” [What can I say, 6th graders really, REALLY like animals.]
Once they choose a question, they make a copy of this Google Draw document template and share it back with me. Then they have twenty minutes to complete it. I use Google Draw for almost all our note-taking templates because it allows students to rearrange elements and drop images into any part of the canvas, unlike in a Google Doc, where image placement is much more restrictive.
The time limit is also essential. I want them to panic a little bit, because it forces them to think quickly and use their time well. This is, of course, in the context of a classroom built around Growth Mindset. It’s okay if they fail, because that’s how they will learn. They have the option to revise later, but time limit gives me an authentic look at their skill level. Revision based on my feedback helps them improve that skill level so they can do better next time.
As they work, I have all their documents open and I add feedback as they work. My feedback in the beginning focused primarily on choosing a question of appropriate size and their choice of sources. By providing feedback as they work, students can adjust immediately. They can replace their Yahoo Answers source before they start writing, or adjust their question so it’s answerable in the time limit.
The goal, after tons of repetition and feedback, is that all students reach mastery. My students did ten Flash Research Projects in a three-week period. As they became better at choosing high-quality sources, my feedback moved on to their image citation and their summary paragraphs. Like a good coach, this process isolates skills, repeats them at high speed, and incorporates individualised, focused feedback. Eventually, all students mastered the skills and my feedback became about what they did right, rather than what they did wrong.
This method works because the time-limit gives me an authentic assessment of their skills, which are improved through lots of repetitions, and focused feedback. The time limit is essential because it forces students to get started quickly and not spend too long on any one thing. It builds automaticity in their source evaluation, as well as their skimming speed. When they only have about five minutes to find three good sources, they develop a toolkit to help them determine credibility. The repetitions help them internalise those skills and apply them to a wide variety of sources. And the feedback helps to steer them as they make mistakes, so they can adjust in the moment.
The best part is that this method can be adapted for any skill, from any subject area.
As teachers of students preparing to enter a world where digital literacy is vital to their success, we don’t really have a choice whether to teach research or not. More technological literacy be required of our students than of any previous generation. They are entering a world where most of their future careers don’t even exist yet. That requires teachers to find ways of teaching skills that many of us weren’t taught when we were students.
Flash Research Projects begin to fill that gap, and move teachers from the research methods we were taught as students to the research methods required of the next generation of digital innovators.
No card catalogue required.