by Katrina Schwartz
Posted at The KQED Blog, "MindShift"
The first few days of school are a vital time to set the right tone for the rest of the year. Many teachers focus on important things like getting to know their students, building relationships and making sure students know what the classroom procedures will be. While those things are important, Alan November, a former teacher-turned-author and lecturer says the most important ideas to hammer home will help students learn on their own for the rest of the year.
“The name of the game is to find the right information with the right question,” said November during a workshop at the 2014 gathering of the International Society of Technology in Education in Atlanta. “My job used to be to give you the information, now my job is to teach you how to find the information.” November firmly believes this dynamic needs to be made very clear in the first five days of school.
Kids think they know how to use the internet to search and find the information they need, but November has found through many interviews and school visits that often students have no idea why Google or any other search provider works the way it does. And they don’t know how to phrase questions to get the answers they seek.
“Kids literally take their teachers assignment and Google it,” November said. “They don’t understand that Google doesn’t speak English or any other language.” He’s tested his theory in classrooms, asking students to research the Iran Hostage Crisis. Students inevitably Googled the event and cited the first few pages that came up. But every resource was written from a U.S. perspective on an event that affected two very different countries.
“Your kids are not thorough,” November said to the hundreds of educators gathered. “They don’t see what they don’t see, so it’s really important that teachers challenge what’s missing.” Even more important is for students to learn the syntax of searching. To find sources from Iran students need to type “site:ir” in order to direct a search engine to explore that part of the internet. Even using that trick doesn’t solve the problem because Iranians don’t call that event “Iran Hostage Crisis,” they call it “Conquest of the American Spy Den.”
“It’s my observation that we are not instilling a discipline and rigor of the grammar and syntax of the tool they are going to use more than anything else for homework,” November said. And worse, when he asked kids about the kinds of assignments teachers give, students said 85 to 90 percent of the answers could be found with a quick internet search.
“I think we should give kids problems that you can’t look up on the internet,” November said. “Or, if you do, build the capacity to do it well.” With the Iran Hostage Crises example, a teacher could require that students use sources from Iran, and could spend time brainstorming the right questions to ask a search engine to get the best information. These skills will help students throughout the rest of the school year and should be covered early.
“In the first 5 days I think we should front load really high level research skills,” November said. That means teaching students to “power search” using Google operators, the words that define how Google searches. “A lot of kids have never used the advanced system of Google algorithms,” November said. Without it, the internet is a vast space with little organization. November compared power searching to the Dewey Decimal System in a library – without it people are just wandering around a building hoping they find the right book.