Monday, July 20, 2009

Chapter 7: Modeling Recursion in Research Process Instruction

"Recursion, or this repeated application of a research procedure to the results of a prior procedure, is invoked any time the research determines that the emerging complex of relationships has undeveloped area, logical errors, or incongruitites." (Sandy L. Guild, page 141 of Curriculum Connections, edited by B. Stripling and S. Hughes Hassell, 2003, Libraries Unlimited)

I admit, my first reaction to this chapter was, "Huh? What on earth is this lady talking about?" I finally figured it out when she explained the opposite: "... instruction in the process, by contrast, is often presented in a fashion that leads sutdents to assume that the process is linear." (page 142) Ah, then I got it.

Sad to say, I've done this. Over the years I have taught my third and fourth graders that the research process is generally a set of steps that you follow in order. First you come up with questions, then you gather your sources, take notes, make an outline or organize your notes, write your paper, and share your results.

What Guild is trying to explain, in way, way too many words, is that research doesn't work that way. (Thanks for your help on this, Valerie!) Often, when you do real research, something comes up that doesn't fit, that gives you more questions, conflicts with what another source says, or that you don't understand. You will have to go back a step or two and try again. You are not just aiming for that final product.

While I did instruct my students that research was basically a linear process, that wasn't what actually happened in our classroom. For example, a student may have started an animal report on a koala. He wrote down some questions, found sources, and took notes. Then, when that student and I sat down to talk about and organize the notes, I found that he had written the word "marsupial" many times, but had no idea what it meant. I sent that student back to his sources to find the answer. He didn't even know enough about the subject to have written "What is a marsupial?" as one of his original research questions. Nor did he realize that not knowing what a marsupial was, would probably inhibit his understanding of many aspects of the koala.

When Guild started explaining "self-talk" as part of the research process (page 142,) I was finally on familiar ground. The staff at my school calls it "think aloud." The idea is that kids need a model for good self talk, or thinking. Because they can't see thinking, the way adults must model it is by putting it into words. At first, you feel like a total looney! I remember stopping during a read aloud and trying a think aloud. It was pretty cheezy!

"Hmmm... this word is hard for me to figure out. First, I'm going to cover the ending of the word and see if that helps. Oh, I see the smaller word think. If I put on the beginning sound, I get rethink. Put the ending back on to get rethinking! Great! Now I am going to reread the whole sentence and see if it makes sense."

That can get old real fast for the adult, but it is so important to model, and the kids don't mind it as much as you think.

It also reminds me of the way we teach handwriting... "First, draw the line from the top to the bottom. Then cross it on the top. Now you have a T!" I often heard my students saying those directions to themselves as they learn handwriting.

Another example is when we teach a math procedure such as long division. "First, see how many times 3 can go into 7 without going over. Right! Twice! Write the two on thetop. Then, multiply two times three to get 6. Write the 6 below the seven and subtract. Then, bring down the next digit."

You get the idea!

What I should have done, and will do in the future, is to include this self talk or think alouds to the research process. I should have explained to the student that it's normal to have to go back and look for more information about your topic, even after you've "completed" your research. I am also going to look, or create, visual models of research that show a more circular or recursive process. I have often seen models for the writing process that are more circular.

I have one worry about these ideas, however. It seems to me that it requires quite a bit of metacognition. When I sat down with that student studying the koala, he was not bothered one bit that he had no idea what a marsupial was, nor did he feel it effected his work at all. He could have continued his organizing and writing, using the word marsupial, just fine. In fact, I may not have even known until he gave an oral report and couldn't pronounce the word or answer a question about it!

When I work with students on their research in the library, I need to give them time and permission to be recursive, to go back and find more information, to make sure things make sense to them. When I begin instruction, I need to point out ahead of time, that this is likely to happen. It doesn't mean that they aren't doing a good job, in fact, it means the opposite. Good researchers and thinkers are analyzing their work and checking for understanding.

Luckily for me, Guild's final statement makes much more sense than her beginning. "If our ultimate goal as educators is to guide students to habits of mind that foster life long learning, we must ensure that we not only support and guide them in developing these risky practices of critical thinking but also reward them for their efforts." (page 150) Absolutely!


  1. "Your reasoning is excellent -- it's only your basic assumptions that are wrong." Gets me every time.

  2. what recursive to the research question, What measures and incentives should parents take when addressing the three topics of school dropout, school violence and teenage pregnancy?