Part Six
From Information
to Insight
to Persuasion



After passing through several repetitions of the Research Cycle as outlined in the preceding articles of this series, a student or team of students will finally determine that they have established a sufficient basis for insight. Having devoted long hours to the collection, sorting and sifting of data, they are now ready to answer the question, "So what?" And they are ready to provide at least tentative answers to the original essential questions which provoked the research project in the first place.

For the team seeking ways of protecting the salmon (as well as the fishing folk, the timber people and the utilities), it is now time to outline and present a set of action recommendations. The presentation must be illuminating (as in "casting light" upon the subject} , but it must also be persuasive. If we set up such projects properly, the report is presented to an authentic audience such as a state legislator or a mixed group of special interest representatives whose behaviors the students hope to influence.

For the team selecting a New England city fitting for their families, it is now time to present their findings to their parents in a way that will establish the case for the winning city. This does not mean a "skewed" or a "slanted" case. The team must fairly report the pros and cons of each city in terms of the selection criteria established early in the project, but they must do so in a clear, highly compacted manner which allows the parents to see the evidence without actually having to wade through all of it.

1. The Old Report - "How long does this have to be?"

There was a time - not so long ago, actually - when some teachers attached minimum length requirements to papers and reports, as if length were directly related to adequacy and quality of thought. Of course, most of these reports were topical in nature requiring "information-moving machines" like the building-sized equipment we see pictured in quarries. The idea was to gather as much information about a country or state or city as one could in one month's time and then lay out paragraph after paragraph of badly twisted prose produced by changing one word in each sentence. Length was associated with adequacy of coverage.

2. The New Report - "What shall we do?"

Students can now download hundreds of pages of articles and text without ever really reading them, understanding them or synthesizing them. Information has become so generally and abundantly available that students are confronted with a veritable "groaning board" of items, much of which is not much better than "fast food." In a time of "info-glut" it makes little sense to judge the quality of research by the number of pages. To the contrary, it may be time to strictly limit the number of words and pages presented.

If research has focused upon the kinds of essential questions suggested by this series of articles, the final report will suggest an action of some kind. "What shall we do?" Decision-making and problem-solving both require a reasonable choice from a list of options. It is the job of the research team to distill their findings until they are sharing just the most cogent and compelling information.

Cogent? The research team asks whether the information being shared with their audience is . . . to the point, well-grounded, well-argued, well-put, and relevant.

President Reagan was fond of requiring single page action recommendations from his cabinet, even when the decision was exceedingly complex. Even though his enemies suggested that his mind could not handle more complexity, there was wisdom in his strategy. Behind the summary page lay far more information. He wished to move straight to the "heart of the matter."

3. The New Report - "The sum of the parts . . ."

The new school report contains the following elements:

The consideration of a complex, essential question requiring either decision-making or problem-solving.

The emphasis of this process is the construction and reporting of new understandings. The performance by the students is intended to enlighten the audience, to open their minds to new ways of thinking. If they do their jobs well, they will educate!

A team effort.

Complex questions require a team to split up the work load, with each member taking on responsibility for major sections of the research plan described in the first article of this series. Practice in such teaming is directly relevant to the workplace skills most of our students will be asked to wield when solving problems for their future employers.

A clear explanation of the team's recommendations and conclusions.

The team sums up its position in a few tersely worded sentences which have been stripped of unnecessary language. This statement should be short, emphatic and precise.

An economical summary of the findings used to support and sustain the recommendations.

The team should identify and serve up just that evidence and information which is most compelling. Given the mountains and gigabits of data teams can collect with new technologies, this selection process is like sharing the tip of an iceberg. Just as statisticians speak of "crunching the numbers" to capture the idea of extracting meaning from thousands and thousands of data points, the research team presses the textual information they have gathered into something intense and fine.

Supporting data and information stored in searchable formats.

The rest of the data is still valuable, but it may be submitted as a database. The group can easily demonstrate that it has hundreds of files to back up its position. They need not actually show up as printed pages. The teacher may scan the records as part of the evaluation. It is also possible for the group to employ hyperlinked text to present findings in multi-layered files. The top layers provide the focus for the performance. The middle and lower layers offer opportunities to examine data and evidence in far more detail and depth.

The skillful use of presentation technologies of various kinds to maximize persuasiveness.

Programs like Persuasion, PowerPoint, HyperCard, HyperStudio and Netscape support multimedia presentations which allow students to employ an impressive array of tools to make their case. The students may apply sound, motion, still photographs, graphs, tables and hyperlinked text to the challenge of educating and persuading the audience. The simple text-based report of yesteryear still has its place as supportive information, but it is rapidly becoming an anachronism. If schools make text-based reports the primary vehicle for student reporting, they are behind the times.

Evidence of logical reasoning.

In the old report, gathering a large quantity of information was the priority. In the new report, demonstrating powerful reasoning is the priority. The argument (or case) should be laid out by the research team in a clear, highly structured manner.

4. Evaluating the New Report

As with most school work, students deserve to be told the evaluation criteria before they begin work on the project. As the team moves through the stages of the Research Cycle, the teacher holds structured conferences with the group every few days to monitor progress, make suggestions, provoke questions, and provide evaluative feedback.

In order to stress the importance of the research "process," it makes good sense to award credit and make evaluative grades of some sort for performance at each stage. Teachers too often save their grading for the end product.

Sample Criteria for Planning and Hunting Stages

How well does each student . . .

Question - employ questions to identify what the team needs to learn?
Categorize - break down and rearrange the thinking of the group into related groupings?
Suggest - offer ideas, strategies and direction?
Listen, build and support - piggyback, encourage, elaborate, ask for clarification?
Map - organize concepts, questions and challenges visually?

Sample Criteria for Sorting, Sifting and Synthesizing Stages

How well does each student . . .

Organize - set up and utilize categories to support sorting and sifting.
Rearrange - move information fragments around and test intriguing combinations.
Listen, build and support - piggyback, encourage, elaborate, ask for clarification?
Challenge - test the quality of thinking, push the investigation, review the logic, ask the unquestionable.
Assess - weigh the adequacy, the cogency, and the coherence of the case.

Sample Criteria for Reporting

How well does each student . . .

Summarize - select and condense critical concepts, findings, and evidence.
Organize - arrange the core material in a coherent, logical manner.
Present - exploit the array of multimedia tools available to "lay out" the case in a thorough and effective manner.
Persuade - make a connection with the passions and the interests of the audience in order to gain support for a particular recommendation or position.

Another approach to evaluation is to apply the rubrics contained within the Oak Harbor Information Skills Rating Scale


So little school research as we assigned it in the past seemed to matter much to students. Many of us were caught up in a ritual which was hard on both students and teachers. I can recall my own first years of teaching and the agony I sometimes inspired in the name of research. The country reports were probably the worst, as I recall it. Information moved from page to page, but insight was rarely a product of such research.

This series began with an appeal for research based upon essential questions. Research should matter to our students. They should care about the outcomes. They should feel passionately about the discoveries. Now and again they should thrill to an authentic "Aha!" or "Eureka!"

The ultimate test of our success, I suppose, is whether or not the students themselves can answer the question, "So what?" Did all the investigating lead to discoveries and insights which will illuminate their lives? Did they emerge with skills that will serve them well in their futures as family members, citizens and workers grappling with the issues and problems of the next century?

The model offered in this six part series is designed to meet that challenge. May it serve you well.

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©1995, Jamie McKenzie
A single copy of this material may be downloaded and/or printed only by individuals for personal use. Any further distribution, publishing or duplication is strictly prohibited unless permission is expressly granted by the author. No other copies may be made or transmitted in any form.

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