Research in the Elementary Classroom: It’s Not About Finding Information Anymore

Mary Beth Hertz is a certified Instructional Technology Specialist and K-7 Technology Teacher in Philadelphia, PA. She has presented at a number of conferences and is a blogger and avid user of social media. She is also a co-organizer of Edcamp Philly and sits on the Edcamp Foundation Board. She was also named an ISTE Emerging Leader in 2010. She is passionate about making school meaningful and about all things edtech.


When it comes to teaching research in the younger grades, it is easy to turn an opportunity for building vital academic skills into an exercise in regurgitation. Too often in elementary classrooms students are taught that research means finding information and then putting that same information into a slide show, on a poster, or in a report. There is misconception that young children are not capable of developing questions, finding answers and synthesizing information. As a result, when students reach the older grades, they struggle with complex research problems and produce products that resemble Google searches—lists of facts and links to where the facts came from.

In a world overcome by information overload, finding information is never a problem. Even a 1st grader can type the word ‘gorilla’ into a search box and find information. The question is, what can a 1st grader do with that information? If all we ask is for the child to list 5 facts about gorillas, we have missed out on a huge opportunity.

Why did the child first want to look up information about gorillas? What were they hoping to find? If we don’t teach young people to develop a path for their research, then they will easily become lost in the massive amounts of information available (just try typing ‘gorillas’ into a search engine and see what you find). When students have a goal in mind, they are more likely to be able to find meaning in the information they find and use it in ways that require critical thinking and creative applications.

That said, sometimes questions don’t arise until we have sorted through some information, so a little browsing can’t hurt. But if we browse for too long then we lose a sense of what we were looking for in the first place.

Once students have found some answers to their questions (which may have required them to revise their questions along the way), what will they do with the information that they have found?

Here is where the role of the teacher becomes vital. A teacher can help set a goal for the research process as well as a plan for synthesizing the information students uncover. Even a 1st grader, once he or she has found information about gorillas can either say “I learned that gorillas eat mostly plants.” Or they could say, “I learned that if I were a gorilla, I’d have to have lots of plants around to stay alive.” While there is only a small nuance in the two statements, the implications are huge. In the second statement, it is obvious that the student has not only memorized a fact, but is able to apply it to a situation.

Let’s not underestimate our students. Let’s prepare them for the more complex job of analyzing and interpreting information. We no longer live in a time when information is hard to get our hands on. It’s what we do with that information that counts.

Which of these research projects about animals would you assign?

  • What are 5 things you learned about your animal? Create a poster or a presentation about what you learned. Include links to where you found your information.
  • Describe the animal to someone who has never seen one before. Include what it eats, where it lives, what it looks like and another interesting fact. Make sure to include links to where you found your information.
  • Your parents have said that you can have any animal as a pet. Write them a letter telling them why you want your animal as a pet, how you will take care of it and why they should let you keep the animal as pet. Make sure that you include references to back up your argument.
  • An evil wizard has turned you into an animal. Write a story about a day in the life of that animal from the animal’s point of view. Make sure to include references to important information about the animal in case the wizard casts the spell on someone else.

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