Getting Beyond “I Googled It”

November 20, 2013
Kathleen Costanza
Common Sense Education Blogger

CATEGORIES Common Sense Resources, Digital Literacy

Imagine a sixth grader enters “ancient Rome” into the Google search bar while doing research for a history project. He or she would get 52.3 million results in .28 seconds. If they were to Google “Civil War?” 422 million results. Less than half a second.

Of course, they’ll probably only sift through the top results on the first page, but those 20-or-so results still contain a maze of information that could eat an old encyclopedia alive.

Even though teachers are aware of the vastness of the internet, we often expect digital natives to know the ins-and-outs of savvy searching because they’re such naturals with computers. But as a series of ethnographic studies from the University of Illinois found, the reality is that few students actually check an author’s credentials or use correct keywords. Searching is a crucial part of digital literacy, and is at the heart of turning the billions of results into manageable knowledge.

“One of the top reasons that schools and districts have invested in iPads, tablets and other mobile devices is to provide near-instant access to the multitude of materials available for students to consume,” writes Beth Holland, a communications and instruction lead at EdTechTeacher, who also writes for Edutopia. “As educators, we need to ensure that our students can then find what they actually need.”

Beyond just hunting for specific facts, quality search skills involve a certain level of critical reasoning. Over at Wired, technology journalist Clive Thompson calls teaching search skills a “golden opportunity” to spur critical thinking. To really search well, students have to apply outside knowledge to evaluate a site’s motivations, audience, and credibility. Is there a reason someone might potentially misrepresent this kind of information? Does this site make money? How? Does this information change frequently; how important is it that a site be recently updated?

“In other words, Google makes broad-based knowledge more important, not less. A good education is the true key to effective search,” Thompson writes.

Teaching students how to locate and evaluate trustworthy, in-depth information is imperative as schools roll out iPads and 1-to-1 programs. Below is a smattering of tips and resources from around the web that can help guide your students to becoming expert searchers.

  • Google didn’t become the world’s most visited website and a verb in the English language by accident. Google is alarmingly simple and easy to use and is overwhelmingly students’ first stop. But, as Holland points out, there are multiple search engines designed with kids in mind. SweetSearch and its version for younger students, SweetSearch4Me, only pull from sites that have been vetted by teachers and librarians.  If we revisit our hypothetical sixth grader searching “civil war,” Google pulls up Wikipedia,, and the History Channel. Meanwhile, SweetSearch’s second result is an archive of first-hand accounts and other often tough-to-find primary sources.
  • Online versions of encyclopedias are reliable and store digestible information in one place. The Encyclopedia of Life is a trove of biology information complete with pictures. Outside of science, the complete Columbia Encyclopedia is available via Yahoo! and includes over 50,000 entries.
  • Getting students to land on quality results is one thing, getting them to keep track of all the information is another. Diigo helps students annotate and archive their research. While not a search tool necessarily, Diigo makes the content students find on search engines shareable and collaborative -- perfect for group projects.
  • Our free Digital Passport featured a game module called Search Shark. Students learn how to choose effective keywords for searching online. They practice selecting keywords that are most relevant to a search prompt. Along the way, students discover hints for narrowing their search results, all in the context of a gobble 'em up game.
  • Google has a collection of educational tips and shortcuts. For example, by selecting “books,” students can reads thousands of books in the public domain.
  • Teach students to narrow or widen results by using the plus or minus sign. Educator and blogger Ian Byrd describes on Byrdseed the time when his students were researching for a project about ancient tools. When they searched “spears,” they were confronted with an avalanche of Britney Spears information. The solution? He writes, “I introduce the '–' symbol. Placed before a word, this tells Google to exclude the word. So, spears -britney will locate sites with spears but without britney.
  • Our Using Keywords lesson encourages kids grades K-2 to find the facts about their ideal pet by picking effective keywords out of their own questions. For 6-8 graders, our Identifying High Quality Sites challenges them to evaluate content with real-life examples.
  • The authors of “Connected Learners: A Step-By-Step Guide to Creating a Global Classroom” suggest on Mind/Shift using to evaluate sites. Alexa displays demographics, traffic, and information about domain name ownership.