a tool for high school researchers

As an English teacher, I dove into blogs and books that decried “school genres.” Stacey Shubitz, Nancie Atwell, and others wanted students to write real pieces of writing: according to them, students could be poets, novelists, essayists, and reviewers, not just apprentices of the five-paragraph essay or book report.

As I transitioned from teaching English to teaching A Level Global Perspectives and Research, I took this philosophy with me: students would be real researchers. This class wouldn’t be just a ‘school project.’ I believed students couldbe experts on their chosen topics and that their research reports would add value to a larger dialogue. I wanted to trust students and learn from them. I wanted students to see themselves as researchers – articulate enough to engage in a dialogue with the more pedigreed researchers whose reports they read in their literature reviews, discerning enough to see their own limitations as 18-year-olds without the same methodological training or financial resources, and confident enough to defend the conclusions that they did ultimately reach in their research process.

As a result, I wanted student research to be personally motivated. That didn’t necessarily mean that the questions needed to change. I could be interested in cancer treatment because last year’s high-scoring example was on the same topic, because I saw it as a headline in yesterday’s newspaper, because I have a family history of cancer, because I want to be an oncologist, or because I’m passionate about data-driven medicine. My goal is to avoid ‘just because’ rationales and instead ask for (and teach) intrinsic and insatiable curiosity.  

But I didn’t know where to begin. The Cambridge International Research Proposal Form was a required part of a student’s submission, but doesn’t support students in generating their topic ideas and choosing the right fit for them.  When I began graduate school, I took several research courses that provided several templates for research proposals, but they were meant for master’s or PhD students, not 12th graders. Nevertheless, one of my graduate school professors, Dr. Aaliyah El-Amin, asked us “Who are you to ask this research question?” as part of the final project proposal process for her research methodology course: Emancipatory Inquiry. This stood out to me as a great question – one that captured a lot of what I was trying to help students understand as they embarked on the research process as young adults.

In my whole-class instruction, I model some of these habits of mind through a transparent sharing of my own research process and present students with a wide-range of research reports. I pick topics within the realms of gender and education, because that’s where all of my students have some prior knowledge, and facilitate conversations so that students can see the research process come to life. At the same time, I ask students to work through the attached reflection, which attempts to help students answer and explore the implications of Dr. El-Amin’s question. I check in with students at the end of each section of the reflection, probing and pushing so that students ultimately choose questions that they’re happy with and topics where they want to be experts.

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Below are the five sections that I use to frame my students’ reflections, with a brief explanation of the purpose and thinking behind each:

Section A: Personal Reflection and Brainstorming

I ask students to figure out what they care about. Each of the three options is designed to approach and unpack “interest” and “curiosity” differently – research could be personal, could be a persistent question, or a problem that students are itching to solve. There are, however, pitfalls to each of the three options as well. Forcing students to think about the personal could be triggering; forcing students to think of their unanswered questions could send students into the vacuous and unstructured ‘staring out the window’ trap; and forcing students to confront world problems to solve could incentivize righteousness over rigor and intellectual humility. Hence, I provide students with the choice and coach them to pick the option that feels more sustainable and useful to them.

While students are working on this section, I share models of my own work and explain why I might focus on certain topics or avoid others. I share my own personal timeline and its related passions, a list of the kinds of books I tend to pick up for fun and hence which may or may not be lingering questions that I grapple with through my reading, and a set of problems that I’m itching to solve both personally and professionally.

Section B: Objectivity, Expertise, and Validity

I want students to explore the key sources they need to be able to fully understand their chosen topics. I want students to explore all the possible methods that they could use to excavate truth behind their chosen topics. And I want students to hold themselves to high standards of expertise in service of writing a high-quality and genuinely impactful research report by the end of the year.

As a result, I ask students to unpack for themselves what objectivity, expertise, and validity might look like in the context of their research paper. My students don’t have access to getting a PhD before they can write their first research report. They don’t have the funding to execute a randomized controlled trial. They don’t have the statistical training to run regression analyses controlling for potentially confounding variables. But, I would argue, they do have something to say, and they do have the ability to uncover truth about a topic through their experiences, access, and language skills.

