Research is like a jigsaw but the pieces are hidden and you don’t know what the picture is until you’re finished

I tell the pupils a version of this all the time, usually when they’re frustrated at having to collect information from lots of different places. Most of them get the metaphor about jigsaw pieces, but the whole picture is a different problem.

Today a class was gathering information for their investigation when I started getting requests to help with their final reports. I’m confused. Surely they’ve only just started taking notes? But yes, they are attempting to write their report already, adding to it as they find a new bit of information. When the 10th kid asks for the same assistance, I call the entire group to a halt and we review the various stages involved in this piece of work.

  1. select specific task from list provided
  2. brainstorm possible ideas and keywords and existing knowledge
  3. locate the information required from available materials
  4. evaluate sources for reliablility
  5. decide whether to gather this information or not
  6. carefully gather information with proper note-taking (NOT copying)
  7. continue search for information
  8. ongoing review of information analysing what is still required and adapting search parameters accordingly
  9. synthesise data collected to create an overview – the whole picture
  10. write the report

Except that pupils are jumping from 1 to 3 to 6 (and copying verbatim, not making notes) to 10. Sorry, boys and girls, but that doesn’t work. You’re trying to write a report. A report that you can’t write yet because you don’t know what you’re going to write: you need the full picture first!

Unfortunately, investigations in the Library are heavily time restricted. Usually we have three periods – introduction and preparation, followed by two research periods, with the class writing their reports in their own time. Teaching staff are usually sympathetic to the research process, but also struggling to get through everything in the syllabus. And the Library often can’t accommodate more research time either, but it’s absolutey vital that the pupils understand how all these little pieces come together to make the whole picture, and why it’s necessary in the first place. So what can we do?

This was all at the back of my mind the other day when I saw the Sketchtoy website, which provides a space to draw online, and also allows drawings to be shared. I am no artist, at least not with a brush or pencil, and certainly not with a mouse. My mind cannot take an image, break it into its constituent parts, and arrange them back in the proper order. An imaginary picture is even worse. Where do you start? But watching in fascination as a Sketchtoy picture was recreated before me, I began to understand the process.

And that’s I wondered about sketching as a visual metaphor for the research process?

  • Can you take this picture apart?
  • Where would you start?
  • What different parts can you identify?

And then show them the video of the picture creation process. Once they’ve got the idea, then try the same with a report, and finally guide them through the investigation stage by stage. It’s the same as learning how something works by taking it apart first.

I know some will get incredibly frustrated at the delay (staff and pupils) but I think it’s worth trying. We’ll see what happens with the next investigation.