Research Cycle

 Vol 6|No 2|December|2009
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Connecting the Dots

By Jamie McKenzie
About Author

This article first appeared in Knowledge Quest, a publication of the American Association of School Librarians. The Issue is Questions
Volume 38, No. 1
September/October 2009
© 2009 J. McKenzie

The recently published Standards for the 21st Century Learner from the American Association of School Librarians is quite clear in its stress upon original thinking:
“Learners use skills, resources and tools to draw conclusions, make informed decisions, apply knowledge to new situations, and create new knowledge.”

An essential aspect of those skills required to create new knowledge on a challenging issue is the generation of questions powerful enough to guide exploration toward insight.

When students first suggest questions to guide their investigation, there is considerable danger that these questions will stand separate from one another - disconnected and lacking in association. Noting such connections is an essential aspect of making meaning, of passing beyond information to insight and understanding.

The secret to achieving insight is the finding of links among and between questions so that the ensuing research will not be limited to discrete findings - mere scraps of information. To move beyond the scooping of information to the development of understanding and new knowledge, students must be skilled at webbing questions.

Students will be doing more than collecting information. They will be generating new ideas and new understandings as they explore the web of connections between and across questions.

True research into matters of consequence involves the resolution of dissonance, and a complex web of inter-related questions has the capacity to inspire momentum, while collections of discrete questions provoke little energy and are likely to prove somewhat static.

Ironically, some currently popular approaches to inquiry fail to address this challenge and easily fall into the scooping and collection trap rather than the invention opportunity. While students may be looking at important issues and concepts, they can easily slip into cutting and pasting the ideas of others instead of generating their own.

I. Mind-Mapping and Questioning

Mind-mapping software programs such as Inspiration™ or Smart Ideas™ may be instrumental in helping a student or a team of students to identify the complex dimensions of the challenge before them. For that matter, a mind map drawn with chalk on a conventional blackboard may also prove powerful when a class first tries to grasp the issue, but it is a bit more difficult to move things around and stress connections with chalk. This version will also fail when it comes to sustained inquiry over a period of weeks as the cluster of questions will evolve in complexity beyond the capacity of the technology to manage it.

As an example to illustrate the questioning and webbing process, imagine a class pursuing the following challenge:

“What should we do about floods?”

It is a challenge that is all too relevant to many communities around the world, so it is quite possible to restate the challenge as follows:

“What should we do about floods in our town, province or region?”

This kind of research task might be called “problem-based learning” as it engages a team in creating an action plan to address a true issue. Students must take a stand and propose action. They do not stop with study. They must probe cause and effect relationships to determine which changes are worth proposing. They must see rivers and streams along with their watersheds as complex systems dramatically tied to other systems operated by humans (such as government bodies like planning boards or legislatures). While groups have traditionally failed in problem-solving by addressing symptoms of problems rather than their deeper causes, the mind-mapping process, if guided by a skilled teacher/facilitator, can help to insure that the deeper causes will be considered and addressed.

Unfortunately, the mere brainstorming of questions will not automatically lead to effective problem solving. Instead, the teacher will keep stressing the importance of linkages - cause and effect relationships - and will push for a diagram that is all encompassing. The challenge at hand may be stated as a question with the word “should” driving the inquiry, and the resulting diagram might sketch out dozens of subsidiary questions that will require attention in order to construct an action plan. Including “should” in the challenge forces the class to take a stand.

The main theme stressed here is the value of creating a web of questions that will be interconnected in ways that promote the generation of meaningful solutions to the challenge. It is not enough to gather lots of information about floods. The goal is to paint a picture of the water systems as a working whole rather than a collection of details. Having lots of information does not automatically translate into understanding.

When students are allowed to generate questions off the top of their heads, there is a clear and present danger that they will be unable to see the forest for the trees - the details may abound in ways that obscure the big picture - may hide the river and drainage system from view - may never identify the political issues lurking in the background that contribute the acceleration of flows so that 50 year floods may happen ever ten years.

II. The Teacher/Facilitator Intervenes

Carefully orchestrated teacher interventions will structure the group questioning process so that cause and effect relationships come to the foreground before the listing of questions at the detail level. Once the most important elements of the system are identified, then the group can begin to ask what questions belong under each of those elements and may consider how those elements are tied one to another.

After the teacher has introduced the central question or challenge, she or he asks students to work in pairs to sketch out some of the most important questions the group should consider in planning its investigation. As they open their own word webbing software and start listing questions, the teacher wanders about eavesdropping. Within the first five minutes of observing, it is likely that the teacher will overhear a major category question such as “What are the causes of floods?” Interrupting the groups, the teacher enters that questions in the group diagram on the screen at the front of the room and explains that all groups will now attempt to come up with 6-8 questions on the same level of importance, supplying questions about details until a later stage.

III. Group Synergy and Planning

The teacher gives the teams fifteen minutes to sketch out additional questions on the category level, roaming about to see which ones they are identifying and making sure they do not backslide into the detail level. After they have wrestled with this thought process for some time, the teacher asks them to stop and share their questions.

At first, the teacher lists the questions without much shaping. The goal is to get a dozen up on the screen and then stop to ask how they might be organized, moved around and grouped.

IV. Weaving Questions into a Pattern

In many models of inquiry, the generation of questions does not adequately address the challenge of interconnectedness and systems.

The questions should identify all the key elements of a system if the group is likely to come up with meaningful solutions and proposals. It is up to the teacher to help the group to identify the linkages. There are several strategies that help with this process:

A. Moving Questions to Suggest Flow

The teacher can help the group to focus more clearly on cause and effect relationships by asking them to place history to the left and the action plan to the right. Subsequently, the teacher asks where other questions belong. There is always some judgment required about how much to intervene and structure the weaving and how much to demand from the students. The teacher models and suggests but quickly steps back to require independent thinking from the group.

