I'm working on an I-Search project with the 9th grade Thinking & Writing classes; kind of a "get your feet wet, learn the basics" project. We've talked about defining a topic, identifying key words and ideas, where and how to search, evaluating sources, and citations. It's a good way for me to get to know more about them as researchers (so future instruction can be better designed), and for them to both explore a topic of interest and get a bit more comfortable with the research process.
But many of them are struggling. And I'm struggling. Not necessarily with the process or the ideas or the few things about research that are nice and neat and linear--just the parts of research that aren't nice and neat and linear. Which is, you know, most of them.
Research, I think many of us would agree, is an iterative process. You search, there's new questions and dead ends and unexpected turns, so you regroup and refocus and re-search. And that's difficult and uncomfortable, especially when you're just starting out as a researcher, but you get better at it--and, if you're anything like me, you begin to enjoy the journey of research almost as much as the answer you find at the end (assuming you even get to the "end"). I know not everyone comes to enjoy the process of research, but my hope is that students at least become comfortable and confident with the ups and downs of the process.
Only that's really, really not happening for a number of my students, and a lot of their frustration is kind of heartbreaking for me.
For those of you who don't know, the school I work at serves students with learning disabilities--dyslexia, ADD/ADHD, executive functioning disorders, etc. These are kids who, oftentimes, have been really and truly beat up by the educational system. They have been made to feel stupid. They have been exhorted to "just try harder" when they really are trying their hardest. They have often been denied the supports they need to learn. And a big part of what we do here--particularly in the first couple years--is put in those supports and help them learn how to learn the way they learn best. We take what had been a messy, unknowable process--learning--and give it structure and sequence.
Only that doesn't work for research. There's no way I can create an authentic research assignment that also proceeds in a linear fashion. Throw in website evaluation and citation and you have three often messy, confusing processes.
Frankly, sometimes I'm surprised that more students don't break down in tears or give up in frustration.
And I don't know what to do. I know that I need to create authentic research opportunities for my students. I know that they need to get comfortable with the ups and downs and ins and outs of the research process. But when they experience initial failure, they often shut down--and I get it. Years of being made to feel like you can't learn will wear a kid down. And it breaks my heart when I see a smart kid who assumes that they're struggle with research is a reflection on them, and not a reflection of the fact that it is a difficult process for everyone.
So how do we make students--particularly students who believe that failure means there is something wrong with them--comfortable with the idea of failure being part of the process?