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Summer Issue

Vol 25|No 6|Summer 2016


Bigger is not better!

By Jamie McKenzie (about author)

This article is an excerpt from Chapter Six of Jamie's new book, The Great Report.

Sometimes teachers and students confuse length with quality. A big pile of information and a long report do not necessarily indicate that anything worthwhile is expressed in those pages. A big landfill is still a landfill.

Other teachers may put their faith in “big questions.” But “big questions” may be stupid questions.

“What happened in World War I?”

“What happened in World War II?”

We expect that students will do intense thinking, considerable synthesis and come up with findings that are startling. Our expectations focus on the depth of the analysis and the inventiveness of the thinking.

Length tells us next to nothing.

The degree of difficulty

In order to spell out what we are looking for, we explain to students that there are degrees of importance, significance and challenge associated with various questions and issues.

It is somewhat like the scoring system used for Olympic divers. Some dives are much more difficult to execute, so the points awarded by the judges are then multiplied by the degree of difficulty that has been calculated for each dive based on the elements of a dive listed below.

According to Woody Franklin, “Each dive has elements to it that make it more or less difficult than another dive.”1 These elements include:

• The number of somersaults performed
• The position in which the dive is performed (tuck, pike, straight, free)
• The number of twists performed
• The approach of the dive (forward, back, reverse, inward, armstand)
• The level from which the dive is performed (one-meter, three-meter, platform levels)
• The type of entry (natural vs unnatural)

Because I could find no similar scoring system developed for K-12 educational research questions, it was necessary to invent one, as I did for the levels of synthesis2 a few years back:


What are the key elements that determine the degree of difficulty of a research question?

• Is this a mystery within human understanding but somewhat elusive?
• Will this question demand original thought, synthesis and perseverance?
• Will this question require much detective work, gathering and considering evidence, clues and data in order to develop a position?
• Has anyone else already asked (and answered) this same question?
• Have previous attempts to address this question eliminated the mystery?
• Is it possible to create an answer within just a few minutes by doing a Google search or will it take weeks of digging and thinking?

The table below defines four degrees of difficulty with 4 being the toughest level and 1 being the least challenging.

Rating the Question’s Degree of Difficulty


No one else has ever asked this question before and building an answer will require imaginative thinking and much synthesis of information gathered. Because it is unique there will be no previous work to guide you.


While others have explored this question previously, it has perplexed people for so long it has never been answered to anyone’s satisfaction. Building an answer will require imaginative thinking and much synthesis of information gathered as well as a review of previous attempts.


This question or issue has been explored many times before and already answered but there is disagreement over those answers. All that is required is a review of that past work in order to select the most reasonable and defensible answer.


This question or issue has been explored many times before and already answered to satisfaction. It will require nothing more than paraphrasing and summarizing.

Those teachers who wish to elevate the type of research being conducted by their students may use this concept — The Degree of Difficulty — to help students aim higher and reach for more interesting understandings.


Image © iStock.com


1. “Calculating Degree of Difficulty for Dives — DD Formula in Springboard and Platform Diving.” By Woody Franklin http://diving.about.com/od/meetscompetitions/a/ddCalculation.htm

2. “A Taxonomy of Synthetic Thought and Production” http://fno.org/may09/synthesis.html

great report

You can learn more about The Great Report and read
sample chapters by clicking here.

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