Friday, July 8, 2011

Reversing the Role of the Learner

My own children hate research. Well, they say they hate research. Let me clarify, they hate science fair. They hate the cookbook science fair that has come to predominate our current notion of what is true first hand investigation. I am not sure where I first heard the idea of the “Cookbook Science Fair” but it rings true. The term cookbook becomes an appropriate descriptor of any investigation when students know the results of their experiment before they collect one supply or finish cutting and pasting their hypothesis from the internet.

What my own children do like is the type of research they join my wife and I on when we look at open houses getting ideas of market value, upgrades, kitchen design, bathroom tiling and a thousand other home improvement ideas. They enjoy it so much they come home and pretend they are real estate agents and show our house to prospective customers.

That is engaging, real scientific investigation. Asking questions, gathering data, analyzing results and then making decisions about what the research means for our house and the future value of our home when we look to place it on the market.

I don’t know a science teacher who would not want their students to go home and experiment and question and test and find answers to their questions. So how is it that we have not been able to capture student’s imaginations and show them how to answer the burning questions that they ponder?

Easy, we, as educators, have not shown our students the skills that will transfer their wonderings into real world problem solving. We live in an age where if it doesn’t exist on google then it never happened. But at what point does the system turn on us. Are we raising millions of children who will only search for information and stop creating it? If that’s the case, when does it become a zero sum game? When does it come to the point that nothing new is created and we are only regurgitating the same old "facts" over and over again?

So, as educators it is our jobs to teach our students the skills to organize and preform first hand research in the classroom, to turn our students into questioners, data collectors, analyzers and reporters. Basically take their natural born curiosity and show them the skills and the tools they need to channel that curiosity into finding answers.

All educational domains from psychology to biology, sociology to chemistry, math to language arts incorporate research into the study and development of their fields. Every domain asks questions and every domain uses the skill of the scientific method to answer questions…so why not teach the skill in a way that makes sense. By making sense I mean that it is easily transferable to everyday life. So that the skill used in your classroom today could be used at home or in the mall or on Facebook tomorrow.

Two great resources for teachers are books I have used often in my own classroom:

Looking for Data in All the Right Places: A Guidebook for Conducting Original Research with Young Investigators by Alane J. Starko, Gina D. Schack

Research Comes Alive!: A Guidebook for Conducting Original Research with Middle and High School Students by Alane J. Starko, Gina D. Schack

In 2011 it is time to stop talking about accountability and higher standards and dancing around the issues. We can cover all of our standards and prepare students for the future by reversing the role of the learner:

change learning from a passive activity where teachers have all the answers to active engagement where students investigate ideas they are interested in within the domain they are studying,

instead of force feeding students large amounts of information lets let them use their digital devices and the skills we teach them to begin producing information that is important to their schools and communities,

finally push them away from depending on the teacher in any given domain and allow them to become independent and autonomous in their learning.


  1. Theoretically, I agree with David Sebek's ideas. However, the lack of "digital devices", the extremely structured building schedule, the emphasis on test scores, and the large class sizes in my building pose huge hurdles to reversing the role of the learner in my classroom. Not to be daunted, I do spend a great deal of time trying to jump these hurdles...because true learning DOES empower the learner to activate curiosity, utilize appropriate tools to discover answers, share their learning in an authentic manner, and then apply their learning in new and varied situations.

  2. Thank you for your feedback.

    I face the same challenges. Fighting the "standardization" of our students is a difficult battle, some days it seems to be easier to just "go with the flow." But we know we have to do better for our students.

    We will continue to come up with creative solutions to these standardized challenges.