Thanks to all who joined myself and Sylvia Norton for the webinar last Thursday, and especially for the responses and questions that really helped to frame and guide the discussion.
The webinar was a two parter, the first part looking at getting the research process underway by looking at essential questions, the building blocks of a research project, and the second part looking at MARVEL, Maine’s virtual library.
Looking at essential questions, I tried to uncover what makes an essential question ‘essential’. Some thoughts on this: Essential questions are both the jumping off point for the research process, and the overarching theme of the project undertaken. An essential question is the big idea, crafted to stimulate thought and ideas, and a proven method of sustained inquiry.
An essential question is not looking for a definitive answer, and truly should not be answered. It should be a recurring question at every stage of the research process, to keep the student focussed and also to stimulate deeper inquiry.
Here are some examples of essential questions that have been used by participants in the webinar:
‘What makes music great?’
‘How does geography impact culture?’
‘How are people’s lives influenced by war?’
‘Why is economic development uneven across the globe?’
These questions have many points of entry, and the work that students will create from these questions will be varied, multi textured and personal.
During the webinar, I attempted to deconstruct the essential question into it’s particular elements. What makes an essential question essential?
Firstly, it’s open ended. It invites different avenues of thought, it encourages diversity in attempting to answer it, and very possibly it has no definitive answer. There are no incorrect responses to an essential question.
Secondly, it is open to interpretation. This means that all students can access the question, and have an intellectual and personal response to the question. For a research project where students must demonstrate critical thinking and judgement, this is important. Students must be able to connect to the concepts under study to make the work authentic.
It is worth noting here again that the essential question is the jumping off point for a research project. When students are first presented with an essential question, a period of reflection and initial information gathering should take place, to start to formulate the direction a student will take in the project. Our job as the teacher here is to guide the student in creating secondary, or foundational, questions that the student is asking about the theme or topic. We can help to solidify thoughts and make their ideas about the project more manageable.
Essential questions should be provocative. Intellectual juices should start flowing, and a hunger for knowledge should develop. The questions should be engaging, and therefore ag appropriate for the students in the class. An assessment of prior knowledge should be part of the the formulation of the essential question, to make sure that students can access the ideas behind it.
Finally, essential questions present an opportunity for new learning for every student. This means that they need to be wide ranging, in order to encompass every student’s experience, and not too focussed so that it will elicit responses of ‘I already know this’ or ‘We did this last year’.
During the live webinar, I presented the participants with some examples of new learning, and asked them to provide what they thought may have been the essential question that lead to this new knowledge.
The first example, the moon landings of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, elicited these responses:
‘What’s out there?’
‘Where do we go from here?’
‘What makes humans seek beyond themselves?’
‘What are the limits of mankind?’
The second example is Elvis Presley’s first album from 1956, generally considered to be ground zero of rock and roll. Here are the essential questions that lead to this moment:
‘When is ‘different’ better?’
‘How does music influence society?’
‘How can celebrity influence performers?’
‘How does technology change music?’
The thrid and final example is George Orwell’s novel ‘1984’. Here are the responses to this piece of learning:
‘Have dreams become our destiny?’
‘Could this happen to us?’
‘Why do we have government?’
‘When does protection become oppression?’
Some tools that could be used by students when getting to grips with an essential question at the beginning of a project, to help them construct secondary, or foundational questions:
OmniGraffle – concept mapping, to help students find visual links between ideas.
Noteshare Notebook – gather preliminary research findings
Flickr – provide a visual response to a key word search
A wiki – collect group ideas on the essential question
iChat / Skype – for use as a sounding board for ideas around the essential question.
Sylvia Norton, the School Library / Technology Planning Coordinator for the Maine Department of Education, took us on a tour through MARVEL, Maine’s Virtual Library. MARVEL is an unparalleled information portal in the state, a collection of database and catalog resources provided free to the citizens of Maine. Access is via a school / library network, or with a valid Maine library card number. Users have access to thousands of magazine, journal, and newspaper articles, and also books online.
For using with an essential questions, Sylvia first guided us to look at Brittanica Online School Edition, an encyclopedia that sets out to provide the preliminary search with an overview of the topic, with an easy to navigate interface that allows the student user to quickly delve deeper into a topic.
Also noted were the Student Research Center, an EBSCO database, with access to thousands of full text articles, which can be saved in user generated folders for quick access in the future. The beauty of the Student Research Center is that it provides a great visual interface for the researcher, giving them a quick picture of where they would benefit from searching.
Other places that Sylvia discussed as being great places for gathering an overview of a topic, or finding some deeper leads into a research project:
Novelist and Novelist Plus – a database of fiction and non-fiction (Novelist Plus) titles, with plot synopsis and suggestions for further reading. Searchable by title and author, as could be expected, but also by plot type and summary.
Maine Newstand: Full text articles from the five Maine daily newspapers, updated for the most recent editions. In addition to this, ProQuest offers articles from over 500 national and international news sources.
Mentioned as useful by participants, MARVEL also housed ERIC, a collection of articles from education journals. And my personal favorite, for information on wold countries and cultures, is the World Data Analyst, containing up to date statistics on many aspects of every country in the world.
Thanks again to all who joined us, and join us again on February 11th, when I’ll be looking at using digital tools to structure and carry out a research project.