Thoughts on teaching internet search skills

A blog post by @jutecht called “Why schools are failing by not teaching search” has really got me thinking.  I agree completely with Jeff’s post and I know that he has put his money where his mouth is by sharing a number of useful lesson plans for teaching search to primary, middle and upper grades.  The thing is I don’t think that lesson plans by themselves are going to cut it.  I have been teaching search lesson plans for quite a few years in my technology classes and am constantly frustrated by how little transference there is from my class to my student’s other classes.  I think we need to approach the teaching of search more like we approach the teaching of any fundamental skill: the skill needs to be broken down into it’s component parts, each part needs to be taught until the student reaches competency and then the student needs lots of chances to practice.

This summer I tried to complete the Google Power Search course.  I didn’t quite finish (that’s another story) but I did have an AHA moment.  Up until the course I had been teaching internet searching as a set of tools for finding the right answer.  In the Google course I started to realise that Google sees search as a process, not an outcome.  I used to think that if I could just get my students to type in the correct keywords they would find what they were looking for (which very rarely worked for good questions).  After the course I realised that I need to be teaching my students how to start a search, interpret the results and then search a bit more, interpret the results etc.   This made me realise there was a host of other skills my students needed that I wasn’t teaching.

I thought I was on to something but wasn’t sure where to go with it when I stumbled upon Google’s search education resources.  I cannot say enough good things about this set of resources.  Not only did the lesson plans scaffold the skills I wanted to teach really well, they also provided a good collection of questions (taken from A Google A Day) for my students to try answering (there was one problem with this question set that I discuss at the end of this post).

The first lesson taught my students how to parse a question to turn it from a research question into a query.  I love these words.  Using the unfamiliar word ‘parse’ made my students stop and take notice: ‘hey, that’s a weird word, maybe it’s a new skills that I need to learn.’  Distinguishing between ‘research question’ and ‘query’ helped them realise that they needed to think deeper about their question than just typing it into the Google search box.  The best part, however, was this really concrete set of instructions for parsing a question:

  • Circle key words
  • Underline “maybe” words, offer synonyms or replacement terms
  • Add missing words
  • Ignore unnecessary words

Brilliant.  With these steps I had concrete skills I could teach and measure.  Here is one of the worksheets I developed to check my students understanding: Search Terms Assignment.

Some of the other skills that I think it is important we teach and assess include: understanding a URL and interpreting search results; using quotes to group words together; using the minus sign to filter out unwanted results; and using ctrl-f to find words on a page.  I think it’s also worth mentioning that Sweet Search with the YoLink plugin is a much better way to access Google search results, but that’s another blog post (here is a quick video I made when I discovered Sweet Search in case anyone is interested).

The next step is to really to assess these skills.  In my case at least, I have been guilty of teaching some skills but not assessing them in any meaningful way.  This year I tried screen casting and was pleasantly surprised.  With tools like Screen-cast-o-matic available there is no reason why any student with an internet enabled computer shouldn’t be able to make a quick recording of themselves demonstrating the skills they have been taught and sharing it with their teacher and class.  With my students I went a step further and asked them to find a question to answer in their screencast that would allow them to demonstrate three of the search skills they had been taught.  Some of their work was outstanding and I will try and share it once I have their permission.

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An aside: I mentioned earlier that there was one problem with the Google A Day questions; the problem is that the day after the question in posted someone puts the answer online along with the entire question.  This means that if a student does type in the question they will get the right answer most of the time, which sort of undermines the point of the lesson.  This is an important sticking point with the idea of doing a better job teaching search, we need lots of good questions.  I occurred to me tonight that this is something that could be crowd sourced, but I think that’s a topic to explore at a later date.

One Comment

  1. Claire Thompson

    Hi Phil,
    I like the idea of search as a process, not an outcome. That is definitely something that I would like to emphasize with my students.
    Like you I saw Jeff Utecht’s search lesson plans, which which eventually led to me finding the Google Search Education Resources you linked to. Great resources; my students like the video explaining how Google’s ‘spiders’ work!
    You mentioned the limitations with the Google A Day Questions. Another source for challenging searches is The Noggin Hoggin’ Challenge. It is put on a couple of times a year by Exam Bank. The questions are quite challenging, but definitely involve superior search skills! The questions from past years are available. I tried just copying and pasting some entire questions into Google, and first page results didn’t lead back to The Noggin Hoggin’ site (where they have the answers) which makes them promising.
    I like your idea of crowd sourcing good search questions–perhaps something for over the winter break…
    All the best,
    Claire

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