Research skills are notoriously difficult to teach. There are vast resources on every topic under the sun, but finding them, vetting them, and then actually reading and understanding them is a huge challenge. In a personalized learning environment in which students’ interests drive their work, research gets even trickier: Riley is studying ocean plastic, Mark is studying the financial burdens cancer patients face, Logan is studying veterans’ mental health, and I, teacher and arbiter of all knowledge (ha!), know almost nothing about any one of those topics.
When I’m overwhelmed by the vastness and ambiguity of a skill I need to teach, I find it’s helpful to step back and think about what I do when use this skill. And right now, what I’m researching is how to feed a baby.
I have a seven-month old daughter and, as a first-time parent, I’ve had to do a lot of research to figure out how to introduce her to food. Some of my research has been traditional “library” research: I poked around some websites on raising children and have read a few books. But I’ve also done another kind of research: I’ve had conversations with people who know about this topic. At my daughter’s checkups, I’ve asked my pediatrician for any hard-and-fast medical rules as well as best practices for feeding babies; I’ve asked friends who have kids a little older than mine about what they’ve done; and, like many first-time parents, I’ve spent hours talking to my mom about what she did with me and my siblings when we were growing up.
Looking at my own research process reveals that while the library (or the internet) is a key part of research, so to is getting out and talking to people. While “ask around” is a technique that comes naturally to many adults, we have found that most of our students need explicit instruction and scaffolding around this skill. We teach a short unit on informational interviewing to get students talking to people in the community who know something about their topic.
The idea of to informational interviewing comes from Richard Nelson Bolles’s What Color is Your Parachute?, a self-help book for job seekers. Bolles encourages people exploring career options — a new company, a change of industry — to have face-to-face conversations with people who know something about those career paths. Informational interviewing has become standard practice and is promulgated by institutions ranging from the UC Berkeley Career Center to Monster.com.
Our students are not usually looking for career pathways or companies to work for, but in or English in Action classes we do insist that students should become “junior professionals” (and conduct themselves as such!) in whatever area they’ve selected as their focus. Teaching them how to conduct informational interview connects them to real experts, which gives them role models and takes some of the pressure off of us teachers. Now we’re not the arbiters of all knowledge, the actual professionals are.
Our Informational Interview Unit
There are many reasons to teach informational interviewing and many different strategies for going about it. We teach it in our personalized, project-based class as a way of helping kids better understand their topics. Our skills focus is research, but informational interviewing works equally well as a speaking and listening assignment. These are the steps we take, and we hope you can use this as a starting point for however you’d like to teach this supremely practical and authentic assignment.
- Introduce the idea. We start by talking to the students about what an informational interview is. We share information from college Career Centers since kids like knowing that what we do in our classroom will be relevant in college. Kids also need to know that we’re willing to do the activities we ask them to do, so I share my own experience informational interviewing after I finished graduate school.
- Start safe. If you’ve ever done informational interviewing yourself, you know that the first few can be scary. What will you talk about? Will it be awkward? Just like with emails, we try to lower the stakes at first. We ask students to interview classmates who might know something about their area of interest. Students reach out to a classmate, schedule a time to meet, prepare questions, hold the interview, and report back to us on what they learned. We do this as a low-stakes way to practice the informational interview process, but kids usually learn something new about their topic as well. They often find out about other people they can talk to as they are learning more and going deeper.
- Schedule an interview. This is another opportunity for our kids to practice writing a professional email… our kids get really good at writing emails by the end of the year! Sometimes scheduling goes without a hitch; often, there are problems. Sometimes people don’t get back to our kids or don’t want to be involved in the process; other times schedules or transportation can prove incredibly challenging. The key thing here is that we don’t let the kids give up. They need to keep emailing, keep asking around, and keep at it until they schedule an interview.
- Conduct the interview. We help students prepare questions, give them opportunities to practice, and then send them on their way. Sometimes their questions look a bit stiff or they can’t stop giggling as they pretend that their classmate is actually a professional. I’m sure that these interviews are awkward at times. But every time we teach this, a few kids come back and say, “This wasn’t what I expected at all! It was like, so normal. I said something, and then she said something, and then I said something, and then she said something… it was really great!” (This is an actual quote from an actual kid, to whom I replied, “Yes, that’s what a conversation is.”) So even though I’m sure these interviews are often stiff and awkward, they are occasionally a revelation for kids. And the kids always learn something about their topics, too.
- Synthesize. You could go all-in on the informational interview and assess it rigorously as a component of speaking and listening. This would require having students record the informational interview and then critiquing their skill at holding a one-on-one conversation (you could create a robust rubric using CCSS.ELA.SL.11-12.1). Since our focus is research, we have students report back on what they learned both in writing and in class discussions. We ask them to synthesize the conversation to some key ideas and next steps so that they can move forward with projects. For us, the experience of doing an informational interview — and actually learning something from the experience — is key; they can and will refine their interviewing skills with practice.
Informational interviews are a practical way for all students to begin research. Each student has an peer or adult in their life that they can learning something from. Yes, finding, evaluating, and analyzing text resources is important, but informational interviews can be a way to bridge the gap between students’ worlds and the academic world that can seem incredibly removed.