Carlo, a New York seventh-grader, had composed several questions for an interview his class would conduct with a local cardiologist. He and his classmates were preparing the interview for their social studies class, but they had composed the questions in science class and role-played the interview in language arts.
The interdisciplinary project—an I-Search curriculum unit on the human body—allowed each of the students to pursue individual research related to a general subject. Carlo’s participation had an added dimension, though: Since his father’s recent cardiac arrest, Carlo’s interest in the human heart had deepened. After completion of his I-Search unit, the 13-year-old possessed not just information with personal relevance; he also had developed a rigorous course of study on a topic that stretched his imagination and his academic skills.
In the words of EDC’s Judy Zorfass, Carlo had learned the skills of the “active researcher,” the art and science of self-motivated inquiry, investigation, and learning.
“Young adolescents, like Carlo, are beginning to ask complex questions about their lives and the world,” said Zorfass, co-author (with middle school principal Harriet Copel) of Teaching Middle School Students to be Active Researchers.” I-Search units are particularly powerful for this age group because they encourage students to make critical connections between various subjects and between the classroom and the outside world.”
In the book, Zorfass describes the years she has spent helping teachers develop and implement I-Search curriculum units, and offers a wide range of examples of the units in practice. The I-Search begins with the premise that the most valuable learning involves students as active researchers who are examining a topic that is relevant to their lives. A successful I-Search project is more than learner-centered, however. It also encourages collaboration among diverse students and provides a natural context for the use of technology, media, and a variety of materials.
Carlo and his classmates had participated in a classic example of an I-Search unit. The unit was designed by a team of teachers. The theme, the human body, was a subject that all the students could relate to. The concept stretched across several classes, and a team of teachers developed the project’s overarching concepts.
For Carlo’s unit on the human body, for example, a team of teachers composed three questions, which were presented to the class as overarching concepts: (1) How does the structure of a body system relate to its function? (2) Describe the cause and effect of a malfunction in a body system. (3) How are advancements in genetics shaping the future of medicine? Students had no trouble finding relevant topics to explore within the confines of the questions.
Not all I-Search units are successful. “I’ve heard success stories; I’ve heard hindrances to success,” Zorfass said. “When it is successful, it is very successful, because teachers work together to guide and support student inquiry.”
But when teachers don’t have enough time to collaborate, lack resources, or fear that the I-Search doesn’t align with national standards, then there may be problems, Zorfass said. Incorporating I-Search curricula is “always voluntary,” she added. “If it’s mandated [from the top down] without grassroots buy-in, it doesn’t work.” Zorfass estimated that hundreds of schools have implemented the units.
Zorfass and fellow EDC staffers expanded on the philosophy to develop a guide for designing and implementing I-Search units called Make It Happen!. Consulting with middle schools to help them incorporate I-Search units was a natural next step.
In Zorfass’ book, the heart of the learning process lies in the link between knowledge and experience. Chapter 4, “Making Meaning,” explains:
When students perceive a meaningful coming together of parts into patterns, they are developing a gestalt. Knowledge becomes almost like second nature because it is intricately meshed with what students already know. … These patterns (tightly woven interconnections) are what we call mental maps. Mental maps are the abstractions that we derive by relating past information to new information.
Zorfass’ professional work, too, has an interlocking theme. Her focus is helping diverse learners, particularly special education students, succeed in general education curriculum and integrating technology into curriculum. At EDC, she is principal investigator for LINK*US (Linking Urban Schools with Information and Support Around Technology for Students with Disabilities) and Project ASSIST (which focuses on including students with disabilities in standards-based science and integrating technology).
Sometimes Zorfass conducts her own “mini I-Searches.” On a recent trip to the Middle East, as she consulted with schools in Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank, she formulated her own I-Search question: What are the universal questions teachers ask? In each country, she heard variations on a theme echoed in the United States: Should teachers allow students’ questions to guide instruction? And, if so, how can we make sure that we don’t sacrifice academic rigor in the process?
Zorfass’ book—full of examples like Carlo’s—provides a powerful blueprint for teachers interested in using students’ personal experience and motivation as a springboard for extensive research and deep inquiry.
Originally published on August 31, 1999