Starting Next Round Of Personal Research Projects

I learn most when I'm challenged to justify or explain the rationale behind my classroom practice and the choices about the tasks I set for my class. The challenge can come in the form of a blog post that questions, a comment response that draws assumptions or a reflective research tool that has me watching a DVD of one of my lessons and coding it according to researched guidelines. And as a learner, I don't always come with a satisfactory answer but every challenge helps.

I've used inquiry research projects in my classrooms for over ten years now - initially when it was called Resource Based Learning, then rebadged as Problem Based Learning when I moved to my current school and now referred to as the inquiry approach. I've used models including McKenzie's Research Cycle, our local TSOF (RIP) model then to the recent work in this area by Kath Murdoch. Ten years ago when I team taught with one of the most innovative (and influential) teachers I've come across, we both developed the rationale that inquiry work (RBL was our name at the time) was great in terms of allowing students choice and control in their learning but adding the final presentation in front of their peers added another layer of purpose to their work. We both trialled webquests with our classes in and around 1999/2000 but found that the process was too scripted and the reliance on Web-only resources to be too restrictive.

Students would do their own RBL topics - sometimes it was glorious success (I recall a 1997 presentation on The Wolf by a Year Six girl where she role played a wolf, had her best friend read scripted questions as a news reporter and the research findings flowed from this fictional interview) or dismal failure. An unmotivated student back in 1999 simply drew a lopsided pyramid on the white board in texta and trotted his theories about aliens constructing the pyramids. And the class was so well versed in the art of positive feedback and constructive criticism (my diplomatic nature coming to the fore) that after the silence that ensued, the first comment was, "I really like your pyramid drawing."

Of course, the use of the internet has been a boon to this form of learning as the students are not just limited to what the school library has in stock. Which also means the issue of teaching effective digital literacy skills becomes of utmost importance. So, the final presentation became a purpose for all of the questions and answers. It was superior to handing in something to the teacher because the audience expanded to their classroom colleagues. The presentations started to evolve as the technology at the students' disposal became easier to utilise. We went from student prepared overheads to handouts to designed displays then to booking the computing room so that the data projector could be utilised. With the move to a new school, it seemed the inquiry learning approach was a low priority and it has been part of my role to infuse it into teachers' practices - with varying success.

With the advent of interactive whiteboards in the school and a very inspiring session as part of our Middle Schooling cluster, I began the idea of Personal Research Projects with my class where the students could research a topic of their choice that would be geared towards a peer presentation. This started last year when I combed the SACSA S.O.S.E outcomes tracking general topics as a starting point and the inquiry process was combined with a student initiated approach.. Students could make a choice about their topic and their research process was then geared towards a final presentation to their classmates. Then this year under the guiding principles of our recently Middle Years Learning Unit vision which has the development of student initiative as one of its desired outcomes. To that end, the Personal Research Projects (renamed as to not be confused with the IB version of Personal Projects which has a very different focus) were introduced for all four of the MYLU classes with the general choices of (a) your own choice, (b) something new and (c) something from the wider world spread over terms two to four.

I've already blogged about the Term Two projects from my room so my original intent was a quick update on my students' start to this term. There was some professional disagreement around our learning team table about how to structure and start the Term Three theme of something new. As my role includes leading out in any area to do with information literacy, I devised a student driven way to determine new topics. With my class, I discussed the idea that for something to be really new, you would to need to barely know anything about the topic and in fact, you might not even know that it exists. So here's what we did.

Every student had a sheet of paper and I decided that this term I would join in the process and produce a Personal Research Project of my own. On this paper, each student wrote down topics that they had covered in the past then we rotated the papers around the room. In 30 second bursts, each student would suggest a new topic for their peer from a broad list of categories we brainstormed up on the interactive whiteboard. There's a bit of pressure involved to get something down so not all suggestions were inspired but it was very interesting to see what did get on the list and considering there were 30 kids trying to produce 30 unique topic lists (that's 900 potentially unique topics!) it went pretty well.

[My list - basketball, sport, orchestra instruments, soccer, transport, football, Malaysian food, squash, air dynamics, planes, ice hockey, cats, cricket, ancient foods, our school, tennis, movie directing, swimming, sewing, golf, the Great Wall of China, Who invented the clock?, Fashions of the 80's.]

