Illuminating Research: pushing concepts and metaphors

  • What model do you use, if any, and how effective is it (conceptually and as a visual representation), given your curriculum and age group? 
  • Which phases of the inquiry do you find students have the most difficulty with?  Are they skill-based problems?  Or conceptual?  Can you give examples?
  • Which phases are easiest?
  • Which concepts and/or skills do you think are the most important to teach for your age range?
  • Any favorite strategies / mini-lessons / metaphors for teaching them?
  • How is research/inquiry visible in your classroom?  What are your favorite tools for making the process visible and/or assessing prior, formative, and summative knowledge, whether collective or individual?
  • Any examples you can share of visualizations or evidence of inquiry?
  • Are there any books you feel serve well as mentor texts for inquiry/research?
  • What are your favorite resources relating to research/inquiry?  (e.g., books, blogs, people, theories)
  • What level of referencing do you think is reasonable for your age group?

Last month in Prague, I got the chance to dive deep with small groups of teacher-librarians on the concepts behind teaching research -- at the School Librarian Connection conference.

My preparation for the workshop began with a survey -- for both teachers and librarians* --  and those questions provided the basic outline of my half-day sessions (the morning one focused on primary school, the afternoon on secondary).

Research models are the most obvious visual place to start.

Workshop participants responded to some models highlighted in my slides in extended table discussions and then by hand annotations on a wall chart -- as the slides below show.

Of particular interest was the new (unpublished) UWCSEA East model, heavily influenced by two of our gurus: Kath Murdoch for inquiry, and Cathryn Berger Kaye for service learning (e.g.,  her MISO (Media / Interview / Survey / Observation) approach). 

Kath does a lot of work with international schools, and I pointed out that both UWCSEA and our host, the International School of Prague, are thanked in the acknowledgements of her recent book, The Power of Inquiry. Only one other school was familiar with Cathryn Berger Kaye's work, but raved about her as an on-site presenter and consultant.

We then considered overall metaphors for research, e.g., the journey, and the difference between skills and concepts -- before mapping and discussing ones we felt were easier or harder for particular age groups.

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The full set of slides from my presentation are below.  I ended the session by running through some of my favorite metaphors related to research.

Pointing out the errors of their ways -- when it comes to referencing and bibliographies

Inspired by the wordless "Travelers T-Shirt" (right) -- see…/tshirt-icons-for-travelers-iconsp… -- and prompted by an IBO Diploma Programme workshop on the Extended Essay, Kurt Wittig (my counterpart at our parallel campus) and I developed the poster below (yes, it's Creative Commons, so download and use). 

In the workshop, the leaders admonished us about giving students too much specific feedback on their essays, especially by correcting citations -- though they said we could look and identify types of problems.

So Kurt and I joked that we needed to make T-shirts, like the wordless one above, where you could communicate by just pointing to icons.  A quick visual way to give students big hints about things possibly wrong somewhere in their essay, e.g., relating to referencing and/or the bibliography.  And then let them go find and correct their own errors. 

We started by making the poster below.  (The T-shirts have yet to be produced....)

POSTER: 10 Common Errors

The problem of self-plagiarism was raised at the same IB workshop, so that was included.  Another one students are often unaware of is the fact that you can't put anything in your bibliography that you don't actually cite in your paper -- what we have called" Extra references" (though it could also have been called "Padding your bibliography").  "No author voice" refers to writing which can be all perfectly paraphrased and cited, but where no analysis or original thinking is evident.  (It's not a "conversation" unless you contribute something!)

Kurt and I also had fun developing an activity for our students based on Turnitin's White Paper Plagiarism Spectrum -- an incredibly useful list of 10 types of unoriginal work.   We thought how great it would be to give students the task of sorting the infractions from "most academically dishonest" to "most honest."

But first we had to do it ourselves.  Below is our result (moving from left to right, most dishonest to least dishonest), though (truth be told) I'm not sure now that I can justify each position.  But that's the beauty.  You have to figure it out for yourself and come up with your own justifications -- each time.

What NOT to do....

We give groups of students ( 3 to 4 max) each a set of 10 Turnitin cards and see how they organize them, from worst to least worst.   It's a very interesting exercise.

If you feel like trying it with your students, click here for a link to a folder with seven PDFs of the set of cards, each color-coded and ready to be printed out (on A5 or whatever).  A downloaded copy of the full Turnitin White Paper Plagiarism Spectrum study can also be found there.


Expert learning in the library.... and classroom

I've been meaning to blog about Andrew Abbott, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago, for two years now -- ever since I saw him present at the American Library Association conference in Chicago.

Though his sphere is graduate students for the most part, his insights -- as a sociologist -- into how students do (or don't do) research and use libraries can be applied to all of us as professional learners -- and to our own (younger) students.  Abbott clearly loves libraries and has written quite a few papers on the history of academic libraries and research tools.  Besides what nuggets of notes I'm going to pass on here, you should go to his webpage at the University of Chicago and read a few of his papers related to libraries - in particular, The Future of Knowing.

