on going with the flow(chart)…

Given the events of recent weeks, above all else, I hope this post finds you and your loved ones safe and in good health.

Though many of you are just getting around to the start of your new school years, here at Mid-Pacific, we’ve been in school for a while now–we are beginning our fifth week of school.

We are a K-12 library program and much of our instruction, particularly instruction with our middle school students, gets heavily loaded into our first weeks of school. We’ve been working extensively with our 8th graders on their Science and Engineering Fair projects.

We’ve been making a concerted effort in our curriculum to give students more opportunities to practice the art of topic selection so we chose to invest a lot of instructional time on the process of selecting a topic for research.

Information Instruction Context – Process to Product…

One of the really tough things about topic selection is how to provide curricular and subject-area context when students choose the topics of study. This year, our middle school is focused on the 17 UN Sustainable Development goals so we used that as a springboard in topic selection.

Students were asked to select 1 or 2 of the UN Sustainable Development goals that spoke to their personal interests and passions, but which also applied in some way to the fields of science and engineering.  Students then went about the process of exploring topics within science and engineering that they might use to design a project that they could tie into their chosen UN Sustainable Development goal.

In what we call our “presearching” process, we had students brainstorm possible topics and questions about those topics. Students then located and read through sources using keywords from our brainstorms and repeated the process a few times over.

In the world of Mid-Pacific, when we are “presearching,” anything and any source is fair game. We don’t bother with citations or using scholarly sources. All we’re trying to do when we are “presearching” is figure out:

  • Do I want to live with this topic for a long time?
    • One topic from now until Thanksgiving is a “long time” for 8th graders…
  • Could I possibly develop a viable 8th grade science and engineering fair project based on budget, safety, scientific ethical guidelines, and whether mom and dad could live with having this project in their homes for a few months?
  • How is this field of study organized and what words do they use to describe things and ideas?
    • What are broader terms and narrower terms?
    • What vocabulary words do experts in that field use?
      • “Windmill” vs. “Wind turbine” vs. “Wind terbine”
    • Did I spell the keywords correctly in Google before I try to search in databases?

It was HARD and it took a big investment of time on the part of our science teachers and the library staff. I went home everyday during the week sweaty and exhausted, but to quote, Annette, one of my amazing science teachers, “We need to do this because the science these kids need to do has to start with ‘How do we know what questions we need to ask?'”

In library lingo, I call that “Defining your information need…”

Information Instruction Context – Getting Granular… 

Once we have an actual research topic, we finally begin the research process and this is when our instruction looks more like a traditional “library lesson.” When we research, sources matter so we begin the more traditional process of searching for content in books/eBooks, database, and in websites.

Our 8th graders are pretty good at finding and using performatted citations from databases. They’re also pretty good at citing books–we teach students to search for citation info in NoodleTools using the ISBN or title. When it comes to citing website content, however… Honestly, we kind of go off the rails a bit so shoring up our website citation work became the focus of instruction for us this time around.

We’ve been trying to build more concepts of coding into our curriculum so we decided to introduce flow charts to students as a way to make their thinking visible as they work through different processes.

We had students flow chart the steps they’d follow to properly cite a website. We are a NoodleTools site so that’s what we teach, but it would work with any other research/citation service. Here’s what it looked like…


Because it was a first introduction to flowcharting, we built it together as a class. After doing one sample together, students used their flowcharts and worked to add a website source to their list of works consulted. While we built the flowchart we chatted about how a website might be analogous to an entire book, while a web page is like citing one article/chapter/section of the book. Matters of “group” or corporate authorship, and all of the other marvelously super exciting stuff that goes into source citation #HeSaidIronically

As they worked, I had a student or two ask about revising their flowcharts to accommodate things like “Date of last update” rather than just publication dates or copyright dates or revising flow charts to accommodate an organization as an author.


The flow charting process took a little while, but I liked that it slowed my students down enough so that they looked at the menu options and read the dialog boxes provided within NoodleTools along with scaffolding the process for subsequent website citations–an emerging skill for most of them. At the end of our first section of classes without any prompting I saw a number of students take pictures of their flow charts, which, with my 8th graders is a decent sign that they found the flowcharting useful! Yay!

After our initial efforts, I stuck to structured whole-group instruction with my sections, but my energetic young colleague, Nicole, tried having students first flowchart familiar tasks, then had her students work through the NoodleTools website citation process. They got the concept quickly and I’d consider being more “organic” with my instruction going forward (I’m a bit of a control freak if you haven’t figured that out yet…).


In this example, I liked that students considered the type of shoe then had the logic branch based on the requirement for each type of shoe. It is ultimately, I hope, a tool that we can employ to make students think more systematically about many kinds of decision-making, not just rote processes like citation. It has a lot of potential to serve both as a scaffold for students engaged in new processes or as a formative assessment tool to show us what students understand or are misunderstanding about concepts.

I’m thinking about how we might use similar flowcharting to assess or scaffold students’ understanding on copyright and fair use. One of the things that I like is that flowcharts for a single topic like use of copyrighted images could be relatively simple to reflect a 6th grader’s understanding of copyright and fair use, but could also be quite nuanced and complex to show how a HS junior or senior understands the exact same concept.

Something to keep in mind here is that a lot of this process was us introducing the concept and process of flowcharting by thinking aloud and demonstrating. Ultimately, it will be far more powerful for students to construct the flowcharts themselves. In essence our goal with flowcharting should be to help students to make THEIR THINKING and THEIR DECISION-MAKING visible so that a teacher/librarian/coach can help to either extend students’ thinking or address any misperceptions, misunderstandings or gaps in knowledge. The idea of librarians creating flowcharts for students to consume as end users is far less compelling to me as a school librarian.

It’s all a work in progress so I’m figuring it out as we go along. I’d love to hear about ways you are supporting systems thinking, coding, or ways that you are scaffolding processes like these in your information instruction. Please share what you’re doing!

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