Do Your Students Know How To Search?

The Connected Student Series:

There is a new digital divide on the horizon. It is not based around who has devices and who does not, but instead the new digital divide will be based around students who know how to effectively find and curate information and those who do not.  Helene Blowers has come up with seven ideas about the new digital divide – four of them, the ones I felt related to searching, are listed below.

The New Digital Divide:

computer lab workIn an age of information abundance learning to effectively search is one of the most important skills most teachers are NOT teaching. They assume students know how to conduct a search, and set them free on the internet to find information. They assume that students have the skills to critically think their way through the searching and the web. Sadly, this is not the case and everyday we are losing the information literacy battle because we often forget to teach these crucial searching skills in our schools.

Teachers – especially in the elementary grades  -need to develop a shared vocabulary around the skill of searching. They need to make sure their students learn some basic search strategies and keep applying them until they become almost automatic.

Here are some of the searching skills and vocabulary we should be teaching students :

Quotation Marks:

Students should always use quotes to search for an exact word or set of words. This is useful when you want something like quotes, song lyrics or text from a an exact historical time period.

  • Example: “The Great Chicago Fire”

Dashes (or minus sign):

Use this symbol directly before a word to help exclude unwanted information from your search

  • Example: Great Chicago Fire -soccer

Two Periods:

Use this to help you find information between those two numbers. For example you might want to try:

  • Example: Great Chicago Fire October 8..10

Site Search:

For a look through the Chicago HIstory Museum site only

  • Examples: Great Chicago Fire

Use Country Codes to Look Up News Stories:

Students should gather every side and view possible on current events, and historical news stories. Not just those that are seen through the red, white and blue colored lenses of our media. To do this all they need is to search using different country codes. For example, if you wanted to get to Google Korea all you would have to do is  search using the country code of Kr for Korea.

Try it yourself first by going to Google Korea –

Below are a few of the country codes. You can click on the image to get a complete list.

Once you have taught the basics  – don’t forget to teach about

The Filter Bubbles

Did you know that while you are searching, you are inside of an invisible bubble? The results you get when you search are coming to you through filters. These filters determine, based on your past searching history, what results you would most likely want – often leaving out opposing viewpoints. Basically, what comes back to you in your search results depends on your past searches, likes and location. The scary part is that what gets filtered out of your search results is not decided by you but by the algorithms of the companies that are providing you with the results.

Two different people can get two very different search result pages. Author Eli Pariser explains this concept in his short TED Talk (link to talk below). Teaching students about the filter bubbles is crucial for helping them understand the hidden power behind search results.

Due to the hidden power of filter bubbles, it is helpful to teach students how to search in the Chrome browsers incognito mode by going to File –>New Incognito Window. This way you don’t reveal who you are to search engines and they can’t filter your results. To learn more watch this very inforamtive TED Talk by Eli Pariser.

Eli Pariser TED Talk

Finding Primary Sources

Today, finding primary sources can be quite easy. However, it can be a serious way for students to better understand history, by hearing from the people who witnessed the event and other real life accounts. Primary sources have always had strong educational value and now they are  at our fingertips. Teachers should be using these more than ever to teach history and other subjects where reading first person accounts of real events can help fuel true empathetic understanding,

Below is a great one minute video on how to use google news to easily find primary sources.

Many of the ideas in this blog post came from a presentation by Tanya Avrith. You can follow her on Twitter @edtechschools.


  1. Tracy

    October 17, 2013 at 7:08 pm

    Holly,…this is a great start to an article but it blows my mind that nowhere once do you mention the power and connection of working with teaching librarians as guides for students! Librarians all over the globe are doing this already and then some. Teachers should reach out to their librarians and collaborate for even more dynamic learning opportunities for students. It’s not just about internet information but also the power of scholarly information and understanding it…these two go hand in hand. Librarians are a vital resource. I wish your message had related that important asset to our students and the readers of this post. Thanks for letting me remind everyone!

    • R.Schaffer

      October 20, 2013 at 4:06 pm

      Unfortunately some districts (mine) have cut elementary librarians, so information like this is great; but I agree librarians are essential.

  2. carlin

    October 18, 2013 at 12:43 pm

    Dear Holly.

    I appreciate and agree with your caution about the bubble and behind the scenes filtering algorithms, but I believe you have given out misinformation with regard to Chrome’s Incognito feature.

  3. Phil Bradley

    October 19, 2013 at 9:05 am

    It’s a sad irony that an article about how to improve search skills makes the one single basic error – concentrating on Google. Google is just one search engine among many. If you want to write a proper article, how about comparing results from Google and Bing with those of DuckDuckGo or Blekko. How about referring people to news search engines like Silobreaker? What about covering all the social media content that the traditional engines don’t cover?

    How about writing an article that really looks at search skills, rather than the same old ‘this is how to use Google’ nonsense?

    • Hugh McNally

      October 31, 2013 at 8:34 am

      The point of the article is that students (actually, a profound majority of all people) barely use Google, and certainly not actively or with intellectual intent. Its main problem isn’t that it focuses on Google, but that this kind of passivity is a “new divide.” Sadly, it’s not new at all.

      I would much rather my students, colleagues, and friends first become aware of these techniques and realities–especially how search engines manipulate their users via filter bubble techniques–than to be aware of DuckDuckGo or other non-mainstream services. I wish “This is how to use Google” pieces were nonsense: the fact that both students and adults I discuss these very techniques with find them to be revelatory continuously proves them to be anything but.

      This particular “divide” actually describes learned passivity, akin to the passivity encouraged for decades by the purveyors of traditional electronic media (TV, I’m looking at you). “Google does a great job in returning results… why think about them?” is a dangerous mantra. We need to teach the idea that it’s dangerous to blindly trust someone who is essentially trying to sell you something (let’s remember what Google et al are: advertising companies). We missed the boat teaching this about TV in the 1960s; I hope the boat isn’t too far out of port about the modern-day web. Google isn’t going away any time soon: let’s make students (and everyone) informed users of it, warts and all.

  4. Eric

    October 21, 2013 at 4:57 am

    I agree with Phil, there are other resources that provide free access to validated information that also show you how such as MyLi:

  5. Mr. Wilson

    December 8, 2013 at 8:25 pm

    Incognito mode works by discarding information like browsing history and cookies left by the client from the local computer at the end of the browsing session. This will not prevent third parties from discerning your identity and using it to show you filtered search results and personalized advertisements.

    Let me elaborate. Every time you request a page your browser automatically sends information about the browser itself, your operating system, the size of your screen, your location on the network and your physical location so that a server can return a website that is readable by your device. This same information can be used to identify one computer among millions and, by inference, the user sitting in front of it. Google (and I see you clearly have Google in mind here) can identify you if you log into any of Google’s several services while in incognito mode. Even short of that, Google can identify you based on the pattern of link clicks with only a very small number of data points.

    Take a look at the tool at to see how much information is sent for a single page load. This information is sent regardless of whether you use incognito mode.