This is the first in a monthly series of posts about FHSA’s Junior and Senior Research Projects written by librarian Nora Murphy. Completed Senior Research Projects from the 2014-15 school year are highlighted throughout this post.
Research at FSHA: Is It Working?
Rounding the corner into my fifth year at Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy, I have now graduated my first class to complete all four years of the school’s research curriculum as it was envisioned in the fall of 2011. They were the first to have repetitive research skills practice in freshman science courses, the first to use everyone’s favorite database (Questia), the first to complete the (in)famous Junior and Senior Research Projects. They were trailblazers (or as they would put it, guinea pigs) and this year’s Tologs, who have inherited the research curriculum, have been better for their feedback and hard work. Now these skills, papers and projects are just another part of the innovative and rigorous curriculum here at FSHA. So I must ask, what is the nature of this program after countless revisions? Is it the program that I initially imagined it to be and that so many of us worked to create? Basically, is it working?
First Comes Resentment, Fear and Finally Acceptance
It turns out it takes three years for a student body to accept a new piece of curriculum. The first year of the project the girls resent it. The second year they fear it. The third year they accept it. In the third year, the project has been at the school as long as the girls have been at the school. The fear is gone, because it is just another thing among many things that we do here. Now, finally, we can get down to work.
The Method Behind the Madness
Still, even though they know it’s coming, moans and groans circulate the room when the word research is spoken. Why? What are we doing wrong that these smarty smart pants students think inquiry and intellectual curiosity are boring and tedious? How did we manage to impress upon them that research is a slog rather than a treasure hunt? I’ll tell you how. Boring research assignments. Research assignments with too many limits. Research assignments completed in too little time. Typical research assignments.
In 2005 David Loerschter published a book for teachers called Ban Those Bird Units! He argues that fact-finding research missions not only fail to engage students’ attention and full intellectual capacity, but they tend to lead to plagiarism and misuse of source material. He was right, of course, and the world of school librarians took his message to the streets (or the hallways) and began to (continued to) advocate for inquiry-based analytical research assignments. But here it is, change is hard. Teaching inquiry is hard. Analytical research is hard. Most of us in the teaching world don’t really know how to show students what to do, and almost every teacher you ask will still say that there is too little time, too much to cover, no room for this type of research.
Plus there is the frustration factor. In the early nineties (when I was still completing the awful bird units of my high school career), Carol Kuhlthau published her research model, the Information Search Process, which outlines the emotional trajectory of the research process. She argues that student researchers are uncomfortable with the inevitable uncertainties brought by true inquiry. When a student poses an open-ended question and then reads widely to try and answer it, analysis and synthesis are required. This means that students will become frustrated at some point, and often at more than one point. They will be frustrated because they want to know the answer but there is no single answer. They will be frustrated because they want to prove something but their research reveals that their preconceived notions were flawed. They become frustrated because they must navigate an ocean of information and they don’t know how. It doesn’t matter that they’ve grown up wired. They don’t know how to wade through the muck and the murk unless we show them how. So what happens to them, and to their teachers who aren’t sure about this free-love approach to schoolwork in the first place? They abandon the project. They give up. They fill in the blanks and research becomes a tedious, awful, sad slog.
Kuhlthau and Loerschter would have us do something radical. They would have us give our students space and time to just think. They would have us teach our students to push past the frustration, or better still, to work with the frustration to tease out new questions and ideas. They would have us embrace uncertainty and the unGoogleable research topics. If we do this, research becomes the opposite of tedious. It becomes liberating. It becomes fun.
I am a fan of Kuhlthau and Loershcter. Their methods have been instrumental in the development of my own. Add to that the fact that universities expect our girls to be able to do just what they describe, and do so independently, and you get the FSHA research curriculum. To be truly college-preparatory we must ensure that our graduates can navigate research assignments the minute they step onto their college campuses. They must be able to pose questions (unGoogleable questions), seek out relevant and high-quality source material, know how to examine that material, know when to ask new questions, push through the frustration and come out the other side with an argument, a theory and original idea. They have to be able to do this day one, as evidenced by the three students I have already heard from who are tackling 8-10 page papers in their first week at university. (Interesting that in high school we call them research papers, but in college they are just papers. Research is implied.)
It’s Working! Graduates Ready for College-Level Research
Here’s the great thing. The three Tolog graduates who reached out to me so soon after leaving the Hill did so just to tell me that they were prepared. They know what to do, they aren’t stressed, and they think it’s no big deal. My inner self danced a jig to this news, because it means what we’re doing really works. (Imagine me hopping from foot to foot around the library, arms in the air, singing “It worked, it worked, it really worked!”)
So what are we doing? I think the most important thing is that we’re giving them time and space to think. We’re giving them permission to embrace the uncertainty. We’re asking them to feel the frustration and let it drive them to ask more questions, find more answers. We do this in the form of the Junior and Senior Research Projects, and we build up to those with a variety of introductory research opportunities in the ninth and tenth grades. It’s not easy for the girls to accept that there is no right answer, no one way to go about doing this, no teacher who can just tell them what to do. But isn’t that what we really want for them? It’s what I want for them. It’s what the teachers at FSHA, who work very hard to make this happen, want for them. (This is not a solo project. Our research program is run by more than a dozen dedicated, innovative team players that are the only real reason this is happening at all.)
In the past four days, here is what I’ve heard from our Tologs, past and present:
Yesterday a senior waggled her hands and opened her eyes wide and said to our juniors, “I don’t know, maybe I’m weird, but I really loved the JRP. I just loved learning more, finding out more. It was so fun!”
A junior told me, “You know, before today I wasn’t really into the JRP at all, but now I’m totally excited. I didn’t know I’d be allowed to research something I’m really interested in.”
A recent graduate sent me a message on Facebook to say, “Hey! I just want you to know I was already assigned an eight page paper in my Jane Austen class and I’m actually not freaking out!! Also, good luck with the younglings back home! … I think no matter how hard it can be for them and for you, it will 150% pay off in the end.”
Another one tells me, “needless to say I was a bit anxious about [my first college class] but … I knew I was ready to hit every curve they throw at me. Thanks Murph for teaching me to trust my instincts and embrace the challenges. I’ll see you very soon, I’m sure of it. Best of luck with the JRP/SRP— better tell those juniors and seniors to bring it!”
So let’s bring it. All of us, together. Because it’s working.