Helping Students Foster Critical Thinking and Research Skills
Ilana Garon is a writer, editor, and educator who has taught English (and sometimes math, in emergencies) in New York City, Nashville, and Kansas City. She is the author of “Why Do Only White People Get Abducted by Aliens?”: Teaching Lessons from the Bronx (Skyhorse, 2013). Ilana is a military spouse currently stationed in Washington, DC with her family.
One of my most entrenched memories of elementary school surrounds a project I did in 6th grade, while studying ancient Rome. This was the early 1990s, when personal computing was just getting started—and home internet access wasn’t really a thing yet. My teacher had assigned a short report on the Circus Maximus, but, to my dismay, our history textbook only had about one paragraph on the subject. What was I to do?
My plan was to simply write what the textbook said, falling well short of the two hand-written page requirement, and relying on the excuse that the textbook didn’t have enough information, so that was all I could possibly be expected to know about it. (Full disclosure: I was not a great student.) My mother, however, had other ideas. First, she sat me down and made me write questions about the Circus Maximus: In what era was this circus? What kinds of acts did people come to see? What types of people attended?
Then, when I finished the list, my mom took me to our local library. The librarian helped me find a handful of books with sections about the Circus Maximus. With my mom’s help, I used the index to find those sections, and I took notes. I was able to write a paper that impressed my teacher enough that she read it aloud to the class. It was the proudest moment of my entire 6th grade year.
The Pitfalls of Research in a New Generation
I thought often about my Circus Maximus project when I taught high school. It became evident that, due to the many advances in digital technology over the two decades between my own middle school years and my time as a teacher, it was unlikely that my students would have the same experiences I did. Attempts to replicate my childhood research process with students yielded mixed results: A visit to the library in advance of any major research paper was always met with groans and eye-rolling, and quick abandonment of any book in which they couldn’t quickly find what they were looking for. When left to choose sources independently, their first step would inevitably be an internet keyword search, and—if it didn’t yield instant results—panic and talk of quitting. “There’s nothing on this, Miss Garon,” they would tell me dramatically. “I need to change my topic.”
Ricardo Vela, an 8th grade U.S. history teacher I spoke with in White Plains, NY, runs into the same issues with his students—and offers some insights into why: “I don’t think they are being taught these skills in elementary grades,” he says. “I don’t think they do many research projects, either. This is not a dig at their teachers, but rather a criticism of the fact that elementary school teachers have to focus a lot of their time on preparing students for state ELA and math exams.”
Moreover, Vela finds that today’s students are unsure of how to manage the sheer amount of information available online. The internet offers a good deal of inaccurate and irrelevant content, he points out, alongside many worthwhile materials—and students struggle to tell which is which. It can also be challenging to pare down their findings to focus on one discrete topic. The variable quality of information becomes an even bigger problem, explains Vela, when “students think that they can look at one website and have everything they need.”
Students Struggling to Dig Deeper
The challenges students face with research, Vela contends, are not just about knowing how to find information; they’re also about thinking deeply about that information and making connections.
“Our students are trained from a young age to be able to look at a reading, pull out answers to questions, and cite evidence,” says Vela. “But asking them to go beyond the text, and evaluate and analyze by incorporating other information that they know—that’s something they struggle with. All too often they look for answers inside a given text or image, not thinking beyond what is physically in front of them.”
Bryan Betz, who teaches elementary and middle school English as a foreign language in South Korea, echoes Vela’s thoughts. He finds that his students often have difficulty providing detailed answers and evidence that can support and bolster their arguments. “They’re just trying to give the ‘right’ or correct answer,” he says. “I find that getting them to that next level, digging a little bit deeper to find concrete data or evidence-based answers, is very difficult.”
Betz also observes that his students assume their search is complete when they find a single source, or an immediate answer to a question. While he acknowledges that their age is a factor in his students’ desire to get things done quickly, he nevertheless works constantly on debunking their assumptions that the first bit of information they identify is sufficient to call off the search. “That’s a struggle with my students: Speed, accuracy, and correctness being balanced with one another,” Betz says.
Vetting Information, One Fact at a Time
To support students’ critical thinking skills, Betz builds in dedicated time during all major assignments to allow students to find and validate information. “Allotting a specific amount of time for research, counter-research, fact-checking of other students’ assertions [during in-class debates] is important,” he says. A class scribe takes notes during discussions, and when someone makes a statement that needs to be fact-checked, or that conflicts with known information, Betz’s students sit down as a team, and fact-check together. Then they discuss a series of questions: What was the resolution to this conflicting information? Was there a correct answer? Did it lead them to another question that they might discuss later on?
Betz asserts the importance of steering students towards higher quality sources. He leans on BrainPOP movies, among other resources, to build background knowledge. “I like to give them reliable sources, things where I can show them, ‘The information you’re getting here is accurate and correct, and is a good starting place. From there, you can go and explore other information and places where you might get opinion, facts, data, evidence, and other information that will support you in the discussion or debate.’”
Still, he emphasizes that there is no panacea. Like Vela, Betz finds that his students have difficulty distinguishing “fishy” sources from reputable, credible ones. To counter this problem, Betz never allows his students to offer just one source for an assignment; as a matter of class policy, they must always present multiple sources.
Vela finds that collaborating with colleagues across subject areas helps to address these challenges. “I work with our ELA teacher on teaching kids how to analyze information, learn to think more abstractly, and go beyond what is written on a page or painted on a canvas. I work with our science teacher, and do activities and teach topics that relate to both courses,” he says. When he taught World War I, he partnered with an earth science teacher who was teaching weather patterns. Their students played a game that demonstrated what a “front” is, in both weather and war.
The Importance of Not Giving a Correct Answer
Beyond the classroom, what can grown-ups do to help their children develop better research skills and deeper critical thinking?
Vela recounts a story from his own youth. To gain permission to go to a party after he had been grounded, he and his friends submitted a petition to his mom. Vela’s mom, a lawyer, accepted the petition, but only on the condition that Vela write a research paper on writs of habeas corpus. “I think the takeaway is that parents need to instill in their children a love for learning, and [instill motivation] and skills to look up information,” he says. This includes guiding kids through the research process and teaching them to be discerning judges of websites and online sources.
Betz takes a philosophical approach to the question. “One thing I recommend to parents is, don’t give the right answer right away. Don’t try to solve it right away. Try to guide your children to the correct answer. That might be by giving them a resource (not just Wikipedia—go to BrainPOP, or another reputable source)—or give them a critical follow-up question that directs them about where to start looking.”
Good teaching comes from good questioning, Betz maintains, and that advice holds true at home and at school. “If you want to have an interesting conversation, you have to start with having an interesting question,” he says. “When we give children an automatic answer for everything, it provides a temporary solution, but creates a dependency that isn’t helpful to anyone.”
Betz acknowledges that encouraging kids to keep digging deeper necessitates more work from grown-ups. Sometimes, especially at the end of a long day, it would be easier to simply answer their questions. But he believes that investing some time to keep the conversation going in this way will pay dividends for students, not only in their academic careers, but in their interactions with the world.