Innovative Ways to Improve Pupils’ Research Skills

An exploration on how to implement research skills in the primary classroom

Even though teachers up and down the land will be enjoying a well earned rest, thoughts inevitably end up turning to September:

“Will I have backed my walls in time?”

“Have I remembered how to pronounce that child’s name?”

“What am I even supposed to do on the first week back anyway?”

Whether or not, you’re an NQT or an experienced teacher, we all seemingly have the same mild panic year after year. As adults, it could be expected that we have the skills to deal with this in the form of knowledge. We know that it’s not the end of the world if there is one staple missing from the wall and we know that we can learn the pronunciation of Jonny’s surname as we go along but it seems to unsettle us.

Is Knowledge Power?

A famous Lord Chancellor, Francis Bacon, once said that ‘Knowledge is power’, which seems true if power means knowing what you’re doing. However what about things which are uncertain? How do we as the human race create new knowledge and why should we bother?

I’m sure that if humans in the past had thought in this way, the wheel would never have existed and if Eddison had not had a thirst for knowledge, we would be living in the dark! Such a thirst for finding out new things is what we now call research and something that we often encourage children to do.

What is research anyway?

In a recent Twitter Chat, the topic for discussion was around ‘Research in Education’. Even amongst inspiring adults, there seemed to be conflicting ideas about what research is; some saying that it must be backed up by theory to be valid and others taking the less formal approach and suggesting the importance of research in everyday life incidents.

Indeed, there seems to be two types of research:

  1. the research that an individual does to learn for themselves (if I kick the football, it will move),
  2. the type of research that leads to new discoveries (a cure for a disease).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines research as ‘The systematic investigation into the study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions’ but I much prefer Zora Neale Hurston’s definition; “Research is formalised curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose”.

Indeed, who should ask the questions anyway?

“Play is the highest form of research” Albert Einstein

In the Early Years, children are constantly exploring, asking questions and finding things out. They are hungry for new knowledge and discover ways to uncover possibilities. @Hywel_Roberts talks about ‘Accidental Learning’ and it seems that this is the best form of research when it comes to breakthroughs. I have written about this from first-hand experience at

By being inquisitive about all things and having a vested interest in studying an area, children are researching. This may be a case of how to plug the hole that has appeared in the water tray or how best to store the iPads so the wires don’t get tangled. Whatever the problem, whether an answer is found or not, this exploration and investigation of the situation empowers children.

But what about when children are less engaged? You know the ones….that the time when you set a task about a specific topic and asked the children to ‘research’ it. What do we mean and how do we engage them even if it’s not their favourite topic?

Making Research Purposeful

Dermot Mulroney once said that, “What people actually refer to as research nowadays is really just Googling” and it would seem to be the case. All too often these days with the advances in technology and accessibility of information on the Web, children inevitably click on Google or Wikipedia to ‘research’ the topic you have introduced. Even with the new Computing Curriculum, which requires us to teach about reliable sources, it is often reported that children and young adults either take these sources as fact or plagiarise the source directly.

In order to challenge this, I found a range of ways to support research skills across the Primary setting:

For fact-based research, I ask a series of questions to Y4 and 5, some of which they know the answer to and some they don’t. Using laptops to find the answers, they have to cite at least three sources.

Another method is to show children is from Mozilla and the Hackasaurus Wiki or the X-Ray Googles at

When children understand how easy it is to hack information online, they soon begin to think more about the information they think they have researched and whether it is valid or not.

Other ideas include setting up specific projects for research. This could be:

  • a ‘Question or Challenge of the Week’;
  • build a model / robot in teams;
  • devising ways to make playtime better through asking questions of peers.

Alternatively, it could even be role-play scenarios such as designing and building a new home for a character where they have to explore: range of materials first or finding an injured creature, which leads to research around litter and pollution. Above all, It is important to ensure that children are actually encouraged to make mistakes in order to develop their mindset further.

More and more schools and institutions are allowing staff to research areas in which they are interested as part of their CPD. This in turn will also help the teaching profession being innovative and inquisitive with children firmly at the centre. But at the heart of it all, it seems that this anonymous quote I found online sums it up; “Mistakes might not give you answers. But they give you questions for a greater answer. a

This article was first published in the August 2015 Edition of UKEdMagazine. You can read the magazine freely online by clicking here.

Catherine Steel is a Y2 teacher and Computing Subject Leader at Redbridge Primary School, London. Find her on Twitter @TaffTykeC or at

You need to or Register to bookmark/favorite this content.

About UKEdChat Editorial 3188 Articles
The Editorial Account of UKEdChat, managed by editor-in-chief Colin Hill, with support from Martin Burrett from the UKEd Magazine. Pedagogy, Resources, Community.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.