“It’s what we know.” Helping our students understand Google Search

Most of my teaching career has been as a classroom teacher. I began working as a Teacher-Librarian, but after a few years, the lure of the classroom won me over. I really love the ownership that comes from teaching a class; those kids are your audience, and if it works, it’s because you’ve made it work. It’s a bit like being your own boss. I moved back to a library setting when the internet was just showing its promise. I was excited; knowledge was moving into new spaces and I saw that as something that would reinvigorate the profession. Finding knowledge in new environments is a challenge and not something that necessarily comes easily. Digital Literacy understanding needs instruction. Becoming a critical thinker and searcher is not necessarily intuitive.

The difficult thing for any Teacher Librarian is getting access to classes so that we can work with students and teachers to assist them with Digital Literacy understandings.  Not every teacher out there is comfortable working in a team teaching environment. I really do think there are plenty of teachers out there who are fearful of criticism and unwilling to open their classrooms for others to observe, let alone work with them.

The ideal way to impart understanding is in the context of a course of study. Just in time learning does work. Unfortunately, getting opportunities to work directly with students as they research doesn’t always happen for Teacher Librarians, and sometimes you just have to grab the opportunities that come your way. I’m not sure about you, but when I talk with students and observe the way they navigate the Web, most of them default to Google as their search tool. We had the opportunity to work with all of our Year Seven students last week, so we decided to focus on how they could become more adept at using Google.

We started with this video, featuring Matt Cutts from Google explaining how the search engine works;

It had their attention with its animations and subtitles that helped them follow the explanation provided by Matt. We then went onto demonstrate the new features of the Google search results page using the left hand side bar. Many of them had not yet twigged it was even there! If you’re not up with recent changes, take a look at the following slideshare presentation by Conectica;

Using Google search tips sourced from Dumb little man, we wound up our discussion about Google. Our discussion then moved into ‘What other search engines can you use?’ It was very interesting to hear students offer Safari and Firefox as search engines. The discussion moved into an explanation of the difference between a browser and a search engine. Sometimes you forget to start with some basic understandings; often, I think, we’re guilty of assuming our students have knowledge, when in fact, things need to be spelled out or introduced to them.

I know, some of you out there will be beseeching me right now and saying that this kind of teaching needs to be embedded in what is happening in the classrooms, and you’re right. It should. But sometimes you need to explicitly teach something. I see no harm in direct instruction, as long as it’s part of your toolkit and you vary your teaching methods to suit circumstances and what your learning intention is for your students. Even the teachers who were present in the session came out telling me they had learned something. To wind up the session, we introduced the students to SweetSearch -a search engine for students.  Mark Moran, from Finding Dulcinea – Librarian of the Internet, has helped develop this search engine. It “searches only the 35,000 Web sites that our staff of research experts and librarians and teachers have evaluated and approved when creating the content on findingDulcinea”

When we asked our students why they primarily use Google, one student said, “It’s what we know.” How true. You use what you know. Hopefully our session helped them to understand how they can use what they know better, and maybe it’s opened their eyes to what they don’t know. That just might make them realise that the Teacher-Librarians are in command of a fair bit of practical knowledge that will help them to find their way around the Web. I hope so.

11 Replies to ““It’s what we know.” Helping our students understand Google Search”

  1. Terrific post, Jenny, and thank you for sharing SweetSearch and other search tools with your students, who are fortunate to have you. Teachers need to demand more of students. So often I hear teachers complain that students, when asked to conduct Web research, do little more than cut and paste something from one of the 1st 5 search results on Google – sometimes not even changing the font. I quickly ask, “so did you give the student a failing grade?” – and usually receive a puzzled look. These students may not have received failing grades, but they are being failed – they are being allowed not to learn the strong Web research skills they will need to succeed in college, in their work, and in life. A University College of London research review found what it called a “new divide,” with students who have access to teacher librarians “taking the prize of better grades” with those who don’t have success access showing up at college beyond hope, having “already developed an ingrained coping behaviour: they have learned to ‘get by’ with Google.” We’ve created “Ten Steps to Better Web Research,” (http://www.sweetsearch.com/TenSteps) a continually evolving repository of the best teaching on Web research skills, and plan to release videos and lesson plans relating to it.

    The press release and link to the UCL Research Review

    My article titled “Young Learners Need Librarians, Not Just Google.”

    1. Thanks for leaving a comment Mark. I read your article and was very impressed; I sent the link to my colleagues. I’d recommend anyone reading this comment thread to follow the links you have posted. They are very useful, especially considering that we often have to use evidence like this to assist us in gaining entry to classrooms to impart valuable skills teaching.

  2. Jenny, this was a great post. What you say is so true, there is a fear by some teachers that you will some how show them up as being lacking because you have some different skills. After a long battle, we have just got our foot in the door again (after a very long time in the wilderness – school politics, I won’t bore you) to teach digital literacy to our yr 7’s. We started with half an hour a cycle (every 10 ten days), but this semester, we have succeeded in being a part of the major project for the term.

    We have just been talking about Search Engines with them – so this post is timely. Hope you don’t mind me Diiging it for future reference. Cheers.

    1. Thanks very much for posting this comment Nicola. Sometimes I think we can feel like we are failing, when in fact, we are more than willing to step up to the mark but are up against it because of a variety of factors. Feel free to use this post; it’s why I write them. I figure there’s benefit in sharing what you do. If we help one another out we are all the better for it. : )

  3. Thanks for that Google Video Jenny. it is a great explanation.
    I have done similar lessons before with year 5/6 children getting them to compare the results from a variety of search engines – trying to make them aware of more child friendly sites etc. They see the point – how more relevant sites are found but in reality they seem revert to “googling it”
    Therefore, showing them to use google advanced search and all the boolean strategies is vital (imho).

    1. Our new library, (when it’s finally built!) will be a 5 -12 library. It will be great to get a head start with some of this important teaching at those year levels. Glad to hear you’re tackling this work with our younger students Celia. : )

  4. I like starting with the Google video – simple but informative; short videos always grab attention better than teacher introduction, I think.

    I agree that this kind of learning doesn’t happen unless taught explicitly, the main problem being availability of classes (too busy cramming curriculum) or the fact that a student may only get one or two of these kinds of classes in 6 years.

    I was thinking of fusing a lesson using a similar approach but would really like to extend it to a series of lessons following Howard Rheingold’s crap detection procedures. Don’t like my chances of getting my hands on a class though.

  5. A good post Jenny. I too have been trying to get into classes to teach research skills and have been able to have it included in some of the year 7 personal development classes. I know the arguments for embedding the lessons into classes but that has not been happening in the curriculum. The reasons are varied and many have been mentioned above. One of the most common is that too many teachers (and other adults) are assuming that the kids know everything they need to searching for information.
    I had not seen the above video (and have collected it to use in the future) but started with some searches I knew they had been doing in history & English and not had success (or rather too much success) in finding sites. Just taking time to explore Google and its options and allowing them to discuss and try different searching techniques has been very successful. The students are very interested in the different skills and especially when they can see the improved results. In the PD classes we have also been able to follow onto some lessons about other search engines and to creative commons and in one class have also looked at hoax sites and how to evaluate sites. These are all topics that they have opinions on, and ideas about, once they have been made more aware. The comments from the classroom teachers has also been positive but again they are not pressured in PD about content and time.
    Thanks for the post

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