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The I-Search: Guiding Students Towards Relevant Research

by Judith Zorfass and Harriet Copel

Motivating 7th graders in their first self-directed research project can be rewarding all around-with planning, coaching, and a framework that harnesses kids' own interests.


BOOM! You're sitting in the movie theater and all of a sudden a car blows up. Or you're quietly munching your popcorn while your favorite bad guy gets shot and almost simultaneously starts to bleed. Did you ever wonder how these effects are created? I certainly have. Sometimes I get so involved in figuring out how a special effect was accomplished that I lose interest in the movie. That is why I chose special effects for my I-Search topic.

Was your interest piqued by the first paragraph of this 12-year old's paper? If so, credit goes to a team of teachers in Lawrence (New York) Middle School. They successfully captured this 7th grader's interest at the outset of a thematic I-Search Unit on technology.

The I-Search ‹ a process for carrying out student-centered inquiry ‹ has been around for nearly a decade, since Ken Macrorie (1988) began writing about the I-Search paper. Over the past five years, I-Search units have become an integral part of Lawrence Middle School's efforts to actively engage its diverse student body. The school, located on Long Island, has some 800 students, 27 percent of whom are African American, Hispanic, or Asian American. The surrounding district has the broadest socioeconomic range of students in Nassau County.

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Adapting a Four-Step Process

Interdisciplinary teams of 7th grade teachers have adapted the I-Search model to their students' needs. The model has four distinct phases:

Phase I: Students are immersed in a motivating theme. At Lawrence, it might be a socially relevant topic that naturally links science, social studies, language arts, and mathematics (for example, the human body, the environment, or the impact of technology on society). Teachers then engage students in a variety of authentic activities related to the theme.

Finally, each student poses an I-Search question to guide his or her inquiry. For example:

Submarines helped find the remains of many ships, and also expanded our knowledge of the giant body of water that we call the ocean. I have wondered about the ocean ever since I was young. In this report I will show you what I have learned. My search question is: How do submarines expand our knowledge of the ocean?

Phase II: Based on their I-Search questions, students develop their own search plans, identifying the resources they will use to gather information.

Phase III: Students follow and some times revise their search plans to gather, sort, and integrate information.

Phase IV: Students prepare papers that become the foundation for an oral report, skit, poster, experiment, or some other display of knowledge. The papers address: "My Search Questions," "My Search Process," "What I Learned," "What This Means to Me," and "References."

Lawrence teachers work in four ways to make the most of the I-Search process. They

  • plan their units to engage students;
  • coach students to take ownership of the inquiry process;
  • incorporate a variety of materials and resources, including technology;
  • assess student work on an ongoing basis.

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A Motivating Theme

In planning the units, the school relies on Make It Happen! (Zorfass 1991), an approach to curriculum design and implementation that is based on five years of federally funded research undertaken by Education Development Center, Inc., in Newton, Massachusetts.

Under the direction of a facilitator (in Lawrence, it is Harriet Copel), teams of teachers carry out an intensive five-day process of curriculum design. Each team begins by choosing a motivating theme for the unit, then goes on to formulate three or four overarching concepts (like essential questions) that reflect knowledge related to the way the theme is organized. Here, for example, are the concepts ‹ framed as questions for the technology unit:

  • What impact does technology have on our lives?
  • How do job descriptions change as technology changes?
  • How do the rapid changes in technology affect individuals and society?
  • Why must people consider ethical issues when developing technology?

Because of their careful planning, teachers will be better able to help students connect seemingly isolated ideas and larger themes. The theme and concepts form a sort of umbrella, under which students will identify their own personally meaningful, researchable I-Search questions. In the technology unit, for example, one student framed her question this way:

The reason why I chose animal treatment is because I was curious as to why they give certain things to my animals when they get sick. My question is: How has technology affected veterinary care? Now I know about some of the medicines they give our animals. I feel much better when the vet prescribes medicines that will make Lilly Mary Margaret better.

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Active Learning

Only after teachers on the team clarify the theme and concepts are they able to design and coordinate a set of hands-on, experimental, immersion activities that take place in several classrooms over several days. Students may, for example, go on field trips, listen to guest speakers, view videos, or engage in computer simulations.

These activities have several objectives:

  • to help students discover what they already know about the theme;
  • to build background knowledge and deepen students' understanding of the theme and overarching questions;
  • to model for students a variety of ways to gather information;
  • to have students learn by doing;
  • to encourage students to take responsibility for their own inquiries.

In brainstorming ideas, teachers push one another to ask: What will ensure that students are fully engaged in active learning? One team, for example, had decided that in their paper or exhibition, students should include a graph illustrating one research finding. So the teachers developed a series of authentic activities using spreadsheets.

For a unit on the human body, another team of teachers introduced students to a wide range of topics by taking them to a nearby science center. For the technology unit, several guest speakers visited the school, made presentations, and were interviewed by the students.

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Intriguing Questions

Throughout Phase I, teachers prompt students to reflect on what they are doing and learning by asking: "What information are you finding interesting?" and "What more do you want to learn?" Teachers elicit prior knowledge from students and build upon it so that they will become intrigued and invested in further exploration.

The goal is for students to generate I-Search questions that they feel passionate about. Students recognize how important this is. When we asked them what advice they would give novices embarking on an I-Search process, one boy replied,

You better find a question you really care about because you will be working with that question for six weeks.

