Search is a journey, not a destination.

I have been trying to teach my students how to search the internet more efficiently for quite a while now, with limited success.  I used to spend a lot of time on keywords and understanding boolean logic and trying to find the magic query that would return the most relevant results.  I told them not to type in the question, and got frustrated when typing in the question actually got them to what they were looking for.

The truth is that Google is very good at ‘almost’ reading our minds and returning useful answers to our day to day questions.  The trouble is that using search in school to find information for analysis and synthesis is very different from how students use search in their day to day lives, but if we don’t make this distincton for them they will try to apply their day to day search skills to the more sophisticated questions posed in school.  To me this is an important reason why we need to figure out how to break down search into component skills that we can teach to students; the only way for us to make students take more advanced search techniques seriously is if we can get them to realise that it is not a skill that they already have, but one they need to learn.  The rest of this post is my attempt to figure out what skills we need to scaffold and teach students so they can be good at search.

As I pondered how to teach search I had my first ‘aha’ moment when I tried to take the Google Power Search course last summer and realised that Google looks on search as a process, not a product.  My realisation was that I had been trying to teach my students the magic formula for sifting through the internet in one fell swoop, when I should have been teaching them how to get started on their search journey and how to make good decisions along the way.  The trouble is that often we ignore this process (for lots of reasons) and assume that students know what they are doing.  In my head it looks a little like this:

The image above is a slide from a presentation I recently gave on internet search with Google.  Hopefully it is obvious the the black box is the process of searching and the question mark represents the skills and attitudes students need to successfully navigate this process; skills and attitudes that for the most part are not really taught in schools.  I can think of 3 reasons why this is the case:

  1. Teacher are not sure how to DO this part.
  2. Teachers are not sure how to TEACH this part.
  3. Teachers don’t think it is their responsibility to TEACH this part.

For a long time I have been #2, and my conference presentation was my attempt to address #1 and as for #3, well, in this day and age I think all teachers need to see search literacy as one of their responsibilities.  What I think we need to do is try and break this black box up into a framework and set of competencies that we can teach and assess (nor for marks, but in order to give feedback and make decisions about what to teach next).  Here is what I see as a workable framework:

Students need both technical knowledge of how to navigate a search engine AND the habits of mind that help them interpret the results they get and make decisions based on these results.  It is at the intersection of these skills and habits that successful search happens.  To get started identifying competencies I tried to think of all the scenarios where my students struggle with search.  Here are the ones I came up with:

  1. They expect Google to do the thinking for them.  Carl Sagan once said the ‘any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ and I think sometimes that there is a little of this happening with the Google Search algorithm.  It is so advanced and seems so prescient that sometimes we assume it can read out minds.  To counteract this tendency I think it is really important our students understand what is going on in the background whe they do a search.  This video is a good place to start, as are many of the resources on the Google Search Education page.
  2. They don’t know how to speak the language of Google.  Typing in the question works great for simple questions, but gets students in trouble once they start trying to answer more complex questions.  Once they understand how Google works I have found it quite effective to explain to them that if they type in a question the top hits will be question and answer sites which are not very reliable.  The next step is to replace typing the question with something more effective.  Google suggests a 4 step process called Parsing the question to turn it into a Query.  I like that this is new language to my students, as it seems to make them sit up and take notice.
  3. They don’t know what to do with search results.  This is a very important part of the search process.  When I used to teach search I used to look at a set of search results as an end product.  The goal was to have my answer in the top few hits.  Now I try to teach my students that they search results are a step in the right direction, and now they have to go looking through the search results for clues to inform their next search.  Some of the things they need to know how to do include:
    • understanding the parts of a search results page
    • know how to use filters and operators to narrow down the search
    • know how to search within web results before clicking on a link (in my experience once students click on a link they can get lost in the web page they get taken to).
  4. They don’t know how to efficiently read and markup a webpage.  Simple tricks like using ctrl-F to find key terms on a page can make a big difference to students struggling to start accessing a web page full of text.  Similarly markup tools like Diigo can make the process of note taking much easier and give teachers a way to assess how well each student is at finding the relevant information on a web page.

Once we have established a framework and competencies that students need to search the internet effectively we need to assess their progress and give them feedback to help them improve.  Too often with skills like internet search we default to teaching them but not assessing them.  Instead we assess the things we do with the information the students find, but we forget about the black box that the students had to navigate to get their information.  I think that if all the skills mentioned in this blog post were assessed then students would take them more seriously and possible start applying them more regularly.

One Comment

  1. Claire Thompson

    I like your description of search as a journey and not a destination. I think one of the key things that good searchers do is assess the quality of the websites that appear in the first page of the search results and they modify their searches from there. Teaching this is easier said than done though! You mentioned using markup tools like Diigo. Do you use Diigo with your students? I use Diigo for all of my bookmarking and have set up an educator account, but I haven’t used it yet with students. If you have, I’d be curious to find out your experience with it.

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