What Authentic Research Looks Like in Project-Based Learning

By AJ Juliani, 6 comments

Both of my sons love playing soccer. I grew up watching football and only played soccer very briefly (at the youth level) before going all in on American football throughout middle school and high school.

I watch football all of the time, coached football for years, and taught both of my boys how to throw a football (properly) by the time they turned three.

We, by all accounts, are a football household who watches every Philadelphia Eagles game (Super Bowl Champs!!!) and a lot of college football as well.

But, here we are with both of my sons playing soccer, loving the sport, and wanting to watch it.

And I was at a loss.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the game of soccer. I do. I love watching the World Cup, and I’ve played my fair share of FIFA video game over the years, but that wasn’t the problem.

The problem is that I didn’t KNOW anything about soccer.

I didn’t know the difference between the Premier League, La Liga, and the Champions League. I didn’t know who were good teams, or good players, beyond the Messi’s and Ronaldo’s of the world.

I wanted to know more about soccer and I started Googling around and guess what happened?

Information overload.

Too much at once and I couldn’t really follow it.

So, I jumped onto Instagram and followed two soccer accounts (BrFootball and PremiereLeague).

Within two days I understood the difference between leagues. Another five days and I had a grasp on who the best players were. A couple more days and I understood who were all the top teams in each of Europe’s major leagues. Who had qualified for the Champions League and who the past winners were (and who was expected to win).

I “researched” all about soccer, and only performed ONE web search, that got me little to no information.

Now, I keep up to date on all things futbol and I’m gearing up with my boys for the World Cup with knowledge and appreciation of what we are going to watch and experience together. I continually “research” just by checking my feeds as I normally do every day and having soccer information populate it on a regular basis.

How Does This Type of Research Work in School?

First, we have to acknowledge that we tend to do research in only one way (out of the many possible) in school. We often treat research as a JOB or TASK that students have to do in order to learn something.

This is where googling, and searching, and reading Wikipedia comes in to play. Sometimes we get books on the topic as well.

And, if you are lucky, the content is not boring and dry. But, too often the content is just that: BORING.

So, students believe research is boring. And they don’t like it.

When students only research out of compliance, instead of curiosity, we lose the power of learning.

Second, we have to acknowledge that research can be fun and entertaining. We can watch great videos, read stories, listen to podcasts, and follow accounts on our favorite social media platforms.

It actually should be fun and exciting to learn in these ways if we have a purpose that extends beyond getting a grade for school.

Randy Pausch on Learning and Having Fun at the Same Time

Third, we have to acknowledge that research can be both passive and active.

When my kids ask Amazon Alexa a question about something they are arguing about (were George Washington and Alexander Hamilton really friends?) that is active research.

But, they were also passively researching this same topic by listening to the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat for the past month and picking up the lyrics and story with each song.

This is why research can be so authentic in a project-based learning environment in our schools. It can be done in such a wide variety of ways that don’t include searching journal articles or hopping on to Wikipedia as the only options.

Both, journal articles and Wikipedia may be a part of the process in researching during PBL, but they’ll never be the only options.

Inquiry as the Driver to Authentic Research in a Project-Based Environment

“The more we have familiarized ourselves with PBL, the more we have come to realize it is a series of best practices joined together.” – Ross Cooper and Erin Murphy in Hacking Project-Based Learning

“What do you want to do today?”

“Where do you want to go for dinner?”

“What song should I put on?”

“Who said what???”

It seems all day long we are asking small questions. We ask questions in our family, at our workplace, in our schools, and online. There is no shortage of the questions we ask, or who we can ask them to, or what we ask them about.

Inquiry (which is the act of asking questions and researching) is not new. It’s something we do constantly.

But, when’s the last time you asked a BIG question?

Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, authors of the book, Make Just One Change: Teach Students to Ask Their Own Questions, explain the importance of asking these questions:

Coming up with the right question involves vigorously thinking through the problem, investigating it from various angles, turning closed questions into open-ended ones and prioritizing which are the most important questions to get at the heart of the matter.

We’ve been underestimating how well our kids can think.

We see consistently that there are three outcomes. One is that students are more engaged. Second, they take more ownership, which for teachers, this is a huge thing. And the third outcome is they learn more – we see better quality work.

I’m fairly sure we would all gladly welcome more engagement, more ownership, and better quality work!

Asking these big questions takes time, mental energy, and a willingness to go beyond the daily grind of simple questions and answers. It’s part mindset, part opportunity.

As a teacher, I found myself wishing/wanting/hoping for my students to ask big questions and challenge themselves to solve big problems.

Yet, I often did not encourage the mindset or provide ample opportunity for them to do so in my classroom and in our school.

That changed the moment I gave ownership back to my students with the Project Based Learning.

