Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Next Part: The Down

Last week, I posted an UP - very proud of that. I actually have had several ups this week that I'll mention later. Right now, let's get to the DOWN.

Research. Even now, I just sigh with despair. How to teach 16 year olds that research does not equal google or wiki? That is the question. Over the past few years, I've used the term "academic research" in place of the antiquated "research." Our instant-gratification-society has all but eliminated the idea that you have to spend some time doing anything, much less spend some time looking up something that wikipedia already has a page on.

At the end of last year, I decided to eliminate the one big research project of the semester. Instead, I would have students do mini-research projects all along. All of these projects would be designed to lead up to them being able to do a research paper. So three weeks ago, I initiated the first research assignment.

Students had to look up "talking points" of the health care reform debate. They had to identify the source their "talking point" came from and decide whether it was a liberal, conservative, or neutral source. HOLY CRAP - WHAT WAS I THINKING?!?!?!?

In my mind, this was a simple project that would allow them to find out information about a very relevant current event. I even got them started in class by modeling what I expected them to do. I wanted to cry after the first 15 minutes in the library. The next day, I addressed some issues/questions that everyone had about the assignment, and off we went to the library again. I wanted to drink heavily after the first 15 minutes in the library.

I've spent a great deal of time thinking about the assignment and looking at what they turned in. I still can't decide if it was the multiple-step assignment that they didn't understand, if it was the concept of a talking point that eluded them, if it was the idea that they had to read the websites that frustrated them, or if they are just not able to do the work. (I typed and erased "if they aren't smart enough for this level of thinking." I honestly don't believe that in my heart of hearts.)

Overall, the total project was a failure. The kids learned just about nothing; I was frustrated beyond belief. Before I gave the assignment, I told them my goal for academic research lessons for the semester. They knew that this was a minor assignment designed to gauge their research skills. Afterwords, I told them that I was very disappointed in the way the assignment turned out, and that the majority of the disappointment lay with me and my lack of planning.

I really am trying to examine this fiasco and learn something from it, but I just don't know where to start. I did give them another research assignment that was much simpler, much more focused, and much shorter. I even felt it was too simple - find 5 facts on transcendentalism and cite your source. The facts had to come from 5 different websites - no pedias or dictionaries allowed. Some students had difficulty with "a fact!"

Needless to say, I'm feeling frustrated with this. I really need some guidance on teaching academic research!