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November Issue

Vol 27|No 2|November 2016

A good question,
a good idea,
and a great report

By Jamie McKenzie (about author)

Great Report cover

If we hope to see students engaged in research that matters, we must avoid time-honored rituals that require little more than gathering, scooping and smushing.

Topical research has long served to limit the value of student exploration, as "go find out about" requires very little more than the collection of heaps of information. Especially with the electronic shovels that arrived a few decades back with the Internet, hunting and gathering has been simplified and expedited so radically that little thinking or labor is involved. Students can copy and paste at will, which has led to widespread plagiarism rather than authentic learning.

A good question should inspire and drive the research

A focus on essential questions or questions of import will set students free from the tedium and triviality of topical research. Instead of "finding out" about Benedict Arnold, Margaret Thatcher, Matthew Flinders or Joan of Arc, the student might explore questions like the following:

  • In what ways was the life remarkable?
  • In what ways was the life despicable?
  • In what ways was the life admirable?
  • What human qualities were most influential in shaping the way this person lived and influenced his or her times?
  • Which quality or trait proved most troubling and difficult?
  • Which quality or trait was most beneficial?
  • Did this person make any major mistakes or bad decisions?
    If so, what were they and how would you have chosen and acted differently if you were in their shoes?
  • What are the two or three most important lessons you or any other young person might learn from the way this person lived?
    Some people say you can judge the quality of a person's life by the enemies they make. Do you think this is true of your person's life? Explain why or why not.
  • An older person or mentor is often very important in shaping the lives of gifted people by providing guidance and encouragement.
    To what extent was this true of your person? Explain.
  • Many people act out of a "code" or a set of beliefs which dictate choices. It may be religion or politics or a personal philosophy. To what extent did your person act by a code or act independently of any set of beliefs?
  • Were there times when the code was challenged and impossible to follow?
  • What do you think it means to be a hero? Was your person a "hero?" Why? Why not? How is a hero different from a celebrity?

The above questions first appeared in the Biography Maker

Teachers should introduce their students to both types of questions — essential questions and questions of import — encouraging them to identify promising issues and questions from the curriculum content being studied.

If a class has never done this kind of research and questioning previously, it would be wise for the teacher to lead the group through a shared experience, scaffolding the skills required for success. In this case, the teacher will suggest the question that will inspire the investigation. Ultimately, the goal is to challenge students to formulate their own meaningful questions.

photo of Matthew Flinders © J. McKenzie

Good questions may produce good ideas

We expect all students to make up their minds and create ideas. Research should not be about copying the ideas of others. They can assess the character of Benedict Arnold, Margaret Thatcher, Matthew Flinders or Joan of Arc by looking at their actions and reflecting upon what those actions signify, just as they would when doing character analysis with someone from a novel.

What kind of man was Captain Matthew Flinders?

We expect students to use primary source materials to gather evidence that will enable them to build a case.

The source of stories and incidents might be a document located at Project Gutenberg's site - a collection of historical documents such as A Voyage to Terra Australis, by Matthew Flinders. Or they may browse through the Flinders Papers at the UK National Maritime Museum.

  • How did Flinders treat the native people he encountered?
  • How did Flinders treat his crew?
  • What were his strengths?
  • What were his weaknesses?
  • What can you say about his character based on his story about his cat Trim?
  • How would you rate Flinders' treatment by the Admiralty by the time he made it back to Britain?
  • Was Flinders arrogant?
  • Was Flinders brave?

There are many experts who have disagreed about Flinders. Even though he is deservedly treated as a hero by many Australians, as with many heroes, he had feet of clay. Students must look past the claims and assertions of historians and come to their own conclusions based on his actions.

During the 1980s and 1990s, constructivist learning theories were quite popular in the USA. These theories promoted the value of students building their own ideas and meanings. With the advent of No Child Left Behind and high stakes testing, such progressive learning strategies fell out of favor.

If students cannot build their own ideas and challenge the ideas of others, they become prey to marketeers, propagandists, demagogues, snake salespersons and false prophets. They become susceptible.

In Orwell's 1984, the government tried to eliminate independent thinking. It was called "crimethink" and the government hoped to eliminate such thinking by restricting the general population to a vocabulary of fewer than 1,000 words.

The health and well-being of any democracy depends upon a well-informed citizenry capable of wrestling with difficult concepts. If citizens cannot think for themselves, they are easily mobilized and manipulated by unscrupulous leaders and demagogues.

And after the research and thinking, a Great Report

We expect students to share their thinking and their findings persuasively and effectively.

Conducting the research can be a bit like a safari, a hot air balloon ride or a roller coaster ride. Actually, since the student should be driving, bumper cars, race cars, plows and augurs might make better metaphors. There should be plenty of driving, digging, wondering and discovering. The research process should be exhilarating.

The student repeatedly tastes the joy of AHA.

Composing and then presenting the report should also be thrilling, as the student is hoping to communicate the excitement felt during the research and share dramatic findings with pizazz and panache.

Standing in front of an audience, the student shares findings that bedazzle and delight everyone listening and watching.

It is up to the teacher and class to agree upon the criteria and standards for the evaluation of presentations. There may be several different rubrics, each of which will focus on one aspect of the presentation. Just one is provided below as an example.

Rating Dramatic Delivery


The presenter shared findings in a lively, impassioned manner, speaking with authority and conviction while maintaining excellent eye contact and a strong connection with the audience. At times the presentation was startling and entertaining as well as illuminating.


The presenter shared findings in a fascinating, calm manner, speaking with conviction while maintaining good eye contact and a solid connection with the audience. The presentation was illuminating and enjoyable, holding the interest and attention of the audience throughout.


The presenter shared findings in a matter-of-fact manner that lacked dramatic impact but spoke clearly and put across the main ideas so they were easily understood. The engagement of the audience was just tepid — lukewarm and unenthused.


The presenter had considerable difficulty sharing findings. Enthusiasm and dramatic effects were missing, so the audience had difficulty maintaining attention.

We hope to avoid PowerPointlessness and what Dilbert calls “PowerPoint poisoning.”9

Too many bullets. Too much crummy clip art. Simple thoughts. One liners. Mind bytes. Mind candy. Death by powerpointing!

Multimedia presentations should be compelling and persuasive.

Note: You will find extensive resources supporting this kind of research in The Great Report, an outline of which may be found here.

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