Teachers and homeschool moms agree that there are other, sometimes better, ways to educate a child than to hand him/her a book and say, “Read it.” Students need to be self-motivated to get the most value from their education, but most children do not know how to effectively research a topic. Is it possible for a child (with a minimal help from a teacher or parent) to create a project which will help him learn? Absolutely! The more that the child actually plans, the more the child will want to learn about the topic. By “child,” I mean pre-teen (about age 11) and above. Let me explain how a child can create an effective learning project by setting objectives, finding multiple methods of research, and presenting what s/he has found.
First, you must set objectives to be studied. I recommend one to three objectives, or goals, for the topic you are researching. You might even want to divide a larger project into smaller, more manageable chunks, so that you can thoroughly study your topic. If you are studying a subject covered in public schools, I first recommend looking at the state requirements for this class. In Oklahoma, these objectives are called PASS Skills, but all states are required to have objectives for every required subject, and these must be made available for all to see. I have attached a link to the PASS skills, which are overall very good, except for the fact that there are too many in the elementary grades for reading and math. If you are using a textbook on the subject, use the Table of Contents to give you a list of topics to study. If there are no written objectives for the topic you want to study, find an article, a short book, or a documentary film to give you an overall view of the topic you want to study. From this source, create a list of people or events which are important for this subject and use that list as your objectives. It is vital for you to have a list of one to three objectives for any project you want to research.
After listing objectives, you should decide on multiple ways you want to learn about the subject. Just reading one book (usually a textbook) is not enough. You should get your information from a minimum of three sources, and usually more than that. There are many ways to get and demonstrate this information, as I will explain in the next few paragraphs.
I like to use the method of “concrete – pictoral – abstract” as a general guide when creating a project. “Concrete” means something you can physically touch, which means a field trip to a museum or site where you can actually walk through and possibly touch items related to the project, or possibly interviewing someone who is more familiar with the project. “Pictoral” means watch something, or look at pictures (usually with some type of description). This could be a documentary or a photographic book which will give you more information. It could also use a web page which is mostly photographs with informative captions. Finally, “Abstract” sources should be used. This is reading about the topic, whether it be a textbook, web page, magazine article, research paper, or encyclopedia. All three of these methods should be used, in this order, even if you choose one of the other procedures which I will describe next.
Another method which could be used is by following the state required Process Skills. There are two types of skills – Process Skills and Content Skills. The Process Skills tell you how to research objectives, the Content Skills are listing topics for you to actually research. You would try to use all of the Process Skills in EACH of the Content objectives which you research. There are usually 5 – 7 Process Skills for subjects, so you would only want to do one Content Skill at a time, using all of the Process Skills in your research. They are typically listed under the general subject heading (i.e., 6th Grade Science), but they are then separated into two lists so that they are easily found. To use this method, you will need to closely follow the required skills by your state.
A third method of diversifying a research topic is to use the Multiple Intelligence charts which are easily accessed at no cost on-line. Multiple Intelligences are based on a concept by Howard Gardner, in which he lists seven ways in which people differ in intelligence. Others have come in later and added to his original list, but this will give you a variety of activities in which you can discover information about a topic. To find these lists, simply go to a search engine (such as Google.com or Bing.com) and type in “Multiple Intelligence Chart Activities.” This will list several web pages which have activities under different “Intelligences.” If you use this method, I suggest that for each objective, you chose one activity from each category in the Intelligence Chart. Using the Multiple Intelligence Chart will give you a variety of ways to research your topic.
Any of the previously listed three methods would add structure necessary to plan your project. Parents or teachers should expect to help with the planning (though as your child learns how it works, you should not be needed as much through the process). You should have a current calendar available and schedule each activity or research step as part of this planning stage. You should also plan consultation times, when the child will either hand in a piece of research (possibly an essay describing information learned in a field trip) or may get direction on where to go from the stage they are on. Parents should expect to “spot-check” for correct information and, if a great number of errors are found, send the child back to repeat the process more accurately. Do not wait until the day of the presentation to discover that your child thinks Christopher Columbus was the first president of the United States! You should check occasionally, but not looking over his/her shoulder. They need some freedom to discover and correct their errors before you step in.
Finally, after defining objectives and researching your topic, you should have some type of presentation prepared to demonstrate what you have learned. This presentation should be a culmination of your research, not separate from it. You can use a PowerPoint slide show to present information you discovered, or a diorama created during one of your activities. If your research project is about Art or Music, you could have an Art Show or a Concert to display what you have learned. If your topic is over a culture, you could have a party in which you use items from that culture which you researched, inviting only your family or a whole host of friends. A research project over a historical event could provide you with the opportunity to make your own documentary film using original footage and possibly reenactments of events which you learned about. This presentation could be done in front of parents, a class, or a group of friends and family. Be creative and have fun with this presentation, but also be very careful that the information which you are presenting is accurate. Make sure you include time for the audience to ask questions, whether during the presentation itself or individually afterwards.
Creating projects by using clearly defined objectives, multiple research methods, and a presentation at the end of the research provides a child with a variety of ways to discover his/her assigned topic. Whether it lasts a couple of days, a week, or a couple of months, if you follow these guidelines, your project will definitely provide a greater depth of understanding than simply reading a textbook and answering questions. You will, I suspect, also find something of even greater value – a joy for learning!