We are still knee-deep in our inquiry circle research. I wrote about the very start of our inquiry circle work, where we worked to choose our topics, HERE and then about the earliest part of our research, where we learned to synthesize new information from a variety of sources, HERE.
In the earliest part of our research, as we were focusing on the skills of synthesis, I provided my students with resources connected to their topics. When we learned how to read and synthesize information from a website, I added a website to their group Padlets. When we learned how to read and synthesize information from a video, I added a video to each of the their group Padlets. And the same for online articles and infographics. By the time this work was done, my students had read and took notes on several sources about their topics.
So before we were ready to move on the next phase of our research, I wanted each student to stop and check-in with themselves about how they were researching, synthesizing and, most importantly, understanding information on their topics. In order to help them reflect, I had each student fill out THIS form that asked them to stop and synthesizing all of the information that they had read and understood at this point in their research.
Here is the anchor chart that I used to give them some ideas on how to synthesize information that they had gained from multiple sources:
After modeling how I did this myself, using THIS EXAMPLE, I asked the students to begin filling in their own forms.
This was a really powerful opportunity for my students. Several of them realized that they understood WAY more about their topic than they had at the beginning, while other students realized that they understood almost NOTHING at this point. This was a signal to themselves, and to me, that they needed to change something about how they were researching. I had several honest conversations with kids about how they were choosing to use their time and how they were taking notes as they were researching and even about where they were choosing to sit while they researched.
After filling out their forms independently, I asked each inquiry circle to come together and share their current understandings about their topics. I asked them to listen to one another in a way that allowed them to synthesize new information from their fellow group members. After they spent time discussing, they went back to their original documents in order to add new understandings that they gained from listening to the other people in their groups. We talked about how their group members became additional sources of information. That information could then be synthesized into what they already understood about their topics. The students each turned in their completed forms to me so that I could use this as evidence of how they were doing in terms of synthesizing new information.
At this point, we were ready to move on to phase 2 of their inquiry circle research. At this point, I would no longer be providing them with resources. Now, they needed to figure out how they wanted to focus their research and what direction they wanted to go as a group. In order to help them to do that, I asked them to get back with their inquiry circles and complete a RESEARCH PLAN. This research plan would serve as their guide as they headed off into the world of online research.
Luckily, my school is privileged to have a brilliant librarian. She has done AMAZING work with my students, since they were in kindergarten, in order to help them to learn how to research. This year, she added in several lessons on how to better evaluate online sources and how to deal with articles that appear to be news, but are not really. This work she has done with my students has made it possible for us to take on these tough issues and for me to trust that my students have the skills they need to deal with what they will encounter throughout this research process.
With their new research plans in hand, I explained the work that my students would be doing in phase 2 of their inquiry circle research. Here is the anchor chart that I used to help explain that process:
At this point, I had to trust in my students. I knew that I had given them resources to build a solid foundation of understanding about their topics. I knew some of them had built a stronger foundation than others. I knew that some of them knew how to evaluate sources better than others. I knew that some of them knew how to synthesize new information better than others. And still, it was time to set them on their way to do their own research and then catch them when they felt lost and teach them the skills they needed WHILE they were doing the work.
In addition to finding their own sources, my students were now also in charge of finding their OWN way to take notes on what they were learning. I told them that the minimal requirement was that they were documents WHAT information came from WHAT specific source. I suggested that they would also help themselves to find a way to keep track of their continually growing understanding. I shared THIS POSSIBLE NOTE TAKING DOCUMENT but also gave them the freedom to find their own way to document their learning.
And they were off.
And so was I. As my students researched, I spent my time having one-on-one reading conferences. Mostly asking my students questions to help them think through what they were trying to do. Questions like, “What are you trying to find out today?” or “How is this resource helping you to answer your question?” or “What are you learning about your topic that you did not know before you began your research?” or “What are you hoping to find out next?”
Along the way, I was also watching closely to catch the kids who were struggling to find their way. I often stepped in and asked a question that gave a student an opportunity to let me know that he or she or they needed help. “What are you trying to find out today?” Was often answered with, “I am not really sure.” And so then we looked back on their research plans or had a conversation and figured out what they really needed to know.
After their first day of phase 2 research, we met together to talk about the challenges they were finding with their online research. I asked each child to fill out THIS FORM, independently at first, and then discussing with another student or two. I then asked them to keep this form out with them over the next few days and when they felt themselves feeling frustrated, I asked them to try to figure out what the challenge was that they were facing.
We then came together to share the challenges they had identified and then we worked together to brainstorm some ways to solve these challenges. I was amazed at the strategies that the kids came up with and noticed a big difference in how they were able to independently solve some of these challenges after this conversation. Here are two of the charts that we started to keep track of our discussion:
This phase of our research was, of course, more difficult than the first phase. In the first phase, I was in control of so much. I controlled what sources they read, I controlled how they took notes and I controlled the range of sources that they were exposed to. It was easier and, in some ways, it was a more guaranteed way to ensure that my students were learning the CONTENT that I wanted them to learn.
The problem with that is that what they were learning was completely dependent on me. This learning was only successful if I was a large part of the process. If we really mean what we say, that we want to help our students to become life-long learners, then we have to start removing ourselves from the equation. But, still, that does NOT mean that we set back and do nothing. It is our job to teach our students the processes that they will need to go through in order to do the learning they need to do. It is our job to stand by their side and watch them carefully so that we know when to step in and guide them in a better direction. It is our job to be there to see their frustration and decide when they have struggled enough on their own and when to step in and help. It is our job to set them up for successful learning and guide them along the path towards that successful learning. But we simply cannot do this if we do not let them find their own way first.
So, yes, WHAT they are learning in terms of content connected to their chosen topics, is incredibly important. But, more important to me, is that they are learning a process that they feel ownership over that will allow them to do this work far after they leave me and our classroom.