Rather than trying to teach your students facts, try teaching them how to learn. Our brains learn better and retain more when we are forced to figure out the answer for ourselves. Have students research important questions for your unit of study and then teach this information to the rest of the class. The Learning Pyramid shows that 90% of learning is retained when directly applied or taught to others. Wow! What a statement that makes! When we teach our students how to learn, to be able to find information for themselves, we are in effect teaching them how to be lifelong learners.
Does this mean that as teachers we sit back and do nothing? Of course not! We are the facilitators in this process. Our students need to be taught how to ask the right questions and how to find the information. They also need to be taught how to process and use that same information. We must teach about sources of information. We must teach how to take notes from information that we read. We must teach how to put that information into an organized presentation, and we must teach our students how to either apply or teach it to others!
Start with the basics and walk students through their first project step-by-step.
What kind of question do I ask?
Teach students how to create questions that will allow them to discover further information about their topic. You can begin with the basics of who, what, where, when, why, and how. Don't forget about using Bloom's Taxonomy keywords to help students create questions. These may be statements of action rather than questions, but serve the same purpose. Using Bloom's keywords also help students take their research from the basic Knowledge level to the higher cognitive levels of Synthesis and Evaluation.
Where do I go to find the information?
Teach students (yes even the young ones) about primary and secondary sources and where the sources can be accessed. Get them thinking about why we use both primary and secondary sources. Primary sources offer us original documents and eye-witness accounts of information as written by the person involved in the event. Secondary sources can provide analysis of those primary sources, an overview of the information, and various interpretations of the event or concept.
Provide opportunities for your students to become familiar with the school and public library as well as locating information on the internet. This is also a good opportunity to teach students how to discern whether the information gained from an internet site is valid. This can be done by finding support documents from primary sources or similar information from organizations that have proven to be reliable sources.
How do I pull out the most important and relevant information to answer my question?
Teach students how to take notes from written and oral sources. This is an excellent time to practice locating the main idea and supporting details in a paragraph or other piece of writing. Student notes should answer the questions developed in the beginning, focusing on the main idea and supporting details. As students get more proficient, they should be able to skim the passage to determine whether it provides the necessary information.
How do I organize this information?
Teach students several different methods for organization. This allows students to choose the method that will best present the information they've gathered. Information can be organized many ways, including: chronological order, linear line of thought – one idea leading to the next, and position statements followed by supporting facts.
How can I apply this information in a meaningful way?
Teach students to look for the "why" of their research. What's the point of doing this besides the fact that it is required for your class? Students need to think about the new information in a way that is meaningful. How would our lives be different if a historical event had not occurred or was resolved differently? What choices will the student make in their life now that they've learned this new information? How does this information currently affect the student's life or appear in the student's life? This is a difficult step for many students not used to thinking about information in a way that personally relates to them.
How can I best teach others this information?
Teach students different strategies for presenting and teaching information. This can be done through a question/answer session, creating an interactive website, creating a board game, or designing a scavenger hunt or web quest. Standing in front of the classroom giving an oral presentation (lecture) is not the only method students should use to disseminate information. If you really want students to teach others, give them each a chance to be the teacher and create their own lesson teaching the class about the topic they studied.
Once you've taught your students these important skills, utilize them each six weeks in a project related to your unit of study. Another option is to work on one major project throughout the entire semester (or year) and have students complete one step each grading period. This may be a better option for younger students who are just beginning to learn the process of researching new information.
I always start out with a simple project such as answering one question in one or two paragraphs with an explanation, and get more involved from there. I may have students do a simple presentation and visual. Pop-up books are fun for elementary students and do not take up much class time to create when only one page.
Don't forget about experiments, learning centers, scavenger hunts, web quests, and other simple projects that may not be as time-consuming. Even finding the answer to a simple question promotes active learning on the part of a student. Let your students discover the knowledge for themselves and share their findings with others. I think you'll find that you have a classroom full of motivated and excited students who want to learn! No child is too young or too old to learn these skills!