Inquiry Circles Weeks #4 and #5: Synthesizing to Gain Better Understanding

In my first two posts about inquiry circles, I talked about how my students selected their topics and formed groups and then how we learned to ask better questions in order to drive further investigation.

At the start of week #4, I was ready to release my students to begin searching for articles on their own.  I had them look at the questions that they wanted to find answers to and use those questions to begin researching. Because I have an incredible librarian who has been working on research skills with my students since they were in 1st grade and because we have already done a fairly large research project this year in 5th grade, I did not need to spend much time teaching the students how to research a topic using digital sources. I am grateful for that because I could spend my time, instead, teaching my students how to use what they have found to better understand the complex topics that they were investigating.

One of the reading strategies that our 5th grade students are asked to focus on is the strategy of synthesizing.  Our inquiry circle work was a perfect place to teach these skills and ask the students to use them for a truly authentic purpose.  The idea of synthesis that I wanted to focus on is how we gather new information and add it to our current understanding. How to evaluate our current understanding for gaps and holes and a lack of perspectives and then how to do we see out the information that we need in order to fill in these holes and add multiple perspectives? How do we deal with information that does not match our current understanding? All of these skills were easy to integrate into our inquiry circle work.

I wanted to start with a general overview of what synthesis is and how readers synthesis both within one article and across multiple articles on the same topic.  Here are the charts that my students and I created during our discussion of this idea:



After a discussion of what synthesis looks like, I began by modeling how I synthesized as I read through one single article. I stopped and thought about information that was new to me and thought out loud about how that information enhanced or changed my understanding.  I also stopped at places in a text where I found information that challenged my thinking and even changed what I thought I knew. I shared with students how this helped to grow my understanding of my topic and find additional layers to investigate.

After looking at how readers synthesize WITHIN one text, I then started to share with my students how I was starting to put together information that I got from multiple texts in order to deepen my understanding. This type of synthesis is the very heart of the research process. In order to keep track of the discussions we were having, we created these next two chart:



These charts highlight the lessons that we worked on over the course of several days. Along the way, I stopped to model how this looked in my own research into the refugee crisis.

Along the way, my students were continuing their own research and after a week and half of focusing on synthesis, I started to feel as if the research and excitement was sort of fizzling out.  My students seemed to lack a clear focus and they were starting to give up.

After spending a lot of time reflecting on what was happening, I realized that what I was asking my students to do with their research was different than what I had ever asked of them before. Most often, in the past, I have asked my students to begin with some sort of thesis statement. We begin with what they believe or what they want to prove and then they go out and seek information that supports this thesis. I think that this is often how we, as adults, research as well.

While this helps to narrow our focus as research and give up an endpoint to work towards, it also creates huge problems and bias. When we begin with a thesis statement, with a claim, with a statement that shares our belief, and then we seek out information that supports that belief, we are essentially ignoring anything that is out there that might contradict what we believe and cause us to adjust our claim.

When we began researching, my students knew their topic, but did not make any claims. Truly, most of them did not yet know enough to make a claim. So they began researching without knowing what they were trying to prove. This was powerful.

But also new. I needed to teach them how to look at the sources they had gathered and begin to search for trends and patterns that would lead them toward a claim, lead them toward knowing what they would come to believe. This was not something they knew how to do. This was a new way to synthesize.

This was the chart that I used to begin our discussion of how they would move forward in their research by synthesizing what they had found and beginning to form their claims. These claims are what would lead them toward taking action. IMG_9715

Helping my students to organize their ideas into a clear claim, helped reenergize their research. It helped them find new purpose and meaning in their work. The guided reading groups that I was conducting were some of the most purposeful guided reading groups that I had ever had because I was helping each group to apply a new reading strategy in a way that helped them pull together all they had learned and help them to begin to search for a way to action.

As I worked with each inquiry circle to pull together a clear claim based on the research they had done, we also looked at if they had enough research to back up each part of their claim.  So if their claim was, “There are too many incidents of police brutality directed toward people of color and in order to change this police officers need better training.” Then I helped them to break that claim up into several different parts. 1) There are too many incidents of police brutality directed toward people of color. How can you prove this to be true? 2) In order to change this police officers need better training. What are the current training practices? How can you prove these are not working? What are better forms of police training? How can you prove that these will work better?

After breaking up their claims and organizing the research they already had on THIS DOCUMENT, then we were able to discover where their holes were. These were places where they needed to collect additional research. Again, this helped give each group new purpose and new direction in their work.  It was amazing to see how the research really picked back up after this work.

What I was asking these fifth graders to do was incredibly challenging. And so when problems arose, I had to make sure that I was not faulting the students and that I was instead finding ways to support my students without taking the power away from them to guide their own research. This was a tricky balance. Most often, what my students needed was more modeling and more conversation with me to help them pull together all of the information that they had found. When groups began to get an idea of the claims that they were making, then they were ready to start thinking about taking action. I will write about the inspiring action that came from these projects in my next blog post.




One thought on “Inquiry Circles Weeks #4 and #5: Synthesizing to Gain Better Understanding

  1. Pingback: Inquiry Circles Weeks #6 and #7: Investigation Inspires Action | Crawling Out of the Classroom

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