Research skills and curriculum support in the school library

Written by: Valerie Dewhurst | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The school library – and librarian – can play a crucial role in supporting your curriculum projects and by teaching crucial research and other skills. But how can school librarians engage with teaching staff and kick-start effective collaboration? Valerie Dewhurst advises

Research skills include the ability to search for, find, collect, analyse, interpret and evaluate information that is relevant to subject areas. As educators, we are all aware that research shapes the future – it teaches us new things and helps us to adapt and evolve. Therefore, what better place to start your research than in the school library?

So, as librarians, how can we encourage teachers to start their research project in the school library? One way is to showcase what can be achieved. A short video showcasing a piece of research that has been undertaken, a fabulous display of work and maybe even some feedback from colleagues who have successfully carried out a project with students can be effective.

All we really want to be is part of the research process. Moreover, once we have been successful with a booking, it is surprising just how quickly word will spread among staff.

First, however, we need to find out about the projects studied in your school. As such, accessing schemes of work is vital. In my school, schemes of work appear in the shared drive and for me as the librarian this helps immensely as I can see at a glance just what our students are studying before I plan my termly displays and purchase stock to enhance these projects.

Here are some other techniques and approaches I would recommend using to engage with your teachers (for more teaching and learning ideas for your school library, see my previous article for SecEd, here)

Book boxes: These have really taken off in my school and I issue up to five book boxes a term across both primary and senior phases. My work with our attached primary phase has developed immensely. Recently, year 1 was researching how the use of computers has developed our everyday life. It was wonderful to play a little part in this research by supplying a book box. If your librarian does not offer book boxes then maybe you could be the first to sew the seed, helping to get the books off the shelves and into the hands of your students.

Group work/collaboration: Try and discuss your plans with teachers. Catch them in the staffroom early morning, after briefing, or at break or lunch times. Meeting new members of teaching staff is necessary as we need time to introduce the library to them. It is important to let them know about how we can help with research.

Sharing success: We need others to see what can and does happen. News among your colleagues travels fast. Recently one of our year 7 students came to ask if I would display her fantastic piece of science work because there was no more space in her classroom. I was touched that the student had thought of the library and told her I would happily display her work. I was also keen to let her teacher know and sent a photo of the science book display created with the piece of work as the centrepiece. To my surprise, I was then asked if I had room for more of the project work, which I did. Before I knew it, I had some excellent pieces of work to add to the display. The conversation escalated, and it led to students using the library for their next research project as well as bookings from other science teachers and teachers of other subjects, such as music.

Which research skills?

Librarians can use their expertise and knowledge to help combat the tendency of some young people to rely on copy and paste. As a librarian and a professional, I do worry for the future regarding information retrieval. School libraries can play a role in supporting and leading the teaching of research skills including:

  • Finding information using the internet.
  • Analysis of information from different sources.
  • Critical thinking.
  • Data collection and analysis.
  • Report-writing.

These are academic skills and the librarian is always eager to help teachers when it comes to supporting students. For example, we might begin by teaching six steps for online research:

  • Check your sources – always!
  • Ask good questions.
  • Go beyond the surface.
  • Be patient.
  • Respect ownership.
  • Use your networks.

And when arguing the case for research skills, it may also help to point out the cross-overs with work-related skills:

  • Reading and writing.
  • Critical-thinking.
  • Statistical and graphical analysis of data.
  • Presentation and communication.
  • Attention to detail.
  • Planning and scheduling.

Getting started

It is often hard for a student to know where to start with a piece of research. I explain the need to think about the resources available: text books, other subject books, library books, books at home, periodicals, newspapers, magazines, museums and, of course, the internet.

I also point out that the quality of the resources they use is more important than the quantity, so finding the right resources is paramount. A good starting point is talking to a librarian and/or visiting the school or a public library.

Any time spent with the librarian can help students with their research planning and teaches them how to use libraries and resources effectively. I use the guidelines below, especially when delivering the Extended Project Qualification in my school. The most effective researchers:

  • Take time to plan.
  • Find a question that is both challenging and possible, both open and focused.
  • Explore many kinds of sources, not just textbooks.
  • Learn how to speed-read.
  • Find relevant information quickly.
  • Think analytically and imaginatively about what they find.
  • Store their notes in efficient and interesting ways.
  • Collaborate with others and take on other people’s views.
  • Present their final ideas in inspiring and effective ways and use what they find to solve a problem or make a difference.

At the start of a project when students are not sure where to draw the boundaries, I suggest that they find a sheet of paper and make a diagram of all their questions, associations, sources and leads. They might mark their most compelling thoughts in a vibrant colour and mark the main links to those ideas in the same colour.

However, they should not throw out their weaker or isolated thoughts. This map will help them to place them – they could be stepping-stones to further the research.

Eliminating anything that seems too fussy in turn will help students to clear their head and properly focus on their chosen topic. Thoughts sometimes appear cluttered, so putting them down onto paper really does help.

The FOSIL (Framework of Skills for Inquiry Learning) group has a range of resources based around its skills framework. The FOSIL Inquiry Stage elements – connect, wonder, investigate, construct, express, reflect – are all a big part of research.

Contact your librarian!

If you are a teacher reading this, what is keeping you from booking your school library, sharing your projects, making good use of the resources, and giving your students that much needed library experience?

We have the resources, we have probably asked you for book suggestions and no doubt bought all of those in – there really is no reason to avoid this wonderful resource in school. We want to share our expertise and our knowledge and supporting your teaching and the development of students’ research skills is a great place to begin.

  • Valerie Dewhurst is head of library at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Blackburn.

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