Research for the real world

Posted by Patricia Kuhn - 07 October, 2015

Kuhn blogBy Patricia Kuhn, Dean of Student Research and Library Resources

My earliest experience with research in high school was limited to a small library with strained resources and an overworked librarian who doubled as a career counselor. As a result, I felt ill-prepared for the academic rigor of a research university bent on living up to its moniker. The university librarians became my new best friends and The Chicago Manual of Style my bedtime story. I know that my career choice grew from an enormous respect and admiration for these guardians of all knowledge who patiently taught me where to find the keys.

My role at Randolph is to ensure that our students are ahead of the research-skills game when they reach college. I support the growing number of inquiry-based processes integral to the classroom opportunities afforded to students by collaborating with the faculty and being engaged meaningful conversation about what authentic research encompasses. Doing so requires that both the faculty and the students have the resources they need to address their discipline effectively. Although I work within the Upper School Library, I have privilege of working with Lower and Middle School librarians Kim Simpson and Kelly Kessler, two librarians who are passionate about the development of critical thinking strategies in students and work in paths parallel to mine.

“There will come a time when our descendants will be amazed that we did not know things that are so plain to them…” -  Seneca

Research and inquiry is a way of life here

Upon arriving at Randolph, I quickly learned that research and inquiry is a way of life here. In the classroom, I became witness to a pivotal moment in history through the eyes of Randolph freshmen. Let me set the stage:

The year is 404 B.C. and the great societies of Athens and Sparta are ready for peace. But at what cost? The students of Wright Ward’s and Michael Treadwell’s World History I classes know. After more than a week of research into the cultural, political and philosophical identities of these two ancient civilizations of Greece, the class is ready to assume the roles of either Spartans or Athenians negotiating for peace. But what should that peace look like? What aspects of these societies should live on? Sparta’s great military? Athenian education? Perhaps the compromise will incorporate the highlights of each society creating a Greece that will carry on for ages.

“‘Google’ is not a synonym for ‘research.’” – Dan Brown

In a unique, collaborative project originally designed by Ryan Liese, students synthesized what they learned through research to determine what aspects of Spartan and Athenian society could make for a great Greece of the future. As each side presented their argument using presentation software and well-researched notes, students collaborated on rebuttals through shared Google documents that were continually updated as the arguments progressed. Students carefully listened to each argument, respectfully presented counter arguments and applied critical thinking skills to what they had learned about the time period and societal expectations of the day. The thorough use of primary sources, as well as historically relevant artifacts, enabled students to produce evidence supporting which society would better lead Greece into the future.

To add a further twist to the project, in Mr. Ward’s classes, additional groups of students acted as judges. Using the knowledge they accumulated through their own research they evaluated the arguments from each side. They questioned the evidence presented and dug into the facts of the case as they interpreted them.

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” - Zora Neale Hurston

Randolph’s mission includes the directive to encourage creativity and discovery in students. In doing so, Randolph engages students in significant and thoughtful learning through a number of means, including collaborative and independent research. Projects like this one are so important to the development of critical thinking strategies.

The outcome of their research had real-world value

In his article, “Data Literacy: Real-World Learning Through Problem Solving With Data Sets,” Dr. Robin Erwin speaks to the level of authenticity that learning takes on when the value of that learning benefits the community at large. Further, motivation and task-commitment remains higher when students are engaged in a task that they perceive to be related to real life.¹

When students are asked to be inquirers, their learning takes on a student-centered, teacher-facilitated flavor. It also become cross-curricular, encompassing reading, writing, and data-collection. As observed by Stephanie Bell, an educator and doctoral student, “the outcome of project-based learning is a greater understanding of a topic, deeper learning, higher-level reading, and increased motivation to learn.” ²

By relating their research to a critical analysis of historical settings, as well as the mores and values present at the time, the students in World History I transcended a simple report of what was happening in 404 B.C. and actually lived it. The outcome of their research had real-world value. The motivation to prove their case was high. The learning was real. The lesson was effective.

“Research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I am doing.” – Wernher von Braun

Sometimes the best discoveries are the accidental ones. Encouraging students to pull on the loose threads of their curiosity and to follow those threads to their natural ends is a great way to unleash the power of questioning minds. Giving students ample opportunities to express those questions through guided inquiry in a safe, nurturing setting is what develops great thinkers with the skills needed to inspire and enrich their community, which speaks directly to the mission of Randolph School. It’s simply what we do.

Throughout the day of the Sparta/Athens debates, the future of Greece was decided in many different ways. At times, the military might of Sparta prevailed. Sometimes the value of Athenian culture and education was held superior. Some students were able to envision a culturally rich, yet militarily strong Greece that encompassed the best of both cultures. At the end of the day, however, every student felt engaged in find the solution to a problem, albeit an ancient one.

Combining independent and group research, collaboration and organization skills, and utilizing current technology this project represents just one way Randolph students are well on their way to honing the critical thinking and presentation skills that will provide them with success well into their academic careers and beyond.


¹ Erwin Jr., Robin W. "Data Literacy: Real-World Learning Through Problem-Solving With Data Sets." American Secondary Education 43.2 (2015): 18. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 8 Sept. 2015

² Bell, Stephanie. "Project-Based Learning For The 21St Century: Skills For The Future." Clearing House 83.2 (2010): 39. MasterFILE Premier. Web. 8 Sept. 2015.


Topics: 9th grade, Academics, curriculum, freshmen, history, interdisciplinary, library, Program, research, teachers, technology, the world, training, Upper School

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