Research Cycle

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Vol 11|No2|December |2014


© 2007 Jamie McKenzie

joan© 2007 Jamie McKenzie


Questioning the value
of topical research

by Jamie McKenzie (about author)

When teachers ask students to "go find out about Joan of Arc" or Katherine the Great or acid rain, they are assigning topical research likely to encourage scooping and gathering rather than thinking.

Topics do not require much thought because they are primarily about the collection of information rather than synthesis or problem-solving.

Schools should outlaw topical research as being mind-numbing and substandard.

Around the globe goals have been raised to focus on imagination, invention, synthesis and problem-solving. Topical research is an ancient, outmoded practice that should join many other unworthy rituals in the dustbin of history.


Instead of topical research, students should be asked to build meaning. They should wrestle with problems, struggle with challenges and convert information into understanding. They should not simply gather the opinions and judgments of so-called experts. A meaningful inquiry will puzzle them and delight them. Sometimes it will prove frustrasting, but that is as it should be.

The best research experiences will be built around questions of import.

A truly great question will meet the following tests . . .

1. It provokes curiosity and a sense of wonder. Explanation.
2. It eludes facile, simple answers. Explanation.
3. It requires ingenuity and imagination.. Explanation
4. It demands persistence. Explanation.
5. It calls for versatility. Explanation.
6. It frustrates. Explanation.
7. It evolves, twists, dances, changes shape and teases.
8. It challenges, dares and defies. Explanation.

9. It illuminates.
10. It delights. Explanation.

Questions of import

Like essential questions, questions of import are worthy of our time but are also likely to spark interest and awaken curiosity. They require thought rather than the mere collection of facts or simple cut-and-paste thinking. No more trivial pursuit.

How do they differ from essential questions?

Essential questions tend to be grander than questions of import - exploring sweeping major issues of life that could serve as the basis for a year's study. They might even be worthy of a lifetime of study.

Questions of import, on the other hand, while consequential, may sometimes be settled within the hour.

"What's the best way for me to treat my friend right now?"
"What's the best way for me to spend the rest of this afternoon?"

On the other hand sometimes questions of import may require weeks of inquiry.

"What kind of leader was Joan of Arc?
"Who was a better poet, Elizabeth Browning or Robert Browning?"
"What should we do about traffic jams in our town?"

Hopefully, our students will learn to generate their own questions of import when they scan the content being covered by the curriculum.

Strategies for Converting Topical Research into True Inquiry


1. Decisions, Decisions, Decisions

We ask students to make and defend choices.

Instead of studying a single city, a single ship captain or a single poet, we challenge students to compare and contrast several cities, captains or poets.

Imagine that your parents are moving to China for two years and have asked you to help them make a wise choice. Which of the following cities would be best for your family? Set criteria to focus your inquiry upon the traits of a city that will matter most to your family.


2. Problems, Problems, Problems

We ask students to come up with an action plan to address a problem or challenge taken from history or current society.

What could Louis XVI have done differently to avoid the guillotine?
What can we do to solve the traffic problems in our city?
What should we do about the Snake River?
What should we do about floods?


3. The Brilliant Question

If schools do their job well, all students will strive toward the brilliant question, knowing that new knowledge, breakthrough thinking and invention all depend upon the brilliant question to unlock the mysteries of life and open the door to new possibilities.


  • What will it take to win her heart?
  • How can I win back this friend?
  • Where did I go wrong?

Generating brilliant questions is a special talent that involves exploring the edges, the fringes, the dark side and the apparently irrelevant. This challenge is addressed fully in the February 2014 issue in the article "A Brilliant Question."

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