I recently came across an article in Wired Magazine called “Why Kids Can’t Search“. I’m always interested in this particular topic, because it’s something I struggle with in my middle and high school classes constantly, and I know I’m not alone in my frustrations.
Getting kids to really focus on what exactly they are searching for, and then be able to further distill idea into a few key specific search terms is a skill that we must teach students, and we have to do it over and over again. We never question the vital importance of teaching literacy, but we have to be mindful that there are many kinds of “literacies”. An ever more important one that ALL teachers need to be aware of is digital literacy. I could go off in many directions on this, but for the purpose of this post I’m focusing strictly on the digital literacy of searching.
In the past, we spent a lot of time in schools teaching kids how to do library research, and how to use a variety reference materials like dictionaries, encyclopedias, microfiche, card catalogs, public records, anthologies, and other sources too numerous to recall. Many of these forms of reference are no longer used, as they (or incarnations much like them) are all now available to us on the internet.
However, when we made this switch to internet-based resources, we somehow left a gap in education and made no real focus on teaching kids how to find valid, credible, useful resources online. The result is our frequent frustration with a generation of kids who will still type in the word “Egypt” and grab the first search result that pops up on Google when studying anything remotely related to the topic.
As they get older, kids often employ the tactic of typing a question into the search bar – “How do I find out about mummies in Egypt?” This actually gives Google a little more to work with – namely the word “mummies”, but this additional boost is thwarted because the search is in the form of a question. Top results yield links to Answers.com, YahooAnswers, and other equally useless (academically speaking) results. Anyone – you, me, a 2nd grader, or a Kardashian, can post an answer on these sites. True the internet is becoming more semantic all the time, but we are far from there yet, and these kinds of searches are almost always a waste of time.
SPEND TIME teaching your kids the digital literacy skill of proper searching. It’s never too early for them to learn. Are they old enough to learn to use a dictionary or an encyclopedia? That’s the time! Here are the levels that need to be taught:
1. It begins as a critical thinking and language skill – narrowing their focus to a specific idea, and then selecting the few key terms and some alternatives that will help them.
2. Utilizing the various “search help” tools that many search engines offer – Google offers the ability for kids to narrow the search by time, type (images, news, dictionary, reading level), and also offers a nice advanced search tool. Some simple Boolean tools, such as +, “and”, and – are still extremely useful to know.
3. Critically sorting through the results – is the top result always the best? Often the answer is no. Google sorts its results based on the amount of hits a URL gets and sorts that way. It’s not so much academic as it is a popularity contest. Remember, Google can’t think (yet), so it’s still up to us to make the determination about what will be useful. Taking some time to teach kids about credible resources, scholastic research-based resources, and most importantly valid resources, is a worthwhile and necessary exercise. As an example, my students blog, usually about academic topics they are studying in school. If one of my students posts a movie of their re-enactment of Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address, their post will likely pop up in any given search about Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address. Are they a valid scholastic resource? Are they experts? ’nuff said.
4. Sometimes, supply your kids with the internet resources you want them to use. If your focus is on finding the information within a given resource, maybe it’s not necessary to always pile on the extra step of searching for the resource – especially if this is still a skill they struggle with. You can go old school and write the links on the board, or the easier route of pasting or embedding the links into your class webpage. Either way, this practice actually sets a bar for students – they become more accustomed to the type, format, and quality of resource that is valid for academic research. Obviously, they need to learn and use search skills, but this “calibration” every once in awhile is actually a good thing for setting expectations.
Here are some links that offer some resources for teachers trying to teach students the digital literacies involved with searching.