In the diagram below, the teacher has moved a few key questions to the left and to the right to introduce the notion of flow, but the movement of the other questions is left to the students to consider. The rectangles and large fonts below highlight causes and history on the left, action plan on the right.

At this point the teacher might also remind students of the classical stages of problem solving studied earlier in the year. A group is first meant to devote time and thought to what is called “problem identification.” This is a stage often neglected or rushed by teams in the work place. Awareness of these stages is part of bringing “flow” into focus. After problem identification, groups are expected to move through the other five stages until a good plan emerges.


 Define Problem



Gather Data & Explore Possibilities

3. Invent Options

4. Evaluate Options       

5. Create a Plan

6. Act

These stages suggest a left-to-right orientation to the questioning started by the class. Effective mind-mapping often combines a speculative thought process with more structured models such as this problem-solving process. One becomes the warp and the other the woof, (the warp-the threads that run lengthwise-and the woof-the threads that run across-make up the fabric - The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition. 2002). Effective mapping is much like weaving.

B. Raising the Issue of Comprehensibility

The first efforts of a group to “suss out” a challenge (consider in detail and subject to an analysis in order to discover essential features or meaning - from the Free Dictionary) is apt to overlook some major dimensions as we usually do not know what we do not know about the issue, so we list questions from within the box of what we do know. The teacher helps the group consider what is missing - the negative space that is an essential aspect of comprehensibility.

In the example of floods, the class may overlook important aspects. They may focus too much on flood control and recovery efforts without addressing root causes such as the development and clearing of flood plain areas. Wise land use management is integral to flood prevention, and that almost always brings politics into consideration.

As one report states, “Retention areas have a very important role in flood alleviation in the Huai River Basin. With economic and societal development, the former retention areas have been developed and some of them even became very important urban areas. When floods come, there is a lot of damage.”

In the group diagram shown above, the issue of development was given immediate attention, but some groups might ignore that in seeking ways of handling the impact of disasters. Some might jump to a focus on flood control efforts rather than flood prevention efforts.

It is up to the teacher to help the group identify the full array of issues along with all the major components of the system (in this case the river and watershed) under consideration. If the class failed to see the political aspects, the teacher would make sure they read some articles identifying how politics will play a role.

The group may have reached the point where the teacher will urge further research, suggesting that students turn to the Web to find out what they may have overlooked. A Google search for “flood control measures” or “flood prevention measures” will quickly turn up promising documents.

Such documents help the group to complete the cluster diagram. The students' lack of familiarity with the challenge necessitates a “mucking about” stage that acquaints them with aspects that they might otherwise have failed to consider. But even with outside research, there are traps into which the team can fall, as previous efforts to prevent or control floods may not have been successful because the planning group itself overlooked important factors. The class has entered the second stage of the problem solving process mentioned earlier - Gather Data & Explore Possibilities. They will see that the first stage is not complete and will be influenced by findings in the second stage.

The document mentioned above leads to the inclusion of the following elements not thought of by the group initially:

  • Human interference into the processes of nature
  • Human uses of floodplains
  • Mitigation and non-structural measures
  • Structural measures (defense structures)
  • The concept of residual risk
  • Restore rivers' natural flood zones in order to reactivate the ability of natural wetlands and floodplains to retain water and alleviate flood impacts
  • Flood forecasting and warning
  • A compensation system
  • Strategy consists of three steps: retaining, storing and draining
  • Preparedness to alert, res-cue and safety measures
  • Preventive measures

The list is not complete, but the teacher works with the class to add these items to the diagram, doing some re-wording and compression so that items fit into place.

The same approach is used to flesh out the components of an action plan, since some members of the class may never have seen an action plan and not know what belongs in such a document. It might be instructive to review action plans for New Orleans and surrounding parishes that were written prior to Katrina, so that students may ask what went wrong. One source would be the

The task of adding all these new elements to the diagram can be quite daunting. The mere listing is not difficult, but the organizing of the elements into a system that makes logical sense is quite a challenge. In the next diagram below, they are simply listed. This listing allows the class to discuss linkages and placement.

C. Connecting the Dots - Finding Linkages

There is no correct answer to how all these elements might be linked, but the teacher leads the class through several discussions, moves things around and may save several different versions. The class also may be divided up to explore and expand major aspects.

One team might focus on causes while another might focus on identifying strategies deserving of inclusion in the action plan. Since these two are linked, it is essential that the groups keep in contact, sharing their findings and asking how the learning in one group impacts on the work of the other. It is, after all, cause and effect relationships that should drive the inquiry.

The outline above adds elements to an action plan that are often ignored by action plans passed by governments. Having seen that human development along rivers has accelerated stream and river flow and magnified the dangers of flooding, the group puts political action high on the list of items needing attention. Until governments reverse the damage being done to the natural retention of storm water run-off, the prospects of real flood control are limited. At the same time, the group has explored the ways that politics may block such changes since many politicians and their parties are beholden to the development interests that have pressed for the latitude to damage those natural resources.

D. Value Added - New Knowledge

The beauty of the AASL Standards mentioned at the beginning of this article is their stress upon new knowledge. It is not enough to collect information about the past efforts of the elders. In the case of floods, the elders have repeatedly allowed development to speed river flows and relied too much on building bigger levees to handle the acceleration. If students were to copy and paste the flood plans of the elders, they would offer little worth reading, but a more thorough review of cause and effect relationships along with a systems approach to rivers and flood plains might well inspire them to come up with solutions and proposals that have never been tried.

We are expecting that our students will identify areas where past efforts may be improved. We hope to see value added.


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