Why we (and our students) should become Power Searchers

How good of a searcher are you?

Why is searching online such an essential but under-taught skill among students today?

An exploration-strand post in an ongoing 2-strand series about Information Literacy


Would you consider yourself a “power searcher” when it comes to using Google?

How might a student (say, from 4th grade through college) respond to this same question?

Even though Google has become a tool and verb intrinsically connected to how we connect to the digital world today, our perceived expertise can be deceptive. We are all very familiar and seemingly fluent in speaking “Google”; however, if our use of it remains shallow compared to how we could be leveraging its power to really work for us, then we are likewise missing out on leveraging our own power to think and grow as searchers.

In his recent post, Google’s “Anthropologist of Search” Dan Russell hits on some commonplace issues many of us educator-types may take for granted when it comes to how we search—and assumptions we make about what others know (including students) about doing their own searches.

Mr. Russell’s initial surprise at what he encountered when teaching his Internet search skills class echoes what I have found when working with so-labeled digital natives—and which won’t come as a surprise to those of you who have seen your own digital natives struggle with basics such as thinking about the concepts in their initial questions and identifying related keywords or terms to use as actual search queries, instead of simply typing in the entire question and being satisficed with what they get.

Just because the label “digital natives” implies being born among digital media doesn’t necessitate an inborn ability to find and use it effectively. They like what they like and know how to use what they like—but can either be woefully ignorant or extremely overconfident when it comes to navigating and mining the Web’s depth of information. Even as “young people urgently need guidance on thoughtful, ethical, and responsible digital-media use,” they also need constant guidance on skillful and thoughtful access of digital media and information.

Although this quotation from danah boyd’s book It’s Complicated: The Secret Lives of Networked Teens references the challenges of being digitally literate within the context of social media, the sentiment holds true for learning how to find, access, and use any kind of digital media today:

Neither teens nor adults are monolithic, and there is no magical relation between skills and age. Whether in school or in informal settings, youth need opportunities to develop the skills and knowledge to engage with temporary technology effectively and meaningfully. Becoming literate in a networked age requires hard work, regardless of age.

Besides making assumptions about how well students can search, one thing I have noticed as a teacher-librarian is that teaching how to search is simply not done enough or iterated in ways that contextually connect to what—and how—we want students to learn, besides the content itself. Searching, like reading or writing, is a skill that needs routine practice and application within myriad learning experiences in order to gain the kind of fluency we have come to expect and require.

In his post, Mr. Russell also hones in on a facet of teaching searching that is actually another skill in disguise—that of teaching thinking, specifically divergent and convergent thinking in the context of scoping (broadening or narrowing) a search:

DRussell_divergent_aurora.png

The thinking divergently comes in when you approach a topic by looking beyond what you think you’re looking for, isolating the concepts behind your initial search and then exploring other possibilities and connections, brainstorming related terms and mining new ones as you search. Thinking convergently happens when those divergent ideas—or in this case, terms and subsequent search results—are brought together, synthesized and narrowed down in order to reach a new understanding, create new meaning, or even just find the answer to your initial search question.

This kind of thinking through searching is what makes searching more than just a simple trial-and-error typing exercise. The divergent and convergent thinking that happens as part of the cadre of Information Literacy skills—such as choosing the best resources in which to search, determining a source’s credibility, vetting your results, and ultimately using what you find—also provide a rich playground for thinking beyond the how of crafting an effective search to why it matters.

Something else that critical thinking and effective online searching have in common? The more you do it, the easier it is to do.

As Mr. Russell reflects that “there’s no good way for beginners to climb up the learning curve,” one possible route is via the Power Searching with Google page and the latest MOOC iteration that runs from February 8th through 21st, and will repeat every two weeks through June. All of the materials are also CC-friendly for use with students, young and old alike.

You can also use this infographic of Mr. Russell’s blog post that highlights his advice and tips on teaching beginners of any age on how to search:

Search Tips for Beginners

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