The students then narrowed down their possibilities to two or three that looked interesting. You can see mine are bold underlined. Armed with their final choice, we headed to the computing room where the students used Quintura and Kartoo to generate key word mind map diagrams to assist with the start of their research. See these diagrams as an example of how the key words were generated by the visual search engines.


saharakartoo.jpg prp-adrianna2007-term-3.jpg

So I think that my kids are off to a good start. But as I wrote earlier, there was not consensus about this approach when I introduced it to my learning team colleagues. Riding on last term's success and buoyed by the fact that the students had developed some promising research and presentation skills and were highly motivated by the control they had over their work, I was surprised that some of the team wanted more say in what the students in their classes would be working on. Their point of view that something new could be decided upon by the teacher because that choice would in fact be new, and they would allocate choices within that topic. It was hard to argue against because their choice was to look at charities and community programs (Guide Dogs, Amnesty, Doctors Without Borders etc.) and that is a worthwhile thing for students to be looking at. I suppose I felt (as did my planning partner) that the student initiated component is too important to disregarded. Sure, if one of my students wanted to investigate a charitable organisation, fine, but for me the process of investigation and questioning and constructing learning with a purpose in mind is more important than all kids being "guided" into a defined area of focus. Another example that not all teachers see things in a particular way or necessarily value different aspects and approaches in equal ways.

Anyway, to wind this post up, I have stated before that I was particularly impressed with the presentation process and that consideration was given to audience needs in their accompanying slides. I emphasised the "more is less" approach which is exactly some of the advice being offered by Dan Meyer in some of his great posts on slide design. I wandered into Christian Long's blog post where he was exploring aspects of one of Dan's more recent posts - it seems I've been commenting there a fair bit this week. I used his general theme of innovative use of slides in the classroom to expand on why I think my students' presentations were a great learning experience.

....the lense with which I want to examine your take comes from my own classroom and our "Personal Research Projects" program that I have led out alongside our middle school teachers. Using an inquiry-centred learning approach, my students developed presentations on a topic of their own choice over the course of two months. I blogged about the process recently so I won't go through the details here but I tended to err on the side of guidance rather than requirements. I wanted the students to find their own way through, be open to advice and be prepared to have their presentation critiqued by their peers. So I know that when you describe the "Death by Powerpoint" presentation classroom, it's not mine and I dare say there are many teachers like me where the end product is just the start of the conversation. With my students, we negotiated together what we believed good presentations to be about. We designed a rubric that the kids themselves would use during the presentations. I talked about the slides complementing their research, that clear well chosen images convey meaning that excessive text cannot, the importance of considering your audience's needs and how eye contact conveys respect to your audience.

You ask in your post "...are they really demonstrating anything that resembles learning?"

My oath, they were.

Yes, Powerpoint was the choice of every student (but not mandated by me) and as they watched each presentation, the learning was there in masses. It was there in the feedback that the students gave each other, scaffolded initially by me, but when students say comments like, "I wasn't interested in Roman History before your presentation but now I want to know more", it's paydirt. It happens when the students who can't resist the call of the animated bullet points, clicking through them furiously because they've just realised they don't add anything to their message. It happens when a student proclaims an animé drawing as their own work scanned into a slide but someone eagle eyed spots the plagiarism via a watermarked URL on the corner of the slide. It happens when a well intentioned student's presentation goes over the twenty minute mark because they didn't want to leave anything out only to realise that they've lost the interest of the class. Done tactfully, which is where teacher guidance is crucial, the conversation emanating from these presentations has initiated and cemented learning about the research process, the importance of citing sources, catering for your audience's learning needs and yes, learning that "less is more" when it comes to conveying meaning, ideas and information across to your peers.

Christian then reminded me of the importance of constraints (and maybe that's where my differing learning team colleagues reside in their thinking.)

The passion and intentionality of your approach with using PPt with your kids is to be commended on many levels. Best of all is your conviction that the 'process' itself was more powerful than the end result, and by process I mean in 'review' as much as in 'creation.'