Our PBL experiences started with inquiry. They challenged students to ask big questions about big problems that mattered to them. And making that small tweak provided a huge spark in my class as they dove into research, brainstorming, ideating, prototyping, creating and eventually launching their work to an audience.

But, how do we begin to foster this inside our classroom? How can we get students to ask the right questions (and the big questions) instead of the daily small questions?

Asking the Right Questions

Phase Two of the Design Thinking LAUNCH Cycle is all about getting as many questions out in the open as possible. You can begin by telling students, “You know how teachers tell you that there are no stupid questions? Well, the only stupid question in a design project is ‘Should I ask this question?’ Because even a seemingly stupid question is a chance to learn.”

You can explain that some of the best inventions began with a “stupid” question about combining two seemingly different ideas. A vague, half-baked idea is often the spark of innovation that challenges the status quo.  

There’s a certain bravery in asking questions – especially when questions seem silly or the kind that may challenge the presuppositions of the crowd. If a student asks a question that “everybody knows,” that student is admitting ignorance. But here’s the thing: sometimes it’s the crowd that’s ignorant.

Here are some quick ways to get students in the mindset of asking big questions, and providing the opportunity for them to in class:

  1. Question everything. Do this as a teacher as well, it will model what we want our students to do.
  2. Start with inquiry.  The idea is simple. Instead of starting a class period off with a question you created as a teacher, give that back to the students and their own inquiry.
  3. Give feedback on questions. What makes a good question? A deep question? A big question? 
  4. Practice it often. Go beyond the LAUNCH Cycle to have students ask tons of questions. Put “inquiry” into every activity and lesson you do with students to build the culture of questioning.
  5. Spend more time playing. Seriously. Wonder is both something we can promote in schools but also something we can allow – and the best way we allow this to happen is by promoting play. 
  6. Provide support. Some students have a really hard time with questioning strategies.  In our book, LAUNCH, we provide you with a huge list of question stems to get students started.
  7. Embrace student choice. Choice may start with a question but it doesn’t need to stop there. Embrace the idea that students can learn different types of content while mastering the same skills.
  8. Reduce the fear. If students have had to spend most of their time getting the questions right, it can feel unnerving to be told that they can now ask their own questions.

Inquiry. It’s not a new idea.

There are those that believe Project-Based Learning, Genius Hour, and the LAUNCH Cycle are completely new ideas. But that’s not true, far from it.

Inquiry has been driving the progress of mankind for centuries, just as it is today. This type of “inquiry-based learning” is really just how we learn. 

Research is something that ALL of us do, ALL the time.

What’s important is acknowledging research as a major part of the learning process. A major part that we have to allow for, make time for, support, and praise. 

This quote from Anne Frank sums up the importance of inquiry and research perfectly:

“Ever since I was a little girl and could barely talk, the word ‘why’ has lived and grown along with me… When I got older, I noticed that not all questions can be asked and that many whys can never be answered. As a result, I tried to work things out for myself by mulling over my own questions. And I came to the important discovery that questions which you either can’t or shouldn’t ask in public, or questions which you can’t put into words, can easily be solved in your own head. So the word ‘why’ not only taught me to ask, but also to think. And thinking has never hurt anyone. On the contrary, it does us all a world of good.”

When I saw students in my class start with inquiry (instead of my teacher-directed questions) they were hooked on the one action that drives all learning: attention.

We tend to get students attention through necessity. Grades, due dates, and the process of schooling begs students to be compliant, follow the rules, and pay attention because they have to…

But what happens when students get tired of this game of school, or learn how to play it so well they aren’t truly learning, but instead just going through the motions?

They aren’t engaged. They aren’t empowered. And they tend to stop asking questions, let alone big questions.

Well, that’s where the idea of the “factory-model” of education comes into play. When students pay attention because they have to, and are compliant instead of engaged and empowered.

This, sadly, does not prepare our students to be the future movers and shakers we hope they will become.

And as Nobel laureate scientist Isidor Isaac Rabi explains, it can all be changed by focusing on questions:

“My mother made me a scientist without ever intending to. Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school, “So? Did you learn anything today?” But not my mother. “Izzy,” she would say, “did you ask a good question today?” That difference—asking good questions—made me become a scientist.”

I first saw Joy Kirr write, “Inquiry. It’s not a new idea.” The simplicity of those words spoke to me.

Innovation and creativity aren’t always new ideas. Sometimes they are ideas and practices that have worked for centuries but presented in a form that empowers our students today. 

Sometimes innovation and creativity have nothing to do with the latest technology, but instead, have everything to do with what we focus our time and attention on.

Let’s bring it back to inquiry to start our projects and learning adventures. It works. It empowers. And it makes research as authentic as it is during our everyday lives.

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