Research Cycle

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Vol 13|No3|February |2017

Reaching for greatness

by Jamie McKenzie (about author)

School reports are often dreary experiences with many hours devoted to the collection of information rather than the development of new insights. Rituals like topical research engage students in gathering and smushing rather than investigating and inventing. “Go find out about Joan of Arc!”

Joan of Arc

We can do much better than that. We can ask our students to wrestle with fascinating puzzles and intriguing issues. With encouragement and support, we can ask them to produce a great report.

“What kind of leader was Joan? Her strengths? Her weaknesses?” “Was Joan a saint or a witch? Why?”

A great report does some very exciting things:

  • Creates something new,
  • Grapples with a big challenge
  • Explores the unknown
  • Shares insights and understandings that are perceptive and original
  • Awakens curiosity
  • Entertains, delights and illuminates

This is not just something for the gifted and talented. If we take the time to develop their skills and their appetites, most students will find this kind of research exhilarating and will rise to the challenge. This article proposes five “pillars” that will involve students in research that is remarkable, engaging and delightful:

Pillar #1 - Curiosity
Pillar #2 - Mystery
Pillar #3 - Challenge
Pillar #4 - Novelty
Pillar #5 - Delight
The term “pillar” was chosen to capture the idea that these five are critically important. Each “pillar” is viewed like the columns holding up a Greek temple or an American bank building. This article will demonstrate how these five convert faux inquiry into true inquiry.

Faux Inquiry vs. True Inquiry

Many of the schools that claim to be doing inquiry have inadvertently fallen prey to the gathering trap.

Gathering lots of information and answering lots of questions may seem on the surface like inquiry, but because such research may require little thought and may amount to mere gathering and scooping, it will usually end up being only the shadow of true inquiry.

Just because a class has collected many factoids about a city like Hong Kong does not mean that students have grasped the character of the city. Such facts may not help them decide if they and their family would enjoy life there, for example.

True inquiry engages researchers in the exploration of some puzzle, mystery, problem, challenge, issue, conundrum, quandary or dilemma that will provoke curiosity, wonder and (normally) some degree of passion. The purpose of gathering information is to wrestle with the challenge at hand, not to fill up pages with heaps of stuff. The researcher hopes to unlock or solve the puzzle, so the investigation is conducted with the suspense and excitement we normally associate with detectives probing into murder mysteries.

The five pillars mentioned earlier operate in concert to infuse the research and reporting process with meaning and import, generating student passion for the work at hand.

Pillar #1 - Curiosity

Curiosity comes first, for good reason. When awakened and active, curiosity provides the drive that fuels the investigation, keeps the students motivated and helps them to overcome whatever frustrations and hurdles may be encountered.

Curiosity is the keystone to this kind of learning. If we fail to ignite curiosity, there will be insufficient enthusiasm. Curiosity rarely kills a cat, but boredom is definitely lethal!

What is curiosity? It is the desire to understand. It is a passion for exploration. Teachers will achieve the best results if they understand how to awaken and sustain this thirst. It pays to involve the students in understanding curiosity and how it operates.

A good teacher knows how to generate interest through provocation. Students studying the American Civil War might have very little interest at the beginning. Even those who are generally quite curious about life may feel no curiosity about the Civil War. Often the showing of a film like “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” will wake the class and shake them out of their apathy.

Natural, ongoing curiosity is like the embers of a fire, subdued and not very intense, but when someone becomes seriously involved in wrestling with a difficult and intriguing question or issue, it is as if someone threw gasoline on the embers. The subdued general interest becomes an intensely passionate, near obsession. The matter at hand is so fascinating that the researcher may lose sleep and may actually wake up in the middle of the night wondering and worrying over the issues. This is curiosity in its most potent form — and words like absorbed, compelled, gripped, riveted, captivated, engaged, enthralled and enchanted all come to mind. When curiosity is thus aroused, students will find that mystery, the next pillar, sustains and usually elevates engagement.

Pillar #2 - Mystery

Mystery is a natural companion to curiosity and is a powerful motivator.

While exploring mysteries, students are much more likely to feel inspired and intrigued than when they are merely gathering information. A mystery is said to “pique one’s curiosity” — which is why it comes second in the list of pillars. We expect mystery to heighten interest.

When it comes to research, “negative space” is a powerful concept to help identify the source of much that is mysterious and elusive. Artists frequently employ this concept to capture the shape of spaces surrounding an object. The same concept identifies the missing parts of a mental puzzle or a mystery.

We extend our search beyond the boundaries of what we already know. We aim our searchlight into the shadows and the dark places. We cast light into corners, under bushes, into closets, and through locked doors and barriers. Wondering combines with wandering to help us turn our attention where it needs to rest.