First of all, he sees teaching research as basically teaching project management -- and argues that, because teaching is a necessary means of knowing what you do, self-ethnography is the only way to really teach researching.  He forces graduate students to keep diaries and then to teach others what they've learned about themselves as researchers.  (Good 'ole reflection and communication...)

Abbott claims experts mainly wander in the library.  They don't particularly take advantage of general bibliographies or reference books (or even the library reference desk).  Instead they prefer to mine (or ransack) other people's bibliographies - extensively.  Which is good advice for any researcher -- even a someone starting at Wikipedia -- i.e., to go to the bottom of the page and find out where they got their information.

As library research is fundamentally not linear, students are always in danger of getting lost.  Being a mature researcher is about learning what to ignore.  This is where (that trendy word) "mindfulness" comes in.  Trying to stay alert, to see beyond the frame of what is in front of you, to keep your peripheral vision ready to sense the bigger picture.  (Who is that person behind the curtain?  And why are they saying what they're saying?)

Design thinking squiggle (originally from IDEO; see  video explanation ) - which I think is a perfect image for how library research goes....

Design thinking squiggle (originally from IDEO; see video explanation) - which I think is a perfect image for how library research goes....

Abbott argues that research is not about finding things.  It's about knowing and guessing what to look for -- and then recognizing when you've found something you ought to have looked for in the first place.  That wandering time may feel aimless or useless -- until you find the thing that matters.  The thing that answers your question -- or changes your question.

"Follow your passion" is a popular refrain -- when asking students to come up with their research question (e.g., in the IB Diploma Extended Essay process).  I counsel students looking for a research question to "Follow your attention." (Again, mindfulness....)

What do you click on?  What books do you pick up from a library display?  Notice what your brain desires.  Maybe your subconscious (that fast thinking part of your brain) is trying to tell you something.  Because that may lead you to the best research question -- for you.

Abbott points out that sometimes the best thing to research is the thing you have the most data about.  Work with the materials at hand.  Find a question that interests you within a detailed realm you have access to.  Which brings up that design thinking model on the intersection of desirability (interest), feasibility (assigned task), and viability (resources at hand).  Viability -- what you have to work with -- is key.  

See previous blog post on  Design Thinking and Research....

See previous blog post on Design Thinking and Research....

Students must realize is that all research questions are puzzles within a puzzle -- and every answer is only true within a particular context.  As he says:

A given piece of information or interpretation is knowledge only with respect to a particular project of knowing.  Until you have your project figured out, you can't say what knowledge is.

Which reminds me of another session I attended at that ALA, where a university librarian told how he would let students browse a visual photographic archive they had and ask them to choose an image (e.g., a page from a 1950s women's magazine or a political cartoon from a newspaper in the 1880s) and then to formulate a research question for which that image would be a primary source.  And then to consider, for what question would it be a secondary source? (Which feeds back into one of the ACRL information literacy threshold conceptsAuthority is constructed and contextual.)

Abbott has his own list of threshold concepts he tries to get across to students.

One is the important difference between the (keyword-based) concordance-style indexing found via an internet search and the (ideas-based) subject indexing in the back of old-fashioned books (done by people, though computers are currently trying to learn it). 

Finding things on the internet is the students' principal model of cognition.  Their sad belief is that the key to a book is in some subset of sentences that you can search, highlight, and copy.

I love how Abbott enforced close reading in his classroom.  In "The Future of Knowing" he talks about how he assigned undergraduates as homework to memorize 2 or 3 sentences from the required reading (e.g., Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations) -- and silently meditate on them for 15 minutes.  In class he then asked students to write those sentences down from memory -- to hand to him each day.  He says this exercise transformed their reading -- which for him means "using a text as a stimulus for a complex reflection."  The paper the students were later assigned to write on Adam Smith was to take five of their meditation passages and turn them into an argument about Adam Smith.

He believes students need to appreciate that books, by virtue of their length, have arguments and direction that websites often don't.  He says the best students are the ones who can create an outline of a book's argument, revealing the structure of the text.

Anyway, go read him yourself.  His curmudgeonly complaints about undergraduate and graduate students as researchers will be terribly familiar, but I appreciate his long view as an academic and a sociologist, and he reminds me about the importance -- and difficulty -- of meta-cognition in the research process.











Design Thinking for the Research Process (e.g., the IBO Extended Essay)

Design thinking is pretty mainstream these days, infiltrating many domains (e.g., see the Harvard Business Review article, "Design Thinking Comes of Age" in the September 2015 issue).

When it comes to libraries, design thinking is usually invoked as a methodology either for group-solving problems related to the functional aspects of a library, or for patrons designing and creating things in a special "making" space in the library.

