What Research is Not

It occurs to me that there are a few ways to get kids not to love research.  And one is to teach what I call the “look it up and put it here” method of research.  This is a lot like this little creation that Thomas Jefferson had in his home at Monticello, invented by John Isaac Hawkins,  which he called a “polygraph,” but is more often referred to as a “pantograph” today.  Here’s a picture of Jefferson’s polygraph:

polygraph(Thomas Jefferson Foundation – Monticello)

And here’s the kind I’m more familiar with from my childhood:

EZ Tracer


Nostalgia aside, this is the type of research where you ask a student to look up something (factual, an answer to a question, etc.) and then you have them transfer said information onto a piece of paper that is close at hand.

How to look up information in sources is a very important skill, and I’m not knocking it.  Information literacy teachers call this “location and access” when we want to sound official.   If you need information, obviously it helps if you know how to find it.  But if that is the extent of what students are taught research “is” then I have a few problems with this method:

1.  This is an excellent way to teach students to plagiarize. It teaches them that there are questions they will have to answer, and that there are answers out there, and all they have to do it find them and copy them over and somehow this will prove that they have learned the material.  In some instances, they don’t even need to understand what they are copying over.  Like the pantograph, they transfer the information from one location to the other, and that is sufficient to complete the “research” task.

What this does not teach is that some of the answers will need to come from themselves, and though they will use the information they find in sources, those sources in and of themselves cannot provide all meaningful answers.  What adds the meaning to the answer is what the student does with it.

So my picture of Thomas Jefferson’s polygraph up there, it could be a part of an assignment that says: Pick an early 19th century invention and describe it. Or, it could be a part of an assignment that says: Pick an early 19th century invention and show how it has influenced other inventions that we use today. The first assignment requires me to look up information and explain it (hopefully in my own words).  The second assignment makes me find out what the polygraph is, but may also make me look at what a “modern-day” polygraph is, or may lead me off in the direction of the mechanism of a polygraph, and how artists have used it, or draftsmen, or hydraulics.  I might throw in building one for myself, which is another kind of research, my favorite kind – the “living” kind where my hands get to do the learning.

2.  It’s easy to get wrapped up in the source and not in the learning. In “look it up and put it here” research, the goal is to find the answer and then to report back on where you found it by citing it in your bibliography.  So, find out what someone else says/thinks, and then tell me the name of that person so I can go thank them.  🙂  I believe that the sources are looked at as a means to an end.  Yes, it’s important to give credit to the sources of your information, and to make sure that those sources are authoritative and accurate.  But I strongly feel that the sources should lead a student to a discovery of their own.

3.  It’s not that exciting. To look something up and then write it down somewhere else.  I am interested in getting students to love research, not to see it as a Medieval Monk’s job of copying information from one place to another.

Just another thing I battle with when I think about the fact that Research can get such a bad rap with students.


“Jefferson and the Polygraph.”  Monticello,  Thomas Jefferson Foundation.  Accessed on November 12, 2009.  http://www.monticello.org/reports/interests/polygraph.html.


About Paula Montrie

I am a Middle School Librarian at Friends School of Baltimore. I have been a librarian for 11 years, serving 6 years with the Howard County Public School System before arriving at my current school. I teach two classes: SpeechCraft (a combination of information literacy, public speaking and theater), and Media Literacy at the middle school level. I also collaboratively co-teach with a number of teachers at the school, including Music, Geography, and U.S. History. I love it! My professional interests are: information literacy, multiple intelligences and learning styles, teaching through movement, curriculum-writing, technology integration, and bridging the gap between digital natives and digital immigrants. My personal interests are: dancing, singing, knitting, sewing, art, living history, writing and of course - reading!
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One Response to What Research is Not

  1. Pingback: Bibliography Anxiety « Reeled In Research

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