The Jump to High School Research: Active Learning

I recently asked my daughter, who is nearing the end of her freshman year of high school, what she would have wanted to know at the beginning of this year that she knows now. Her answer? “I needed help learning how to research. That really helped my learning in all classes click.”

This was not what I expected. I expected maybe a note-taking technique or time-management strategy or … I don’t know, a favorite pen? Research is a critical skill, and identifying the need for it is insightful. On the other hand, it seems a dry topic not obviously tied to much of my daughter’s school life this year.

When I asked her to clarify her reasoning, she emphasized that in elementary and middle school, with perhaps a few exceptions, she was asked to supply correct answers to questions or puzzles: label the parts of this plant, define a simile, calculate 8 x 12. She was asked to know something. But when she went to find the telegraph’s impact on the United States after the Civil War … her teacher was not asking her to know something but rather to find a way to figure it out on her own.

Together, we reviewed the skills she had learned to help her conduct research, no matter the size and complexity of any given assignment. Here’s what we came up with:

Research is Active Learning

In thinking through this process between facts out there in the world and a student’s thoughts, feelings, and interests, something clicked for me: research is not only one important skill among many. Research is active learning. It’s what we do when we have never leased a car and ask questions about whether it is wise to do so. It’s what we do when we have mold spots on our tomato leaves, or debug a server error, or look into market potential. First we’re told and then expected to know. Then we learn how to learn, which requires going from knowing to not knowing, to knowing something new.

So, I suspect my daughter is right. The sooner you take a more active role in your learning by approaching what you don’t know with research skills and guiding questions, the smoother high school is going to go. Research may even help you with something useful beyond grades.