Once students have their questions, teachers then help them design a productive research plan, extract relevant information as they follow and revise their plan, process information so that they own" and understand it, and convey what they have learned to an audience.

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A Panoply of Resources

Throughout the four phases of the unit, students learn to gather information from a wide range of resources. They may, for example,
  • read books, magazines, newspapers, or reference texts;
  • watch videos, filmstrips, or television shows;
  • use CD-ROM reference tools;
  • interview people or conduct surveys;
  • conduct an experiment or engage in a simulation;
  • go on a field trip.

Modeling the interviewing process has been especially important. As one student responded:

For my interview I called five hospitals to find an oncologist and finally I got one at Sloan Kettering.

During Phase II, students design their search plan by working closely with the library media specialists to learn how to use the school's resources. The students' I-Search papers convey how they actively apply their research skills:

I started my I-Search process by writing a business letter to a company . . .

At first I used the computers in the library . . . I looked under diabetes and there was too much information so I looked under diabetes and technology and I found a lot of good information. After the computers I went to the SIRS . . . Then I finally went to microfiche and that's where I found all my information. So far that's my best source.

When I first set out to research I wasn't sure where to start. I decided to use the UMI system on the school library's computer to find citations for magazines that had articles on special effects. I had never used this system before, but I soon found out it was quite simple to use. I got a list of seven or so citations in the time period I had on the computer. Walking back to my seat to look at my list I got distracted by a book I saw on the shelf. It proved to have excellent information on everything I needed and I would later find out it would be my best source of information.

Teachers at Lawrence Middle School recognize that the I-Search unit provides a natural context for integrating technology. For example, computer simulations of the circulatory system are used in Phase I of the unit on the human body, making the activities particularly interesting to students. This helps them to not only gather information, but also to organize, manipulate, and convey information.

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Assessing Stage by Stage

As teachers help students manage their first long-term, self-directed project, they are forced to rethink the relationship between teaching and assessment. For example, teachers have provided students with explicit criteria for posing I-Search questions (figure l). In so doing, they have found that students are more engaged when indicators of success are clearly spelled out.

Having the unit organized into four phases is also beneficial; the passage from one phase to another becomes a natural point of assessment. By monitoring students' work and asking them to share what they are learning, teachers assess gaps that will prevent students from going on to the next stage. This provides teachers with an additional coaching opportunity.

Phase I does not end until a student poses a relevant and personally motivated question. Teachers help students evaluate and possibly reframe their questions so that they are not too "fit (complex), too "skinny" (narrow), or not researchable. Phase II does not end until each student has a search plan ‹ a blueprint for gathering information. Again, teachers review these plans to ensure they are realistic and relevant. To conclude Phase III, students' notebooks must indicate that they have gathered information related to their question from various sources.

Phase IV begins with students drafting their reports as a first step of the writing process approach. They later revise edit, and publish. Each one of these stages gives teachers further opportunities to monitor, assess, and coach.

This ongoing assessment/intervention process ensures that students do not get lost and that they stay engaged throughout the unit.

Teachers also encourage students to assess their own work, a process that often reveals insights that exceed a teacher's expectations. For example, one student wrote the following in the section of the report on "What This Means to Me":

This work will be a great influence on how I act and think toward people because with this project I was able to work with other people who had a similar topic to the one I had. I had to be nice and really communicate with that person or else we wouldn't get along. I am now used to being this way with other people and not just with that person.

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Risks and Rewards

The teachers at Lawrence do not deny that it takes a tremendous effort to coordinate a team approach to planning and implementation. But they also agree that it's worth it. So, too, do the students.

It is a testimonial to the teachers' coaching that students appreciate being able to pick their own topics and generally exercise independence. Said one student with learning disabilities:

In this project (I) learned a lot about myself because I did this project all by myself but sometimes I needed help. I feel that I did very good.

Another 7th grader told how she developed as a researcher:

I learned to use the computer to gather information, which I had never attempted before because I was scared to. I no longer shy away from large books, because I learned to take things slowly, and one paragraph at a time. I also learned to not get frustrated or become overwhelmed. I also realized that if you try your best, it will be satisfactory, and you don't always have to be the absolute best . . . I was surprised that I took the risk of changing my topic, but even so I am extremely glad that I did because this is what I really wanted.

Other students' comments:

I've learned that in every job, big or small, there are many difficulties and at the same time, moments of triumph.

I learned about a subject that I knew almost nothing about and that gave me a great feeling of accomplishment.

I enjoyed researching information about my topic. The most fun part was when I did my interview.

I appreciate myself as a researcher and a writer because I am able to make my own decisions. I also appreciate myself because I don't have to take that many orders from teachers and other people and I am able to take risks.

Yes, engagement and active learning do involve risks. And in designing and implementing I-Search units, Lawrence teachers are taking risks as well. Such risks are fundamental to lifelong learning.

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References

Macrorie, K. (1988). The I-Search Paper. Portsmouth, N.H.: Boynton/Cook Publishers.

Zorfass, J. ( 1991). Make It Happen! Newton, Mass.: Education Development Center, Inc.

Copyright ©1995 by Judith Zorfass and Harriet Copel.


Judith Zorfass is Associate Center Director, Education Development Center, Inc., 55 Chapel St., Newton, MA 02158-1060.

Harriet Copel is Assistant Principal, Lawrence Middle School, 195 Broadway, Lawrence, NY 11559.


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