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Teaching Critical Thinking Through Research Projects

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Life Skills Research

Teaching critical thinking sounds daunting, but using my process to teach kids to conduct scientific research helps them gain these skills in a super fun way!

One thing that makes Montessori so ingenious is the lesson behind the lesson. For so many Montessori lessons, there is an obvious objective and then a less obvious, but often more important one.

Here’s what I mean:

Scrubbing a Table: The obvious objective is learning to scrub and take care of the environment, but less obvious objectives include resilience (so many spills!) and completing a multi-step process. It’s also great for gross motor skills as children learn to navigate the room while carrying a heavy pitcher of water.

Sewing a Pillow: The obvious objective is learning to sew but a less obvious objective is practicing fine motor skills.

One of my favorite things we do in our little Montessori homeschool is research projects, and so much of that is because of all of the indirect objectives and benefits. I’ll get into all of the details of how we approach research projects below, but first, I want to share both the direct and indirect benefits of including scientific research in your homeschool curriculum.

Benefits of Scientific Research for Kids:

  • Teaching Critical Thinking: Teaching critical thinking may just be the most important benefit of research project for kids. How do you tell a reliable resource from an unreliable one? What kinds of questions do you need to ask to find the information you’re looking for? How do you sift through a lot of information to get to the heart of something? Through conducting research, kids don’t only learn about the topic of their research, they learn how to tackle all of these questions. They learn critical thinking.
  • Encouraging Curiosity: So much of what kids learn is dictated by adults. Even if they like what they’re learning about, it’s often initiated by something a grownup thinks they need to learn. Research projects are a great opportunity for kids to guide their own education. Do they want to learn about Saturn? Great! Are they interested in robots? Sounds good! Do they wish to research their favorite animal? Perfect! Giving kids some autonomy in what they study can go a long way toward keeping that intellectual curiosity alive.
  • Gaining Life Skills for Kids: Like reading, research is a life skill for kids that will serve them for life. If a kid knows how to research, they have the tools to learn about anything they want to know.
  • Learning About the World: This is probably the most obvious benefit of scientific research for kids, but it’s an important one! If you encourage your child to regularly research different topics, they will gain an in-depth knowledge of all sorts of topics. I often learn things through my kids’ research too!

Step-by-Step Process for Kids Research Projects

Now that we’ve covered the benefits, here is the step-by-step process we follow. As with anything, there is more than one way to teach kids to research, but this process has worked really well for us!

1. Choose a Topic

Sometimes, we come across a research topic naturally through other work we’re doing. For instance, when we studied parts of a plant, my son wanted to make a research book about plants. When we studied bees, bees were a natural topic for a research book.

Other times though, I like to let my son loose in the library to find a topic. I tell him he can choose any book in the science section to inspire a research project. Last week he chose snails so he’s been researching snails. That’s the research book that is pictured in this post.

As kids get older, I think it’s worthwhile to assign some research projects, and also give them the chance to choose their own. You might also give your child a topic (like Ancient Egypt) and let them choose the specific area they wish to research (e.g., mummies).

2. Determine Your Research Question(s)

Sometimes, like with his book about plants, my son just wants to make a book sharing everything he’s learned about a topic. In general though, I like to encourage him to think about specific things he wants to learn to add focus to the research project.

So with snails, his questions were:

1. Where do snails live?

2. What do snails eat?

3. How do snails interact? (e.g., are they social?)

This is not to say that he only includes the answer to these questions in his research books, but they provide some guidance and a bit of an outline.

3. Gather Resources

My son just turned 5 so we keep our research projects pretty simple right now. Sometimes we just use one book for a research project. As he gets a little bit older though, I will explain the importance of using multiple resources for research. We’ll also discuss how to tell a reliable resource from an unreliable one. (Who wrote it? Are they an expert? Did they note their information sources?)

4. Read and Take Notes

One thing we talk about every time we do a research project is the importance of putting things in your own words, rather than just copying something someone else has written. I’ve explained the concept of plagiarism because I think it’s important to develop good research habits right from the beginning.

One thing that makes it a LOT easier for kids to put things in their own words is to take notes instead of just writing the research as they read the book. At this point, I help my son with this as he’s still developing writing skills. I read to him and he dictates what he wants me to write.

5. Write (& Illustrate!) Your Findings

Finally, kids can gather their notes (you may need to read the notes to them) and write what they found out. Currently, we use a book format so my son can illustrate each page. (We just fold a few papers in half either staple or punch holes and tie together with yarn.) Older kids can of course write more a traditional research paper format.

At this point, my son writes some of the words, mainly the title and sometimes the headings. I write the rest of the words while he dictates what he wants me to write. For young kids who are still learning to write, they may avoid the work altogether if you require them to write all of the words.

For many children, illustrating is a huge draw and will encourage enthusiasm about the research project as a whole. Encourage them to use whatever materials they like (in his snail research book, James used collage, colored pencils, and even embroidery to decorate!)

Want more Montessori Science?

Check out this post on our Bee Study or this post on an easy Montessori DIY Land, Air, Water work! You can also follow me on Instagram or Pinterest for more behind-the-scenes peeks at our Montessori Homeschool curriculum, including plenty of Montessori science!

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