Every day you and your students conduct research in the rowdy, controlled chaos of morning routines. Attendance and lunch count. Both rituals are required elements of your teaching day and both are examples of descriptive research. Descriptive research answers the question of what is going on in my classroom right now. Who is here and what do they want to eat? Research. It answers a question, but it also has the potential to spark deeper questions…what does it mean? Why does this happen?
The key to any great thinking in your classroom, especially for gifted students, is not the what of a situation but the why. A one day snapshot of your attendance and lunch count may not answer the question of why something is happening but it might if you were to continuously collect the data and then organize it in a way that would show patterns visually. What is attendance like in our room before holidays? Why were so many students out in February? Why do more students bring their lunch on Tuesdays than Fridays?
None of these answers can be found with a google search query. The answers can only be found in the analysis of the data the students collected in a space they truly care about. The beauty of children is their complete and utter ego-centrism, it’s also true of adults but a lot more annoying. If students care about something they will pass through fire and smoke to get to it, if they don’t they will turn your life into a burning inferno of the underworld.
Many experienced teachers learned early on how to be efficient in taking attendance and lunch count. It was a matter of survival. Plus with everything that needs to be done in a classroom it is much better to make the students responsible for their space as well as the teachers. For many of my colleagues with control issues this is often difficult. However, it is easy to train five year olds to place a clip on their picture if they are present in class and to mark if they have a sack lunch, buying a hot lunch or getting some other choice your cafeteria is providing that day. Bang! The class has been surveyed, the data is on the board, now all these scientists have to do is record the data in a way that is easily accessible for future study and review.
At this point our friends in the primary grades (K-2) would model or guide students in inputting data into a spreadsheet of some sort. We have the technology, may as well use it. If not, a handy dandy notebook will have to suffice.
The basic data gathering will be the same in every grade but the amount of modeling, sharing and guiding will change. It would not be uncommon for kindergartners to gather data independently but to have the teacher model, share and guide the rest of the research process. Whereas fifth graders may be almost completely independent if the process have been modeled, shared, and guided for them in previous grades. That is a big if. Too often we release responsibility to our students too soon and they frustrate us with their inability to complete the tasks we have set forth for them. We criticize their failings without realizing at first that it was our failure to teach that has led to the impasse.
So no matter what, in any new activity, for now and forever, you have to gradually release responsibility to your students so that it is clear what the expectations are for them and you can be sure that you have done your job teaching. You may now put your hand down.
Now comes the longitudinal study, the search for patterns, and the trip through the data set to notice anomalies and to begin asking why does that happen?
How often will you look at the data set? Once a month? Will you compare days of the week? Once you have determined patterns will you ask why? And if you find the why and it is a problem for your school will take your research and then take action to solve the problem?
If you answered yes to the last two questions your classroom will be on the cutting edge of education reform. You will not have passive, dependent learners. They will be producing new data, based on their experiences and working to find out what that data means in their lives. You will have taught them a skill that will transfer to so many areas in their future lives.
The author and researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes in his book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention “It is easier to enhance creativity by changing conditions in the environment than by trying to make people think more creatively.” I can not think of a better way to set up your environment then by letting your students know right when they walk in the door they are taking control of the environment by being active learners and observers.