Activating Students as Researchers Part 1- Considering and refining your topic

I’m changing tack for this first post for week 2 in #28daysofwriting.

The main subject I teach is Research Project, which is a compulsory, independent subject, that all students need to pass (achieve a “C” grade or better) in order to complete their school studies. If you haven’t heard of it, you can find out more about it here. It really is the most incredible subject, and I love the challenge of supporting students to transition from the teacher directed model, into a self directed one.

We are currently in the “planning” phase of our projects, and the challenge is in supporting students to document their “Visible Thinking” that enables them to select and refine their topic. At the moment, the students are struggling with the fact that there are no right answers!…and that I’m more concerned with their understanding of the process they employed to select and refine their topic – than I am with the topic itself. Over the years, I have developed a number of tools that help me track each student’s level of understanding, allowing me to engage in the critical and clarifying conversations required to support them to transition.

Using the language of the Performance Standards: This may be a no-brainer, but it’s essential in providing the actionable, formative feedback that students require to improve their work. As a class we pull apart each standard, in this case “Consideration and refinement of a topic” define what it could mean, and what “evidence” of this could look like. From that point on, all discussion is phrased with reference to the standard:

  • “Show me where you have evidence of how you considered the different aspects of your topic”
  • “I love the way you have used this mindmap to show all of the different topics you considered to come up with this question. What constraints are going to help you refine this into your final question” etc…

I find this focus on the process and the standards has a couple of advantages in shifting students into the independent research / learning space:

  • Takes the focus away from the content – This allows for more considered planning, and enables deeper reflection at the end of the subject
  • Provides a scaffold for the “What next questions” (Next is planning research processes appropriate to the question for those who are interested)
  • Is open enough to allow individual choice and ownership, but structured enough to support the full range of students to develop the skills required to be successful.

Lastly, as you can imagine, with a class of 28 students, 250 minutes per week that’s about 9 minutes per student, per week…nowhere near enough time to engage in the deep, learning conversations required to support the individual development. So I use Google Forms to track student progress…Here’s the google forms planning tool that the students are currently using…as a teacher, using google forms as a checklist is awesome for the following reasons:

  • Students can link specific evidence of performance and share to me via google drive (Always available to be marked)
  • All the students links are compiled in a spreadsheet (I can easily group students who are struggling with a particular process)
  • Provides a scaffold for the “What next” question…freeing me up for individual learning conversations.
  • Identify students in need of extension.
  • Easily share innovative examples of student work.

Tomorrow’s post is on selecting and refining your research processes.

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