What is Research, Really?

From an ELA point of view, “research” is some­thing you do to gath­er infor­ma­tion for a report or project. But if you’re a sci­en­tist, research has a whole dif­fer­ent mean­ing. It’s a way of devel­op­ing a new under­stand­ing of the world and how it works.

Every once in a while, my hus­band and I have a con­ver­sa­tion about why two seem­ing­ly dif­fer­ent pur­suits have the same name. So recent­ly, I decid­ed to do a lit­tle, er, research to track down the ori­gin of the word and, if pos­si­ble, find a connection.


It turns out that our mod­ern word “research” traces back to the Old French term recercher, which means “seek out, search close­ly.” This could apply to both types of research, so I start­ed look­ing at all kinds of con­tem­po­rary def­i­n­i­tions. Even­tu­al­ly, I came across this one, which I like a lot:

cre­ative and sys­temic work under­tak­en to increase knowledge”

Here’s a way of think­ing about research that encom­pass­es both kinds of research. From the ELA point of view, an indi­vid­ual increas­es his or her per­son­al knowl­edge about a par­tic­u­lar top­ic. From a sci­en­tif­ic point of view, we are increas­ing our over­all body of knowl­edge about life, space, Earth, and the phys­i­cal laws that explain how every­thing works.

Anoth­er rea­son I like this def­i­n­i­tion so much is that it includes the word “cre­ative.” In fact, it puts that word right up front.

Why is that so impor­tant to me? Because that’s what makes research excit­ing. To me, gath­er­ing research for a book is like a trea­sure hunt — a quest for tan­ta­liz­ing tid­bits of knowl­edge. It’s an active, self-dri­ven process that requires a whole lot of cre­ative thinking.

drone research

Ide­al­ly, I want my every one of my books to fea­ture fas­ci­nat­ing infor­ma­tion that no one else has ever includ­ed in a book on the top­ic. To find that infor­ma­tion, I think cre­ative­ly about sources.

  • Who can I ask?
  • Where can I go?
  • How can I search in a new or unex­pect­ed way?

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, kids often don’t bring that same kind of cre­ative spir­it to their research, and that’s why they often find it boring.

research with the five senses

Ide­al­ly, research should employ as many of the five sense as possible.

  • We can use our eyes to watch doc­u­men­tary films, observe ani­mals first­hand in the wild or on web­cams, and search archival pho­tographs for clues about the past.
  • We can use our ears to lis­ten to pod­casts, radio inter­views, or experts we inter­view our­selves.
  • We can use our hands to feel arti­facts and get a sense of what it would have been like to hold them and use them long ago.
  • It may be a bit hard­er to use our mouths and noses to expe­ri­ence smells and tastes relat­ed to a top­ic, but it’s cer­tain­ly a goal to keep in mind.

Can you think of some more cre­ative ways of con­duct­ing research?

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