By Dr. Carol Horn
K-12 Program Coordinator Department of Instructional Services
Fairfax County Public Schools
Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from Horn’s upcoming book, “The 10 Big Ideas: How to help your child think bigger, imagine more, and do better in school”
Teaching children how to research is a critical skill that can start early and will serve them for a lifetime. In today’s world, where so much information is readily available at our fingertips, it is never too early to begin to teach children how to search with a “critical eye.”
Opportunities to conduct in-depth research allow children to discover and explore a wide range of topics that connect to personal interests and encourage inquiring minds. As they search for knowledge and data about topics that are connected to real-world issues, personal interests, and relevant concerns, children learn the value of searching for information through a wide variety of resources.
They also discover and practice investigative and formal research techniques that train them to develop abstract ideas, use inductive thinking, see connections, and solve problems.
The research process itself teaches them to organize, apply, and evaluate information and data that they can collect from multiple sources and then use that information for a project, a purchase, a personal goal, or to help solve a real-world problem.
In order to strengthen and refine their thinking and communication skills, children need opportunities to explore topics they are interested in and share what they learn with others.
The Road to Action
1. Begin with a journal.
The journal can be online or a notebook as long as it’s a place where children can record the journey of their search for information.
- Make it personal and suggest that they write it in using the first-person point of view. This way it becomes a story of their search and they can record what they do, what they learn, and what they think about the information as they learn it.
- They can also write down new questions that surface as they record and think about what they find out. They not only gain an understanding of their topic from many different sources, they gradually formulate their own opinions based on evidence and become personally involved in the quest for knowledge.
2. Choose a topic.
Maybe your child has expressed interest in a topic either out of curiosity or because they want to make a purchase. Topics are unlimited—it could be on anything from soccer balls and bicycles to solar-powered vehicles to a question about why so many snakeheads are in the Potomac River.
- Deciding what to research can prompt a lot of good thinking and discussion as children consider different options. It is important for your child to search for information on a topic that he or she truly cares about. Encourage your child to use the journal to record what they would like to learn more about and why it is important to them.
- In this step, children should record not only why they chose their topic, but also what sparked their initial interest.
For example: One child who decided to investigate snakeheads wrote in her journal:
“I was fishing with my dad in the river and I caught a large fish that looked different from any fish I had ever seen before. When I asked my dad what it was, he explained that it was a snakehead and they were an invasive species. I wanted to learn more so we took a picture of the fish and this is how my research journey began … One of the things that puzzled me was that this fish was an invasive species and I wanted to know more about that … where did they come from, who brought them here.”
3. Record everything you already know about the topic, and make a list of questions or areas of interest that you would like to pursue.
- One strategy that can help children organize information and ideas in unique and personal ways is a mind map. Mind mapping is a lot of fun.
- You and your child can write a word or draw a circle in the middle of a page. Next, draw lines and new circles to ideas and words or pictures that connect to the original word.
For example: Maybe your child is interested in space. Together you could create a mind map of all that your child knows about space. Then add things that she wants to investigate. Mind mapping also gives children an understanding of the breadth of a topic, and it can help them narrow down their research to one or more specific areas. As they map out their thinking they are able to see connections among related ideas.
This thinking skill is especially important for visual learners and may be used throughout the research process as children gain more in-depth knowledge of their topic.
4. Ask for help!
Once the search begins, children will need help and guidance in finding sources of information.
- It is important that these sources are a combination of books, site visits, online research, letter writing, interviews, and any other resource that would provide facts and data about their chosen topic.
- As they learn information, encourage them to record what they learn and list new questions as they surface.
- If they like using a mind map, the mind maps can help to illustrate their search and the connections they make. A good book for learning more about mind maps is Mind Mapping for Kids: How Elementary School Students Can Use Mind Maps to Improve Reading Comprehension and Critical Thinking, by Toni Krasnic.
5. Write about your research in your own words.
Keeping a journal and recording the information their search turns up gives children an opportunity to encapsulate or practice putting what they learn into their own words.*
Encapsulation is the art of sharing ideas or information as succinctly as possible. It is the ability to share the essence of a story, experience, or other information in a concise, precise form.
- Though encapsulation requires using as few words as possible, the intention of the original idea must not be lost.
- Writing about what they learn in their own words gives children important writing practice and strengthens their confidence in expressing ideas in their own words.
- Having to summarize what they’ve learned also helps children understand the essence of an idea or information.
6. Express how you feel about the information and your search as it progresses.
- Encourage your child to start by writing a letter or email to a person, expert, or organization whose work focuses on their topic.
- When they receive a response, they may be excited because it includes lots of new information and answers a lot of their questions, or they may be disappointed because they received a form letter or no response at all.
- Reflection is an important part of the research process. Encourage your child to note their surprises and disappointments as well as how their own thinking changes as they learn and reflect on that learning.
7. Conduct an interview with an expert in the research subject, if possible.
Your child may need help finding someone to interview; however, the process of conducting the interview will strengthen their confidence as well as their communication skills.
- Encourage them to write down their questions ahead of time, and then practice interviewing you or another member of the family.
- During the actual interview, children may take notes or record the interview.
- Sometimes a site visit can be combined with an interview.
For example: One child heard his parents talking about how the county they lived in wanted to build a road through a wetlands area and that some people that were against this idea. He wanted to learn more, so he asked his parents to take him to the wetlands where he could interview a ranger. This visit led to more interviews; he interviewed a local official, a transportation expert, and some commuters.
Through the various interviews, he learned the importance of having good information and considering all different points of view. He also read newspaper articles and editorials about the controversy. As he learned about the wetlands, he decided that more people needed to be educated about this important part of the ecosystem.
His experiencing researching the wetlands gave him an opportunity to learn how citizens become involved in their communities, and he learned about the different forums he could use to share what he learned.
It also gave him a better appreciation for the complexity of real-world problems and the importance of using knowledge to inform opinions.
8. Share your findings and/or take action with the information you have learned.
- Children may want to write letters, create a video, construct a model, or make a picture collage to inform and share what they have learned with others.
- If your child is researching a product that they would like to purchase, such as a new computer tablet or lacrosse equipment, ask the child to select and justify which brand he or she wants to purchase and why.
It is exciting to watch and encourage children to develop their own thoughts and opinions as they become better informed. As long as the topic is one in which they have a strong interest, children will spend a tremendous amount of time and energy researching, reflecting, and finding ways to share and take action with their new information.
About Dr. Carol Horn
Dr. Carol V. Horn is coordinator of Advanced Academics Programs (former Gifted and Talented Programs) for Fairfax County Public Schools in Northern Virginia.
She has worked in gifted education for the past 20 years and has a Master of Education in Educational Psychology with an Emphasis on Gifted from the University of Virginia.
She earned her doctorate in Teacher Preparation and Special Education from The George Washington University and is the 2002 recipient of the Hollingsworth Award from the National Association for Gifted Children for outstanding research study in the field of gifted education.