“Why do we dream, and how do our dreams affect us psychologically?” asked classmate Rebecca Becdach.
“Can stress be good?” wondered Tanya Correya.
Richard Collins wanted to know, “Is procrastination as bad as everyone says it is?”
These were questions that mattered to them personally, and that they would answer in their I-Search papers for 11th grade English.
“I really liked that I could explore things that I was interested in rather than being confined to a set curriculum,” said 11th grade amateur meteorologist Karl Schneider, whose I-Search project was on how outdoor warning sirens and weather radios influence how people react to severe weather warnings.
Jennifer Rossuck developed the I-Search as a culminating project for her 11th grade English classes. Students identify a topic and a question within that topic that matters to them personally and then figure out how to answer it. In so doing, they must conduct interviews, site visits and generate original data through an experimental component.
In their English classes, all Randolph juniors undertake a major independent research and writing project in the second semester, either the I-Search or the Ethnography Project. Students select a focus that is relevant to them and then design how they will accomplish the requisite interviews, field visits and data collection. Subject-wise, these projects allow students to delve deeper into areas of interest and to test out ideas for possible Senior Capstone Projects, fields of college study and even career paths.
Alissa Elliott encouraged her class to develop an I-Search question with philosophical resonance. "My students were especially interested in medical ethics and questions of identity. They wrote strong, interesting, and accessible essays on end of life care, responses to cancer diagnosis, non-verbal communication, the development of imaginative faculties during childhood, the appeal of online role-playing games, the abuse of stimulant medication, and the effects of social media on self-esteem, among many other topics."
The self-directed components of the project often present the greatest challenges for students, but these are crucial skills to develop.
“The greatest challenge of the Ethnography Project for my students was not the composition of a 10-15 page research paper, but learning to manage a project that was entirely self-designed,” says English teacher Joe Freeman. “First, they had to identify a subculture within the Huntsville community, then create a relationship with a member of the group they hoped to study. Creating these relationships posed a significant challenge for many students, for cold-calling someone or contacting them based on a loose family friendship can create significant anxiety for adults, let alone adolescents.”
“Every student reported learning something new about people different from themselves. Many were able to craft their experiences into compelling narratives. In doing so, students learned the role that their own biases play in their research. All were able to bolster their observational research with more traditional research methods as they strove not only to understand their chosen subcultures but also to devise an argument about some element of the culture they found. Simply put, students used the experience to make their own meaning and to articulate that meaning in an original and compelling fashion. Hopefully, the experience of the Ethnography Project will stay with them through college and beyond.”
These projects are a form of inquiry-based learning, something Randolph students have done throughout their time at the School in a process that has been scaffolded in various ways. The degree of autonomy they are given with these projects is a culmination of a process that begins in Kindergarten, of learning to ask questions and to reflect on their learning .
“Problem- or inquiry-based learning is second-nature to Lower School students; it’s how young children learn,” says Assistant Lower School Head Laurel Shockley. And, she adds, it is an approach the School has long taken.
Many alumni recall the 4th grade Oregon Trail, where students plan a trip, decide which items they will need, and then deal with the unexpected and solve problems (bandits, cholera, rough river crossings) together.
On Earth Day, Kindergartners asked the question “How can we use the things in our recycling bin to make something for our garden?” They broke up into teams to build different parts of a scarecrow. Second graders used Design Thinking to ask and answer or solve their own queries during the Biography and Iditarod projects. Third graders conduct themselves professionally in interviews with adults on the Drake Campus for their Dream Jar projects and overcome some of the same social anxiety that the 11th graders faced doing their field work.
“As we look through the lens of Design Thinking,” says Mrs. Shockley, “there are so many opportunities to formalize this approach and develop research, writing and thinking skills while fostering the intellectual curiosity of our students.”
A benefit of an inquiry-based project is that when students pursue subjects of genuine interest they are motivated to do more research and then to do justice to that work. Eighth grader Sachin Katyal used a lot of scientific sources for his mini-Capstone. “Because there’s a lot of science, there are a lot of facts,” he says, “and you don’t want to just list facts. You have to explain it and make sure everything flows correctly, so you’re not just boring the reader with a ton of facts.”
From January to April, the 8th grade embarked on a trial mini-Capstone project to highlight the reading, writing, and researching skills that they have learned throughout their Middle School years in history and English. Students brainstormed several topics of interest, which could be anything that appealed to them as long as it was a meaningful intellectual pursuit.
“I actually used the ‘See, Think, Wonder’ Visible Thinking routine in order to help them pare down their topics and generate several research questions,” says Shelly Harriman, Middle School English Department Chair. “From this point, they began to work on their research in history, keeping notes and sources using an online research log. Once the research and the written outline were finished, mini-lessons began in English on how to write a research paper. Students then began the writing process of composing a rough draft, peer edit, self-edit, and a final draft. Most final papers were anywhere between four to nine pages, a huge undertaking for 8th graders. Topics were incredibly varied, from symptoms, causes, and treatments for neuroblastoma; to the art of creating a fly fishing lure.”
Sachin had wanted to know “why humans listen to music.” He discovered that music can affect the brain as certain drugs do, by releasing dopamine, which makes us feel happy. “And so music can become addictive in that way,” he says, adding, “Researching something that you were interested in made it fun.”
Jack Benton Stockton was similarly motivated. “I did a lot more research than I normally would have. I think that most of my classmates and I had around 15 pages of notes, which is a lot for us; usually I’d have four pages.” His topic was the history of stand-up comedy, and what makes things funny, which he chose because, “I try to be comedic.”
April Harriman, whose topic was, neuroblastoma, “liked that I could go deeper into it. I liked being able to choose a topic I thought would be interesting. I wanted to research to learn more.” For Betsy Bryant, being able to work on this project in several classes meant they had longer blocks of time to work.
Next year, Mrs. Harriman says, the 8th grade will do this project again, adding many different components, and making it a yearlong endeavor. The mini-Capstone will also be incorporated into the 8th grade X Block and linked to community learning. The details will be worked out this summer, thanks to a grant they obtained. She says, “We are really excited to further develop this. There are very few middle schools that actually have their students complete a Capstone-like project.”
Clay Elliott, Dean and incoming Middle School Head, adds, that this mini-Capstone “will allow our students to develop planning and research skills, while connecting them to the community. The project will provide a tremendous student-centered challenge while helping our students realize the confidence needed to push themselves beyond their perceived boundaries.”
“Inquiry-based learning allows students to discover meaningful information on their own, leading to greater retention and ownership of the learning process,” said Jerry Beckman, Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs. “Once students can truly own their own learning they are able to ask higher level questions, synthesize material, and then form opinions that are substantiated by facts and data. Once new thoughts and opinions are solidified they can then be tested in problem-solving scenarios. This ongoing cycle provides opportunities for each student to learn, unlearn, and relearn.”