  • What strategies allow us to penetrate the fog, sailing through darkness to emerge with increased understanding?
  • How do we achieve illumination?
  • How do we shed preconceptions, bias and false certainties?
  • How can we create a map of regions never explored?
  • Can we figure out what it is we do not know?

Once students are hooked by a combination of curiosity and mystery, the issue becomes the degree of difficulty represented by the question or issue they have chosen to pursue. This next pillar will focus on the extent to which they must come up with original findings not readily available.

Pillar #3 - Challenge

The teacher is raising the bar for student research and reporting, clarifying expectations with regard to the following:

  • The degree of difficulty for the questions and issues pursued
  • The rigor of the questioning process
  • The quality of the thinking leading up to a presentation and report
  • The dramatic quality of the presentation
  • The logic, style and clarity of the report documents
We expect students to do intense thinking, considerable synthesis and come up with findings that are startling. We focus on the depth of the analysis and the inventiveness of the thinking.

What are the key elements that determine the degree of difficulty of a research question?

  • Is this a mystery within human understanding but somewhat elusive?
  • Will this question demand original thought, synthesis and perseverance?
  • Will this question require much detective work, gathering and considering evidence, clues and data in order to develop a position?
  • Has anyone else already asked (and answered) this same question?
  • Have previous attempts to address this question eliminated the mystery?
  • Is it possible to create an answer within just a few minutes by doing a Google search or will it take weeks of digging and thinking?

The table below defines four degrees of difficulty with 4 being the toughest level and 1 being the least challenging.


Rating the Question’s Degree of Difficulty


No one else has ever asked this question before and building an answer will require imaginative thinking and much synthesis of the information gathered.  Because it is unique, there will be no previous work to guide you.


While others have explored this question previously, it has perplexed people for so long it has never been answered to anyone’s satisfaction.  Building an answer will require imaginative thinking and much synthesis of information gathered as well as a review of previous attempts.


This question or issue has been explored many times before and already answered but there is disagreement over those answers.  All that is required is a review of that past work in order to select the most reasonable and defensible answer.


This question or issue has been explored many times before and already answered to satisfaction.  It will require nothing more than paraphrasing and summarizing.

Similar rubrics can be set for the rigor of the questioning process, the quality of the thinking leading up to a presentation and report, the dramatic quality of the presentation and the logic, style and clarity of the report documents. Having clarified expectations for the level of challenge, the importance of novelty becomes paramount. Students will not be copying and pasting the ideas and findings of others. Suggestions are available in Chapter 6 of The Great Report.

Pillar #4 - Novelty

We intend that our students will move well beyond “same old — same old” as well as conventional wisdom and “tried-and-true.” We do not want them to ignore such information, but we expect fresh thinking to be added to the old.

In most cases, words like “novel” and “original” will be somewhat foreign to students, so teachers must devote considerable time to concept development. The thesaurus offers the following related words for novel:

new, original, unusual, unfamiliar, unconventional, unorthodox; different, fresh, imaginative, innovative, innovatory, inventive, modern, neoteric, avant-garde, pioneering, groundbreaking, revolutionary; rare, unique, singular, unprecedented; experimental, untested, untried; strange, exotic, newfangled
For many students, encountering words like these in a school setting will seem “strange, exotic, and newfangled.”

Teachers will equip students with a battery of synthesis skills, so they can manage this challenge. It is not enough to proclaim a desire for originality. Once students grasp the power of strategies like SCAMPER and know how to apply creative problem-solving techniques to the matter at hand, they can come up with ideas and answers that are fresh and effective.

Detailed suggestions for the development of synthesis skills are provided in Chapter 7 of The Great Report and online in “Building Good New Ideas” at

Novelty is a wonderful partner to the other pillars, clarifying the importance of students pursuing their mysteries until they come up with delightful new ideas and possibilities.

Pillar #5 - Delight

There are few things as delightful as an ice cream cone on a hot summer day. But it is rare to hear a child expressing delight with regard to a school report.

Bliss? Rapture? Elation? Euphoria?

Why not?

There is an “Aha!” moment that some experience when wrestling with difficult but intriguing issues. This stage is usually called “illumination.” Given the demanding labor involved in this type of research, there should be rewards that make it all worthwhile. Imagine Sherlock Holmes or Nancy Drew never solving a mystery! But appreciate the joy of investigating and nabbing the culprit.

There should be smiles and joy when students have worked their way through fog or thicket to discover something astonishing.

Delight is the pleasure tasted while solving a mystery — the feelings of joy and satisfaction that arise as new ideas emerge or as understanding replaces perplexity and bewilderment.


Words Related to Delight










Perhaps it is hoping too much to think that all students will experience rapture and enchantment; but contentment and gratification are perfectly reasonable expectations. By the time they have completed their questioning, researching and presenting, we expect them to rate their overall experience as illuminating, gratifying and pleasurable.