Like you, Dan's posts/ruminations on the power of good design in teacher work has also compelled me to be far more intentional when working with PPt, etc. His expertise and passion for design/presentation may define his role in the larger edu-blogosphere for some time to come (in addition to his clear math'pertise).

All I will add to your original comment is that while 'process' is vital (and the 'discovery' that comes with it), the clear 'constraints' we put on the project offer significant value as well (and 'challenge'). If our kids think always in terms of audience (both in and out of the class, regardless of 'grades'), then the 'constraints' are tied to the audience's needs and willingness to pay attention/care. Yes, we want kids to co-create the process, but we also want them to know WHY they are doing what they are doing...and constraints give us a place to push against, as opposed to limits.

And I while I am sure that my process had its constraints in place, his point to me means that clearly documenting and justifying the purpose of the project is as crucial as allowing the students freedom to explore what they see as interesting and important. Especially at this age (10 -12 year olds) their first taste of choice based learning can be a heady experience and not everyone bounces back easily from a rocky landing if they get their process wrong, burn time chasing unimportant details or misread my verbal suggestions. Cushioning in terms of clear written guidelines, explicit demonstrations of process and regular reviews of progress will give every student a shot at the glowing feedback and satisfaction of an attentive and interested audience.

It would be great if the choice quote of last term's presentations became commonplace.

"I wasn't interested at all in Roman History but your presentation has made me want to find out more."
Year 6 female student offering verbal feedback to Year 5 male student, Term 2, 2007.

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8 thoughts on “Starting Next Round Of Personal Research Projects

  1. Graham Wegner

    Jo, it’s a bit like baring your soul at times – but, I cannot talk about teachers needing to open about their practice and learn by reflecting on their teaching if I don’t do it myself. Part of it is also having enough guts to admit that not everything flows as it should, than there is always room for improvement and that unconscious hypocrisy runs through every teacher’s veins.

  2. Doug Noon

    The choice/constraints issue is a very tricky thing to manage, and I’m glad you mentioned it. A good project has some of each, I believe, and finding that balance is key. I especially liked the quote at the end. What I want to see in my own students is the realization, for themselves, that they’ve changed, been enlarged somehow, and accomplished something that they didn’t think they could do before they started. I’m organizing my classroom this week getting ready for meetings and planning (for real) next week. Gearing back up. This was helpful.

  3. Artichoke

    Helping schools plan student inquiry so we avoid “all the children are lost in a tunnel of goats” learning outcomes is part of the day job and close to my heart Graham

    I think when we undertake inquiry with young kids we have to be pretty clear about our purpose – if we are after “learning” then most of us would accept that learning involves a change in long term memory – and although I am certain that many of our students are “engaged” during inquiry learning I am uncertain whether inquiry in schools often leads to any significant changes in content or process memory of the students involved –

    Since we still have no research to show that students who experience inquiry based learning environments have an understanding that is deeper, more integrated, more coherent and at a higher level of abstraction than students who learn in “one size fits all” environments – when we choose inquiry over other pedagogical approaches we should be mindful of the problems identified with inquiry learning

    The things we ask our teachers to consider when they are planning inquiry topics for kids is how they will avoid the following:

    1. Learners experience a cognitive overload when they need to do both “knowing that” AND “knowing how” thinking. Stahl et. al recommend that students gain at least an overview of content knowledge in the area before research begins. (Otherwise they “research” to learn content and tend to add little new if first source is informative/easy to understand, including ignoring conflicting evidence etc). This suggests students using research to learn new concepts may compromise using it to learn research competencies.
    Stahl, S., Hynd, C., Britton, B., McNish, M., & Bosquet, B. (1996). What happens when students read multiple source documents in history? Reading Research Quarterly, 31 (4), 430-456.

    2. There is all that …. unease over minimally guided instruction through constructivism and inquiry learning to consider – and teh realisation that inquiry is not suited to all abilities in the primary classroom
    Mayer, R.E. (2004) Should there be a three strikes rule against pure discovery learning? Am Psych 59, 14
    Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J. & R.E. Clark. (2006) Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: Educational Psychologist. 41 (1) URL retrieved May 2006 from

    3.Then the real chance that at the end of the inquiry learners may not have been confronted with the “to be learned” material Klahr and Nigam Psych Sci 15 661 (2004)The equivalence of learning paths in early science instruction: Effects of direct instruction and discovery learning.

