“But why? Why do we even have to do research?”
As one of my advisees slogged through part of her ninth-grade research project in my office early last spring before the world shifted around us, she’d been grumbling a bit through her work and humoring me by taking the bits of unsolicited advice I lobbed over my shoulder as we worked in parallel. Maybe my tactics and suggestions were helping her technically do the task at hand, but they sure weren’t selling her on the idea that it was worth doing in the first place.
In the moment, I rambled off a list of habits and skills research helps us hone. All valid for sure. Yet, if I consider one of my guiding purposes as an educator to lie in helping teachers construct research opportunities that carve out space for meaningful, creative inquiry, then I’d better have a more inspiring answer to her question.
When I visit classes for their first research project of the year, we always take a few minutes to consider the why behind their high school research journey so far. I’ve often defaulted to two main purposes for research: proficiency and love. “We want you to knock out papers in your sleep when you get to college. You’ll be the go-to on your freshmen hall.”
Sure, some students might feel good about this assurance that if they only trust us and slog on through that, like generations of our graduates before them, they, too, will feel prepared. But is competence enough? I know for sure it’s not for me, and it’s not why I do what I do. I wish, I tell them, as they are given ever-increasing freedom in the way they approach their process and develop their own questions, that they’ll grow to love the process and the satisfaction of creatively articulating findings borne out of a challenging, but emotionally nourishing process.
It would be rare to find an educator who hasn’t been doing a fair amount of soul-searching and reexamining of pedagogy in recent months. For me this pondering has been wrapped up both in the challenges of remote teaching and the demands of our students who have found their voices in the wake of George Floyd’s death. They want us to be better, do better, and to ensure that we are allowing each and every one of them to share their voice and see themselves in our curriculum. These imperatives turn my advisee’s question on its side a bit.
Why do we ask students to do research? If we truly care about it beyond a measure of proficiency in formatting guidelines, bibliographies, and college preparedness, is it possible for research to foster connection and to carve out a place for their voices? If this isn’t simply some hollow aspirational statement, then how do we do this?
While I would argue that there are countless ways we can help students explore and share of themselves through research, it seems there are a few critical places where we can either pave the path for meaning or close the spigot off cleanly and unintentionally.
My advisee had been able to choose from a list of beautifully crafted questions, all constructed with an eye toward providing students with numerous entry points to the content at hand. Choice is huge. But, for her, none were personally-relevant choices so the path to personally purposeful research was closed off from the time she chose her research question. Had she been able to craft her own research question and coached in the ways she could develop it out of issues and themes close to her heart, she might have seen the point in the first place or at least been set up for such a discovery.
We’re often in such a rush. Strike that. We’re always in such a rush. Choosing a research topic, let alone crafting it into a question often gets short shrift. Students who have time to wonder and talk to others are more often able to find their way to a path of meaning. When students learn that any kind of wondering is legitimate at this point in the process, it’s freeing. If given the prompt, “You can write about anything in American History,” they tend to think back to a textbook or a lesson, but when told to simply think about something that strikes them in the news, a movie they’ve watched, their family’s heritage, a conversation with a grandparent, they’ll usually (and often sheepishly) come up with something they didn’t think could “work” before. Projects about female sportscasters struggling to break through, the lynching of Italian Americans in New Orleans in the early 20th century, transcendental meditation in the ’60s, the impact of World War II on food production were borne out of personal curiosities originally shared offhand.
Digging Further Afield
It takes work to move students from checking the boxes next to required sources. Encyclopedia article: check. Book: check. But if you can help students see that each type of source has its strengths and weaknesses and that often the “real” and “fun” research happens in unexpected places, that’s where the magic happens. I love January and February when our juniors are frenetically working to wrap up their junior theses, a rite of passage in our building. Asked to heavily use primary sources, they finally get to the good stuff that can’t be found in all the usual places. Whether sitting with a student calling every organization or library in Newark to determine a surprisingly absent mayoral statistic during the riots of 1968 or reading an email in tandem with a student giddy that a scholar wrote her back and even got into a healthy historical debate, these are the places and times I could see that these kids were in it.
Their Answers, Not Ours
“This is what I found/what I want to say, but I know it’s not the way my teacher wants me to write the paper/craft my thesis, etc.” Just like parents, we want the best for our students; we want them to succeed; and we’ve coached hundreds, sometimes thousands of students before. We know the arguments that are already out there and so, out of care, we sometimes nudge students toward the space where we know they’ll be successful. But it doesn’t mean that space will continue to hold meaning for them. The most defeated young researchers are those who thought they were onto something original, but brought back down by a teacher benevolently coaching them in the opposite direction.
In a year of hybrid, remote, plexiglass, masks, and screens, when we endeavor to boil everything down to what really matters, the stakes have never been higher to find every way we can to connect with and coach our students on the path to meaning making. Stepping into classes this year, even if that step is just into a Google Meet, I’m doubling down on finding ways to help them tease out this meaning. And I’m looking forward to the day that my advisee and I can dig deep into a question she’s crafted herself.