The shake and break approach to research

Bruce Bassett, AIMS, 10 August 2010

Research is hard. As a young researcher one arrives at the shore of accumulated wisdom of everyone who has gone before and in the context of academic research that ocean is made up of vast numbers of journal papers. It is common to be left adrift in this sea of papers and often students feel like they are drowning in paper.

How can one come up with one’s own ideas when surrounded by the sea?

One simple analogy that may help is to take a simple approach to research motivated by the way children interact with toys, which we might call the “shake, rattle and roll” or “shake and break” method.

A child presented with a Christmas present will shake the box trying to probe what is inside. Later when they play with the toy they will shake it, bounce it, throw it, extend it and often, break it. These are all legitimate and useful activities to do with research papers.

© UNAWE Spain

Next time you read a paper, imagine that the research presented to you therein and all the concepts and ideas, form part of a big bright toy. Now good research involves doing what you did when you were a child – playing with it. Forget the fact that it is written in slick, formal and intellectual prose meant to intimidate you into sitting quietly in the corner and feeling dumb. What if you have no idea what the toy does or how it works? Well, the quickest way to find that out is to play with it, and don’t be gentle!

Try to break it, drop it, shake it. As you do so you will learn about it, how it is put together and crucially you will start to see places where it could be improved or extended. And if it survives all your rough play then you can start thinking of it as robust and perhaps, as a tool. And what does one use tools for? For building other things.

So ask yourself how you can use the results to break another toy, or extend another toy, or best of all, to create your own toy from scratch. That way your toy, or refereed journal article to use the standard language, will join the ocean of human knowledge and provide the toys for future students standing on the shore and looking out lost and confused at the waves of knowledge, not knowing that the best way to make progress in research is to become a child again and play with their toys.

Thanks to Yabebal Fantaye for discussions that lead to this metaphor.

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