    4. De Jong at the 2006 ICCE 2006 Keynote Address in Beijing showed us research suggesting that learners overemphasise communicative activities in inquiry – that is – more time is spent on communicating the new learning than is ever spent on gaining the new learning in the first place – depends what you are after – new learning or mastering powerpoint presentations

    5. And his research teams have shown that 15 to 19 year old learners have problems with ALL of the processes associated with inquiry – both transformative and regulative processes, which makes me fret over what younger students might be missing when they do inquiry
    de Jong, T. (2006) Technological Advances in Inquiry Learning VOL 312 SCIENCE pp532-533

    We encourage our teachers in New Zealand to plan inquiry learning with great thoughtfulness – it is much harder work for teachers than direct teaching – all relevant cognitive processes are triggered and scaffolded for – and they work to ensure the right kind of domain is used – student inquiry for intuitive deep conceptual knowledge rather than operational factual procedural knowledge.

    If the kids are after factual and procedural knowledge they’d be better of with pedagogies of direct instruction and practice.

    Since all the reserach suggests that inquiry works best when kids are already experts in the domain – we do a lot of front loading, pre teaching etc ito ensure appropriate prior knowledge is available either with the co learner or in the system.

    Then and only then will kids get deep learning outcomes from the goals and questions they set themselves.

    Even enthusiastic inquiry learning teachers will acknowledge that inquiry processes take longer than direct teaching so finding the reliable and valid advantages of inquiry over other pedagogical approaches – and scaffolding the learning experiences for them – is pretty important

  4. Graham Wegner

    Arti, I actually get nervous when you offer insight here on my blog because it’s offering my process warts and all that leaves me feeling quite vulnerable because of your day job expertise and background. You always point me towards great resources and I would have to admit that I do not read enough educational texts – when edubloggers quote Postman and Ilich and Gatto, I have no idea because I haven’t read any of their oft quoted work. (Actually likewise when Bill Kerr quotes Alan Kay.) I would actually be interested in your opinion on what we have done and whether I am actually kidding myself and wasting the kids’ time. Your points that you outline are exactly what I need to be thinking about (along with all the other things my job entails) and to get to specifics, I think it would be great to have a Skype chat with you if you could spare the time.

    1. “Knowing that” if I understand it correctly is navigating a chosen topic successfully because the student has some familiarity and confidence in knowing where to look and knowing if something answers their question and “knowing how” is the process of generating questions, topics, collecting information, making sense of that information and then structuring it into a solution or maybe a presentation(???). Therefore, while working with a topic of their own choice the “knowing that” aspect works better than if they are then forced into a new topic where the familiarity factor is gone. It would be a bit like first getting kids to go from Point A to Point B in their own neighbourhood, then next time dropping them in a foreign city and asking them to go from A to B again. And if I am getting everyone in my class to pursue totally different topics, then the front loading is nearly impossible – all of a sudden my colleagues corralling their students into one topic with choices within that topic look pretty smart. However, if my goal is to get the kids thinking about effective ways to communicate information and ideas to others (mastering powerpoint or any sort of multimedia might be a goal 🙂 ) then the content could be seen to be secondary.

    2. Your articles point to the concept of guided discovery being a superior method as opposed to minimal guidance discovery learning. Looking back at last term’s work I can see that the research part could be classified as the “discovery approach” while the modelling, explicit hands on design work, rubric driven presentation process the class worked on could be termed “guided discovery.” With a process and expectations for presentation (and yes, that is also worthwhile learning although it could not be reasonably be termed “inquiry”) in place, is abandoning the idea of a previously encountered topic a recipe for disaster because it will be impossible to “front load” 30 students at once? It certainly is easy to model expectations in how to communicate their final content – but is one topic for the whole class the way to go? How is that topic or issue identified? More questions for me as my high moral ground is swamped by the high tides of effective practice!

    3. In a task that allows students to choose their own topic, the “to be learned” component is extremely difficult to standardise across the class.

