Reflections on Learning & Research


Published: July 9, 2012 by Mary Ann Harlan

I recently sent my dissertation into the wild to be examined, which leaves me in an interesting position of having “completed” a research project. Except like many things I have learned in the process I am not sure there is a completed research project.

The research investigation started from an observation in my practice as a high school teacher librarian. I was observing a number of teens in my library that despite a number of barriers, including filtering software that prevented access to blogs, wikis, and video sharing sites and a lack of direct instruction, were producing and sharing content, and interacting with other artists and content creators online. Some of their content was impressive, but in all cases their interaction and engagement spoke to a passion for learning, interacting, and creating. I wanted to know how the teens were using information in this process. (More information about the research can be found here).

Since there is a sense of completion I have been reflecting on where I started, where I am now, and what is next. And I have been thinking back to working with the students I used to teach. I think about what I used to tell them about research, and how in some ways I now find myself struggling with similar concerns.

Every spring I co-taught a paper in which the students had to define a big idea concept for themselves after researching how others defined it. It was at its core, a philosophy paper. Which is why I found myself often telling them “research is messy.” This was usually when they looked up from everything they were reading and realized that they had no idea what direction their paper was heading in.

I thought about this “research is messy” more than once as I worked on my own research. Where I started the investigation is quite far from where I am now. And at times I really didn’t know what I was going to find, what direction the research was taking. I had to learn what to focus on, what to set aside for the moment, and how to embrace the chaos of my thought process until order could be made. I set aside things that were important to me but that had little to do with the investigation at hand, such as the relationship between practice and literacy.

I also spent time telling some students “you have to know when to stop” when they wouldn’t stop accessing information and start using it (i.e. writing the paper). I explained that they could keep thinking and working on their topic long after the class was over. This is where I find myself now.

It is not that I had the notion that I’d write the dissertation and that would be it, but I had no idea when I started that I would find myself with more questions than I knew what to do with by the time I was done. For instance, I have a long list of ideas that were tangential to the investigation but that piqued my interest. Now I find myself sorting through those questions and trying to decide which questions make the most sense to pursue.

In working with students I spent time helping them communicate to different audiences. I spent a lot of time saying “how can you make me understand what you are saying?”

I now find myself considering how to communicate my findings to different audience in ways that are interesting and relevant to those I am speaking to. My “so what” in regard to my research investigation has always been “because I want to know.” And while I know there is relevance and significance to the findings, presenting the findings to different audiences suggests I have to answer the so what question for people other than me. I have to decide how to help people understand what I want to share.

And so I am not really done. I had to know when to stop in order to share my findings, in this case it meant writing the dissertation, but I am finding I haven’t really stopped. The ideas are still being explored, there are more questions to ask and investigate, and there is a desire to communicate what I now know.

So I have been reflecting on the students I used to work with, and what I used to try and teach them, and asking myself if I really understood those lessons. If I didn’t then, I think I do now.


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