From Michelle Ha Tucker presentation, cited below

From Michelle Ha Tucker presentation, cited below

 "Design Thinking for Libraries: a toolkit for patron-centered design," published by IDEO in January 2015, exemplifies the first -- where the human-centred approach and process mindset of design thinking is applied to finding creative solutions to challenges in the day-to-day life of a library. 

Michelle Ha Tucker from IDEO recently gave a short presentation on "Innovation By Design" at the Leadership Roundtable on Library Innovation, hosted by the Aspen Institute.   She argued libraries are a perfect place to try design thinking because they are "living laboratories" with a steady stream of users to observe and create experiments with, on top of the fact that librarians are great service designers.  Watch a video of her presentation via Jason Griffey's blogpost here. (John Seely Brown's talk on "Re-Imagining Libraries" is also worth watching; I like how he suggest libraries are a place where you can/should find the intersection of homo sapiens (thinking), homo faber (making), and homo ludens (playing).)

From Michelle Ha Tucker presentation, cited above

From Michelle Ha Tucker presentation, cited above

Libraries, both public and school, are increasingly involved in the makerspace movement -- providing people with access to materials and equipment (especially 3D printers, laser cutters, milling machines, and programmable chips like the Arduino) in a space where they can come together to be creative and make things -- and design thinking has obvious applications to the maker culture.

But for school librarians, the design thinking conceptual models coming out of IDEO are probably of greatest application to the inquiry/research process

Rather than a rigid framework with specific steps, design thinking encourages a mindset of being creatively confident, recognizing that projects always start off very foggy, and only through mindful, iterative effort to "see" (via reading and exploring a topic) do possible resolutions emerge.  That research should always open up new questions and inquirers need to be comfortable along the way with ambiguity, rather than quick answers.

In my own situation, design thinking offers valuable meta-cognitive support to our high school students doing the IBO (International Baccalaureate Organisation) Diploma Extended Essay (EE), an independent, 4000-word research paper.

My drawing of Tim Brown's cycle - based on a drawing in his 2009 book.  I noticed that in Michelle Ha Tucker's slide, the word "Implementation" is now "Iteration."

My drawing of Tim Brown's cycle - based on a drawing in his 2009 book.  I noticed that in Michelle Ha Tucker's slide, the word "Implementation" is now "Iteration."

In a previous blog post, I compared Tim Brown's design thinking process to Carol Kuhlthau's - see

And since then I've only come to appreciate it more.

Our EE program is divided into three parts over the course of a year -- which roughly conforms to the three design thinking stages -- Inspiration, Ideation, Implementation.  From November 1st to December 15th, our grade 11 students are introduced to the Extended Essays and asked to think about something that interests them and do broad reading and inquiry -- the Inspiration phase -- in order to turn that idea into an acceptable Research Question (RQ). 

Phase two of the EE is from January to August -- which is the Ideation and draft writing phase, and from August to the end of October is the Implementation phase, for final editing and polishing -- and submission.

Below are images of the pamphlet we hand out to each student in November (yes, a paper copy).  It's an A3 printout, folded into an A5 brochure, with the inside A4 space showing the timeline, and the A3 inside, unfolded sheet showing the Checklist for students and supervisors.

In design thinking, two important constraints come into consideration after you get an idea (something you desire to design) -- viability and feasibility.  In his book, Tim Brown quotes the famous designer Charles Eames as saying the mark of a designer is a willing embrace of constraints.

The IDEO intersection of innovation -- taken from

The IDEO intersection of innovation -- taken from

As we ask each student to follow their passion, we must also help them to appreciate the constraints on their inquiry, in terms of the IBO and their school.   Does their research question (RQ) satisfy the requirements of the assignment, i.e., the EE subject brief as set by the IBO?  And can our school provide the necessary support for the research question, in terms of a knowledgeable supervisor, material and equipment for any experiments, and other resources?

For the EE, the ideal Research Question (RQ) satisfies student interest (Desirability), IBO requirements for a subject area (e.g., if doing a History topic, the research question must be on something at least ten years in the past), and our school's (United World College of SE Asia- UWC) ability to provide support and resources (books, databases, equipment, etc.) for such a research question.

For the EE, the ideal Research Question (RQ) satisfies student interest (Desirability), IBO requirements for a subject area (e.g., if doing a History topic, the research question must be on something at least ten years in the past), and our school's (United World College of SE Asia- UWC) ability to provide support and resources (books, databases, equipment, etc.) for such a research question.

I then show students this design thinking concept -- alternating divergent and convergent phases of inquiry. When they come to me for help, I ask them which phase they are in.  Do they want me to help them find more material?  Or do they need me to help them sort out what they've found and pick the best ones, before going back out to look for more?  Do they think they need more? 

The design thinking "Inspiration - Ideation - Implementation" cycle also repeats itself, as new information comes to light. 

Which reminds me of one of my favorite library science papers -- "New shit has come to light: Information seeking behavior in The Big Lebowski" - by Emily Dill and Karen L. Janke (2010).  Go treat yourself....