    4. This point seems to be challenging me (rightly so). What exactly do I want the students to gain from this exercise? How to communicate to others, effective public speaking, designing supporting visuals, giving appropriate feedback to others, preparing for the presentation – all worthy learning goals straight out of the English curriculum. What about the inquiry component? I suppose I was wanting to put the students in the position of being able to share interesting learning with their peers and expose them to ideas and topics that they might not naturally gravitate towards. This term’s approach was meant to be a challenge to expand their boundaries using inquiry questions to work towards gaining a basic understanding of a new concept and once again, share it with their peers. Are my expectations too high? I was working on the idea that there are so many possible things to explore that gaining skills that enable students to track down likely resources and navigate through the information overload with discriminatory skills would be a realistic way to impart information literacy skills.

    5. Maybe my take is that the younger students start grappling with inquiry methodology then by the time they get to be 15 -19 years of age, they will be more proficient practitioners then those who have been hand fed information and concepts without any choice along the way.

    It’s been a challenge for me to embrace my own “discovery learning” via the internet. I have been an online reader and investigator of ideas and topics for over a dozen years but leveraging the web using read/write tools has changed the way I can learn – like I’m doing right now. The “digital natives” I teach are not very information savvy – I am trying to get them manipulating and making judgements about the validity of their own interests and possible interests (you don’t know what you don’t know about!) – unfortunately, as Darren Draper wrote recently on his blog (I can’t find the exact quote), the more I blog the less I realise I know. You yourself, Arti, have pointed out that terrier-like, I interrogate my own practice and hold it up the light to see of it is on track. I know you wouldn’t waste your precious time leaving a comment that won’t be taken on board and while I can’t promise that I’ll plug all the holes in my inquiry practice in quick time, you can rest assured I know that they are there and need addressing. Thanks again for taking the time. I really appreciate and value it.

    And Doug, we’d better consider Arti’s points well before we launch into any cross cultural exchanges!

  5. Doug Noon

    Here’s a bit of a thought I had earlier today, before I read Artichoke’s comment, which I think is worth careful study. The idea of there being a “how” and a “what” to consider in teaching refers to the need to account for both declarative and procedural knowledge, both of which are necessary in any creative endeavor. Depending on what you want kids to learn, you can hold one, both, or neither of those things constant. In other words, you can specify the subject matter, the process to be followed, or both, or none of the above. We get the “tunnel of goats” phenomenon when nobody knows what’s going on, but everyone seems to be busy with it. The way inquiry pedagogy has gained acceptance among progressive educators seems to be an example of what I learned yesterday is called politician’s logic: : Something must be done; this is something; therefore, we must do it. Reformers of all stripes put this principle to work on a regular basis.

    Guided inquiry is a broad term that might involve the class and teacher in doing a whole group project that’s mapped out every step of the way – as a demonstration, more or less – so kids get the idea of what we want them to do. Loosening the reins a bit and allowing the kids choices of subject matter assumes that they know how to identify problems, ask focused questions, locate resources, test hypotheses, generalize conclusions, report their findings, and evaluate what they’ve learned. That’s a lot to ask of anyone who isn’t particularly interested or experienced. I think there are ways of leaving options open for choosing, but I also think that inquiry as a concept has to first be embraced by teachers as an overall stance toward everything they do.

    Taking it slow, and keeping a tight rein seems like the only sensible approach. I am too loose, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, with the planning end to responsibly manage what would otherwise be chaos. And too often that’s what I get; things spin out of control even when I start out with a tight grip on them. Last year I had an aha moment when I discovered that the word ‘research’ means nothing to kids. Of course, there is also the possibility that inquiry itself is reduced to a cookbook response to a prompt. What’s the use of that?

    The most concise way that I can express my current view of inquiry pedagogy, or any pedagogy, is to say that I prefer to see lots of structure, with just a little bit of wiggle room. I am not a specialist in any of this, and there are few examples of effective inquiry pedagogy in my personal experience, as both student and teacher. Direct instruction is sometimes the very thing necessary in order to move forward, and it needn’t be discredited as somehow regressive. In everything I do, I want to proceed with caution and skepticism. Even the sacred cow of constructivism is being roasted in my thinking these days. But that’s a story for another day.

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