During this time, I teach research methods to my students. I am forever grateful to Sally Campbell Galman for writing about research methods in a highly accessible way, and to Gretchen Brion-Meisels for introducing me to her work. I teach students about interviewing, conducting focus groups, and reviewing secondary literature while also exposing students to ethnography, arts-based methods, and survey design. I place my emphasis on the methods that I think high school students can do well and deprioritize the kind of statistics instruction that cannot fit into a 12th grade classroom. However, my students must know how to look at a graph and understand and deconstruct a quantitative research paper as well as they can a qualitative one – I just don’t hold them accountable to conducting quantitative inquiry.

If a student picks a topic that is truly best explored through RCTs, I still push them to go for it. But I hold them accountable to understanding enough of the methodology that they can truly evaluate and question other researchers’ conclusions with both curiosity and rigor. If a student wants to explore the historical underpinnings of the Treaty of Versailles, they have to read historians’ take and supplement that with a perusal of the relevant primary sources. But I also ask students to consider writing about how Maharashtra state textbooks have changed over the last decade or how LGBTQ communities are treated in the contemporary urban Indian landscape, because these are stories that they can tell with rigor, expertise, and nuance. These are areas where the secondary literature is scant and the scope for high-quality primary research is high – places where many more qualified researchers often have to make compromises on rigor due to their own constraints (i.e. they don’t have the language skills or they don’t have the context and expertise to step into the communities that my students consider home). I try to use this section as an opportunity for students to see and understand their own strengths and really believe that their voice in the research community can be more than a simple summary of other experts and instead shape conversations on the issues that most matter to them.

Section C: Why

Students have now thought about what they care about and the extent to which they can approach true expertise in the various topics that they’ve gravitated towards. In this section, I want them to synthesize both of these ideas and construct a coherent paragraph around the topic they want to explore in their research project and why it makes the most sense, both within the constraints of a year-long A Level course and for their own identity, interest, and access. This is where I sit down with students and ask them to choose from many topics and really narrow it down to one. Instead of classes, I have one-on-one check-ins with students where I really push and probe for clarity based on sections A and B, and push for students to make a choice.

Section D: Pushing your thinking and considering multiple perspectives

Now that students have chosen a topic, I want them to look at it from as many different lenses or disciplines as possible.

Before students fill out this section, I run a series of lessons where I model what it means to look at an issue with different lenses. I ask students to pick a topic (usually related to education, given that this is what all students have experienced firsthand), and ask them to brainstorm research questions that look at the economics of education, the sociology of education, the history of education, the philosophy of education, the psychology/cognitive science in education, and more. For each, we have a short conversation about the appropriate methodologies that would be most useful and illuminating, so that students can understand that a cognitive science approach would involve more secondary literature and perhaps no primary research, whereas a sociology project might look very different.

Then I ask students to fill out Section D for their own topic. A common exercise I run after the fact is asking students to get into small groups with their first attempt at Section D and have them push each other to add more and more lenses and questions as a collective. The collaboration, here, is highly effective – almost always a student is able to see some angle to a topic that the researcher herself might not have noticed.

Section E: Your research and inquiry plan              

Finally, I ask students to dive into their chosen topic and start reading and researching. Before they identify a research question, I want them to really begin building background knowledge. Often, students explore something where they have little background knowledge or context, which often leads to unnuanced “sides” or perspectives to the issue that then fall apart over the research process.

For example, if a student picks up the death penalty as an initial topic, the first few articles might debate whether it should be abolished. Quickly, however, the research dives into the financial costs, the procedural delays, and the imperfect justice system. With that additional knowledge and context, a student can consider more nuanced and complex topics – should those on death row be allowed to vote? Is lethal injection cruel and unusual?

This section attempts to push students to pursue an inquiry cycle before they finalize a particular research question, design their investigation, and choosing their methodological approach. In this section, I hope that students build context in service of specificity, and through the process reflect on whether what interests them is truly something they can unpack with expertise and rigor in the 9 months or so that they have in front of them. 

Again, modelling is important here, and I often ask students to engage in some form of research and inquiry collectively, even if over just a couple of days, before they embark on their own.

My hope is that pushing for rigor and reflection in the beginning of the research process, students start off their research process with a lot of clarity and excitement. The research process can be long and the data collection process at times arduous, confusing, or demotivating. My hope is that these five sections allow students to center themselves and remember the importance of asking questions that matter, both to themselves and their communities.

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