Classroom examples

Teachers will help students to unearth or discover the intriguing questions that are embedded in content areas. It may take some digging and mucking about to root out the most interesting questions. In order to facilitate this process, this article offers six strategies that work well with upper elementary, middle and high school students.

1. Looking for Choices — It is easy to find choices embedded in curriculum content. The list below shows choices with a focus on geography:

  • You work for a company that generates electrical power with windmills. Looking across the state of Wyoming, what would be the three best locations for windmills?
  • You work for a company that generates electrical power with windmills. Looking across the western part of the USA, which two states would be the most promising for windmills?
  • You are thinking about working as a park ranger. Looking across the western part of the USA, which two states would be the most promising for this occupation?
  • You are thinking about working on a fishing vessel that concentrates on salmon. Should you locate in California, Oregon, Washington or Alaska?
When students learn about a region with choices in mind, they are operating at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy - the Evaluation level. They make a decision by comparing options with criteria in mind. It requires much more thought than old-fashioned topical questions such “Go find out about China!”The same approach can be used to study figures in history. Instead of simply copying and pasting information, the students compare and contrast thedeeds of ship captains, generals or heroes:
  • Which of these Union generals did the best job of fighting the Confederate army?
  • Which of these Confederate generals did the best job of fighting the Union army?
  • Which of these explorers did the most damage to native peoples?
  • Which of these ship captains would you have chosen to sail with?
  • Which of these Chinese emperors did the best job of protectingthe Empire while taking care of the people?
  • Which of these Russian/Roman/Egyptian/French emperors didthe worst job of protecting their Empire while taking care of the people?
2. Solving Problems — Problem-based learning provides another effective strategy to help students identify issues worth exploring within the curriculum. Instead of simply studying floods by gathering heaps of information, the students ask what might be done to reduce the risk of flooding.
  • The stream behind our school seems to be polluted. Is it? If so, why is it polluted and what should be done?
  • There are many homeless people wandering the streets of our town. What can be done so they find a better way of living?
  • In the story we just read, the main character faces some terrible choices and challenges, often making bad decisions. If you were this character, how would you have handled these challenges?
  • Our town has serious traffic problems. What are they, and what do you think should be done about them?
3. Explaining Why — Whether studying science, social studies or literature, there are hundreds of “Why?” questions waiting for exploration. Some of these will be confounding and frustrating, but most of them will be intriguing.
  • Why do you suppose the main character in the story we read had so much trouble with truth and did so much lying?
  • Why do you think the people who came to North America from Europe in the 1500s and 1600s had trouble living peacefully alongside the native people?
  • Why do you suppose some students copy from other students?
  • Why did many religious Southerners support slavery?
  • Why did many religious Northern factory owners treat their workers very badly?
4. Digging into Character — Instead of gathering basic facts about people or cities, we ask students to consider the character of the person or the town.
  • What kind of person was Matthew Flinders? James Cook?
  • What kind of leader was Richard Nixon? Bill Clinton?
  • What kind of person was George Sand? Jane Austen? Ernest Hemingway?
  • Does New York have soul? New Orleans? Chicago? Paris? Singapore?
5. Taking a Stand — When studying issues, we expect students to state and defend a position. It is not enough to study an endangered species. We look for them to suggest what should be done.
  • What should we do about the Snake River?
  • What should we do about the declining wild salmon population?
  • Which candidate for Mayor has the best ideas for our town?
  • What should we do about strip mining?
  • Should windmills be permitted in our region? Why or why not?
  • Should we burn coal to produce electricity? Why or why not?
6. Making Predictions — A good way for students to demonstrate understanding of an issue or a phenomenon is to predict what is coming. The prediction should be based on thorough research and logic — not mere guessing.
  • By the end of the story, the main character seems to have mended her ways. What do you see happening to her in the next few years?
  • In recent years, water supplies have been a problem for California. What do you see happening in the next few years?
  • In recent years, immigration has been a problem for Europe. What do you see happening in the next few years?
  • How will low gas and oil prices change life for the average American family?

Gauging Results

Those who seek to engage students in this kind of learning will invest significantly in assessment throughout the process, using the rubrics mentioned earlier as well as surveys and daily observations to measure how well their learners are meeting the challenging standards set by this approach. Such ongoing assessment also provides the basis for support and intervention.

When the investigations are complete and the presentations delivered, have we replaced tedium with delight? We will, of course, ask the students themselves.

Chapter 14 of The Great Report provides extensive support for ongoing assessment.

The Great Report


  • Creates something new
  • Grapples with a big challenge
  • Explores the unknown
  • Shares insights and understandings that
    are perceptive and original
  • Awakens curiosity
  • Entertains, delights and illuminates

You can read sample chapters and see the list of chapters by clicking here.

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