Research Questions and the Ten-Year-Old Mind

As a school librarian it is my task to teach research skills to my students.  In library circles.the new nomenclature for what was once research skills is now information literacy.  Whether you call the skill by its older more familiar name – or its new appellation, it all boils down to the same thing.  Basically, what’s your question, where do you look for it – not necessarily on the internet – and how do you extract credible information from your chosen sources.  My biggest challenge is to get the idea across that all research begins with some kind of question.  For example, the question “How do you make chocolate chip cookies?” is for all intents and purposes a legitimate research question.  I like it…I like cookies.  Because kids often confuse reporting with legitimate research convincing them that off the wall questions constitute legitimate research  and is far more interesting than mere reporting, true research pursuits often need a little nudging. The goofier the example the better.  Does the light in the refrigerator turn off when the door closes?  hmmmmmm? 

Stories are great ways to nudge kids.  So I told my story which I shall call, “How do toilets flush?”  A legitimate research question, I think.  Certainly worthy of my ten-year-old-self’s pursuit – much to my mother’s despair.  

I was often roped into helping my father with repair work around the house.  “Hold the flash light, and hand me the wrench.”  In many ways I was like the assisting nurse in an operating room.  By the time I was five, I knew the difference between a flat-head and a phillip screwdriver.  I didn’t mind.  I wanted to help.  I wanted to tighten the screws, and pull out the bent nails.  I wanted to do what I wasn’t allowed to do.  I held the flashlight.  And I watched….carefully.  Sometimes too carefully. 

Dad had to fix something in the toilet one day.  I can’t remember exactly what it was, but I was recruited and dutifully handed him the required tools and pointed the flashlight in the right direction.  He removed the lid on the toilet tank, and started fiddling around with the mechanism within. I watched, and took mental notes.  Many mental notes. 

About a week later, a research question hatched…How do toilets flush?  Curious minds want to know.   My best source of information was the trusty set of encyclopedias ensconced in the bookcase in the dining room.  So I crystalized my research question down to one keyword – toilet, retrieved the encyclopedia’s “T” volume, and located the entry.  Lo and behold…not only was there a concise history of toilets (Did you know, that Sir Thomas Crapper was credited with the invention of the flush toilet? Hence the “crapper” came into being. Recent researchers dispute this factoid…more research is needed to verify the etymology.  (I sound like a librarian, don’t I…geesh!)).  More importantly, within the article resided a detailed diagram of the inner-workings of the mysterious tank.  I hit the jackpot!  I think I read the article about ten times…flappers, ball cocks, etc., etc., etc. I knew the history! I controlled the vocabulary! I possessed a detailed diagram! I was ready to rock and roll. 

Vicarious experiences never satisfy my curiosity.  If I read about something, I want to experience it.   Time was of the essence, my mother was in the backyard hanging up the wash.  I wanted to see if what the encyclopedia said about toilets was really true.  So, I snuck up to the only bathroom in the house, locked the door, and began the experiment. 

Step one – remove the tank lid.

 Mom covered the tank and the toilet seat with these fuzzy things that were the rage in bathroom trappings, so removing the fuzzy covers was a must.  That was not as easy as one might think, because she didn’t always buy the user-friendly ones with elastic bands…Oh no…draw strings kept those little suckers in place.  

Once the tank lid was undressed, and the lid was on the bathroom floor, I started playing with the stuff inside.  Chains, and flappers, water, and ball cocks…That part was pretty easy…But it led to another question…How does the water know when to stop filling the tank so that the tank doesn’t overflow?  That wasn’t covered in the encyclopedia article.  More experimenting.  More flushing.  Did you know it takes several gallons of water to flush a toilet?  When a family is on a one-salary budget, the water bill is an important controllable expense.  Multiple flushings for childish experimentation are not appreciated. 

Laundry done, mom returns.  She hears multiple flushes. 

“What are you doing up there?”

 “Nothing!” Desperate attempts on my part to  clothe the toilet tank with the fuzzy things.

“Why are you flushing the toilet so much?”

“I have an issue!”  Working harder to get the fuzzy things back on the toilet without breaking the porcelain tank lid. Breaking out in a sweat.

“Do you need any help?”  (Moms are great, aren’t they?)

“Nope, got it covered!” Literally – the toilet tank had its fuzzy clothes back on.

“Let me in there!  Right now!”  Banging on the door.  Busted!

I was toast…she knew…. The fuzzy things weren’t on in mom-perfect fashion. No more experiments – grounded for the day. 

The good news is…I’m still here to tell the story.  The better news is that my students are beginning to understand that their questions are legitimate research questions.  The bad news is that some of my students are starting to look at those toilet tanks with gleams in their eyes…. It’s a good thing I didn’t tell them about how I eliminated my knee wart.  (Encyclopedias are great, aren’t they?)