Program teaches kids valuable research skills

Kids may be computer savvy but it doesn't mean they know how to effectively gather information and create a project.

A few years ago, my then 12-year-old son came home from school and announced he had a history project on Henry VIII due in a few weeks. When I suggested we go to the local library to find research materials, he shrugged off the idea. Wikipedia and a Google search would give him enough material to write the paper, he tried to reassure me.

My answer was a resounding “no,” and we eventually did go to the library. But as I watched him struggle to pull together all the material, I realized that he, like many other students, was lacking what experts call “information literacy.” This term refers to the ability to define a research question, find sources of information, evaluate the relevance and accuracy of the data and synthesize it all into a presentation (a paper, an oral report, etc.).

Information literacy is a vital skill in today’s world because there is so much information available for students to sift through — especially because of the Internet. But as parents and teachers know, helping our children develop these critical skills takes time, patience and practice.

Thankfully, there is a new resource available that has been designed by Concordia University’s Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance (CSLP), a research centre focused on developing tools and strategies to improve how children learn. It’s a computer program called ISIS-21 (named after the Egyptian goddess of magic and the giver of life), and it teaches students how to do a research project.

Nadia Bruzzese, a teacher at Clearpoint Elementary school in Pointe Claire, used the program with her fourth grade students last year. Although the program is geared toward kids in Grade 5 and up, she said her students found it very helpful with their research project on recyclable materials.

“Adults are a paper and pencil generation,” she says. “These kids are not.” However, although students are comfortable using computers, many don’t have any idea how to research information effectively. “Most of them will go to answers.com for everything. It’s up to us to teach them proper research skills.”

The program explains the different steps needed for creating a project. Students are asked to define their project and then set goals, such as learning how to do research at the library or getting the project done at least a day before it is due.

Then, by answering a series of questions, students discover what they do and don’t know and what keywords they will need to use to search for information. While it includes links to various web-based searchable directories, the program encourages students to visit libraries, look at news and magazine databases as well as interview experts.

Working with her students for about two hours a week, Bruzzese was able to have them create simple, but well-researched projects. In fact, she’ll be using the program this year with the same group of students who are now in Grade 5. She also praises the program’s teaching activity, a brightly illustrated game that asks participants to plan a burial for an Egyptian pharaoh. Working through the game allows students to try out all the different steps in the program from defining their question to doing a search with keywords. “It was such a concrete way to model research skills,” she says.

The program is part of the CSLP’s Learning Toolkit, which includes Abracadabra, a set of web-based literacy activities, and ePearl, a bilingual program for creating electronic portfolios of student work. Anne Wade, the centre’s manager and information specialist, says the programs are used by English school boards across the province and in some French boards.

She says that the ISIS-21 program responds to a growing gap in young people’s ability to work effectively on projects. “Too many students don’t know how to critically evaluate the sources of information” she says. “They don’t know how to compare and contrast ideas. And most of all, they have a hard time synthesizing their research, coming to their own conclusions and presenting their knowledge in creative ways.”
This program put students in an environment they know (i.e. in front of a computer screen), but then pushes them to develop critical research skills that will serve them throughout their lifetime.

Information on the Learning Toolkit, which includes ISIS-21, can be found at http://doe.concordia.ca/cslp/ICT-LTK.php. The toolkit is available, free of charge, to schools and educational institutions but not individuals.

However, parents can learn more about how ISIS-21 works by visiting http://grover.concordia.ca/isis/promo/home.php and clicking on “Features” to see an example of a project created with ISIS-21.