Heritage Education Magazine | Heritage Online | Grants for Heritage Projects | Publications | Teacher ResourcesTeacherLore | Events | Search | Contact

Planning a Local Expedition Using the ALERT Framework


The ALERT framework provides a way to stay oriented through a research project. Research by its nature is open-ended and somewhat loosely structured, so explorers need to keep re-evaluating their mission as the process unfolds. Getting lost may be part of the process, but so is remembering the goal and finding a way to get back on track.

ASK: Learners will look at introductory materials and form a preliminary research question.

Primary documents may be used that:

  • present a puzzle;
  • challenge a stereotype or conventional wisdom;
  • present a contradiction;
  • offer an insight (or aha! experience);
  • promote empathy (through a human interest story);
  • present a generalization or explanation against which different generalizations or explanations can be compared later.

From the Library of Congress American Memories Learning Page

Several approaches might be taken to engage students with these primary documents.

Learners might write their reactions to a document and these written reactions might be compared among the whole class. 

Learners might generate a list of questions triggered by the document, leading to a discussion about which questions can be researched with existing resources.

Learners might discuss the documents in the context of a contemporary issue, using what they know about the contemporary issue to make predictions about what they will find in the past. For example, if learners begin with the wolf bounty claim form, they might predict what organizations in the past had positions on the state law creating a bounty, and what arguments these organizations made to get the law passed.

LISTEN: With their preliminary question in mind, learners will be directed to archives and exhibits where they can find and read primary and secondary sources that touch on their question. After some reading, they may use the National History Standards  or the Montana Social Studies Standards for guidance in developing their preliminary question into a guiding research question.

EXPLORE: The exploration phase is concerned mainly with inquiry. Learners can answer questions about the past by examining documents, they can generate and test hypotheses, and they can form strategies for additional research. 

Their research could take them to various resources, including archival materials, but also visits to actual sites, interviews with experts or persons with first-hand knowledge, readings in secondary sources and textbooks, or examination of artifacts.

REFLECT: Reflection is most powerful as a learning strategy when it focuses on anomalies. What is most surprising about what is being discovered? What "facts" seem to contradict each other? What insights about the past don't "fit" with the learner's existing theories about the world?

Adolescent learners need to complicate their theories of the world. Children learn "hot" and "cold" before they learn "warm." Adolescents do much of their thinking with simple polarities (freedom and slavery, war and peace, love and hate, good and bad). Their most typical educational need is to explore the complex ways people act and events unfold between such polarities. Events, facts, and patterns that don't "fit" their existing theories of the world are thus most valuable for further exploration.

Many teaching activities aimed at promoting reflection allow learners merely to repeat viewpoints and conclusions they already hold. Such activities may have limited educational value. Better activities draw learners into considering how to understand actualities that require more complex thinking.

It is not an exaggeration to say that reflection is the only effective learning strategy. All the other activities gain their value from the extent to which they provoke, support, and encourage reflection.


The final stage in a good research project is to tell the story or the conclusions about what has been learned. In the telling, the learner's understanding will be transformed. This telling can take many forms: a traditional research paper, a digital exhibit, a visual display, a radio show, a video, a public program, or a dramatic presentation.

The telling of the story should be understood as a gift of scholarship to a larger community: the town or neighborhood of which the learner is part or the community of researchers, including those in the future. Research is service.

An important way of transforming our knowledge of the past is simply to organize materials in a way that makes them more useful to future researchers. Locating and organizing historical materials is necessary work. Such tools as indexes to newspaper obituaries or digital versions of cemetery records can be important scholarly work.

So can careful documentation, in photos, maps, and words of existing sites.

Often, what a learner adds to the record that is new is his or her interpretation of the past. The most important learning outcome of a research project is for a learner to encounter new information and have new experiences, and then to consider them in the light of his or her personal experiences of the world, including intellectual and emotional beliefs about what matters. In other words, to deepen the learners' personal understanding of the world and themselves.

Many approaches to this difficult work are possible. Here are two suggestions:

Write an interpretive essay about a document, providing some historical context and an explanation of how the document supports or challenges a commonly accepted conclusion. Put both a copy of the document and the interpretive essay online.

Create a museum display about a historical topic (a person, event, artifact, or place). Select items to display and interpret based on the learner's conclusions at the end of the study.

Note: It is generally easier to "reverse engineer" such a teaching activity, beginning with the final products that are sought, then working backwards. The last part of the planning may be to find the right introductory document.


Directory of Staff, Schools, and Teachers
Subscribe to Heritage Education | Sign up for
Email Newsletter

153 North Main
St. Ignatius, MT 59865
(406) 745-2600
fax (406) 745-2757

Materials on this site (except when otherwise noted) may be used for educational purposes. Please include credit line to the Montana Heritage Project.
A Project of the Montana Historical Society and the
American Folklife Center, Library of Congress
Sponsored by the Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation