A teacher walks into the LRC, or sends an e-mail, inquiring about booking time for some research.

Danger Point 1 (have flak jacket on stand-by)

What are they investigating?

See, if you’re lucky, said teacher will accept that you have a legitimate interest in providing research materials for their class.  Otherwise,

I’ve got it all sorted, thanks!

And, true, I’ve seen some fabulous investigations where teachers did indeed have a wonderful collection of materials all ready. Rarely have I not been able to add to that collection though. That’s not insulting any teaching staff, but pointing out the obvious: that the librarian / information specialist could lay their hands on relevant information (the clue’s in the name).

However, for the purposes of this post, let’s assume the former, because a far more insidious threat now approaches.

Danger Point 2 (fix smile on face)

Well, we’re studying Topic X just now, so they’re coming to find out about a type of Y

where X is a work of literature or art or the latest unit of work.

And at this point I do my best not to cringe, because the teacher, for all their good intentions, might just as well have said,

I want the class to copy and paste a pile of information from a variety of resources and make it look pretty.

Again, I mean no disrespect. I’ve been involved with plenty of hard working teaching staff sweating our way through investigations, encouraging note taking and using own words and creating bibliographies, and we still end up with beautiful examples of someone else’s art.

I’ve seen this type of investigation referred to as a Bird Unit or a Dinosaur Unit (as in, investigate a kind of …) but I prefer the latter, for its additional metaphorical went-out-with-the-dinosaurs twist.

In my experience, most people can find information, the difficulty is knowing what to use (and conversely, what to leave out), but ninja level information literacy is knowing what to do with it. Asking pupils a more complicated question can actually make their lives easier in the long term. If research at its simplest means discovering who, what, where, when and why, then shouldn’t we provide our students with a similar template?

For example, we commonly ask 2nd year pupils to write blog posts based in some way on their current literature study. This could be as simple as,

Choose something mentioned in [literary work in question] and find out more about it.

OK, seems straightforward, but write what exactly? Adding a little postscript can make all the difference:

Choose something mentioned in [literary work in question] and find out more about it. How does this information help to explain the work?

Or how about this?

Types of Y are mentioned throughout Work X. Choose one to investigate and explain why you chose it.

It might only mean a few additional words, but it can make all the difference in making the investigation relevant to those doing the investigating.

Research should involve gathering a whole lot of evidence to use to come to your own conclusions.  The investigation I am proudest of creating was ‘What happened to the Ninth Legion‘ which explained that this Roman legion appears to vanish from history and asked pupils to work out what happened to it. It wasn’t the easiest piece of research ever, there were no ‘answers’ anywhere, and we had to help the class to use their evidence to suggest possible solutions for themselves, but once they got the idea, listening to their reasoning was an absolute joy. Best of all, there were no ‘wrong’ answers, only alternative hypotheses.

Not every topic will lend itself to this level of research, but there’s always room to ask, ‘Why?’