Transformational Six

How to search online is a topic in our book. Picture taken by Rory Cellan-Jones BBC
How to search online is a topic in our book. Picture taken by Rory Cellan-Jones BBC

I recently read the article Clearing the Confusion between Technology Rich and Innovative Poor: Six Questions, by Alan November . Even if these are topics I study and work with everyday I think these 6 questions are worth asking. If you want to read the article in full I suggest you do that here. For now I would like to share the full text on question 1 because I think this is the first trap educators and school leaders fall into! We seem to assume that we know how to search for information online and that the answers we find there are correct as long as we use 3 different sources. I particularly like this quote: “The concept of the “digital native” knowing a lot more than the “digital immigrants” is largely a myth. Both groups need to become web literate.”, I  couldn’t agree more!

  1. Did the assignment build capacity for critical thinking on the web?
  2. Did the assignment develop new lines of inquiry?
  3. Are there opportunities for students to make their thinking visible?
  4. Are there opportunities to broaden the perspective of the conversation with authentic audiences from around the world?
  5. Is there an opportunity for students to create a contribution (purposeful work)?
  6. Does the assignment demo “best in the world” examples of content and skill?

1. Did the assignment build capacity for critical thinking on the web?

Before the Internet, our students accessed sources for homework that had been preselected by a teacher or a librarian. Clearly, the Internet has removed any pretense of control of information. Under this “Wild Wild West – No Sherriff-in-Town” learning environment, it is even more important that we prepare students to make thoughtful decisions about how to select high quality sources.

If you have ever watched a student research on the web you will probably observe that they enter the exact title of their homework for their search query. They will only look at the front page of results (even out of millions). There is no thought to use a second or third search tool. Critical thinking and careful evaluation of the reliability of sources is sorely lacking. Basically, we have a major mess on our hands. To make it worse, our students “do not know, they do not know”. If they knew “they did not know”, then they would ask their teachers for help in designing searches. When was the last time any student asked a teacher for help in designing a search? Perhaps more importantly, when was the last time a teacher offered to help? If our students fail at step one – selecting the right information, then they will automatically fail at critical analysis.

We can not abrogate our responsibility of preparing our students to be critical thinkers in the Age of the Internet. We need to teach our students the discipline of how search engines work and the creativity of designing a powerful query.

An example: a student types in the name of the assignment, “Iranian hostage crisis” into Google. The results list of this search will only yield search results with Western sources if the search is anywhere in North America. The reason for this is that Google knows the geographic location of your network. If you are searching from North America you will not see any sources from Iran in the top page of search results.

If you ask most students to change their search strategy to find Iranian sources, most will simply type “Iranian sources” into the search bar. As already explained this will not yield any Iranian sources. Google does not read English or any language. It cannot interpret this request to mean “get me sources from Iran”. It is possible to use the advanced search page to select Iran as the source of your content. Or, you can use the Google operator “site” to switch your search to Iranian sources with the two letter Iranian country code “ir” (site:ir). See all of the Google operators at(

Equally, if not more important than understanding how to use the advanced features of Google, are the word choices our students use to run their search. How many of our students would guess that “Conquest of the American Spy Den” is how Iran refers to the take over the American Embassy?

Compare two searches:

“Iranian Hostage Crisis”

“ “conquest of the American spy den

The first yields all Western sources. The second search yields a focused return of academic content from Iran. You can imagine that there is no agreement between the two search results. You can also imagine that very few, if any, students would design the second search without the guidance from a teacher.

Very few if any students are about to ask their history teachers for help with a Google search on the Iranian hostage crisis. It is the teacher’s responsibility to teach the research skills that lead to high quality comparative search. In this case, the teacher could have required two sources from Iran. There should have been a review of country codes and the use of the advanced search techniques to generate results from Iran. Finally, the teacher should have spent some time in class challenging the students to think about their search terms. “What did the Iranians call the takeover of the American Embassy?” (Teach students how to use Wikipedia well to design their search in Google – e.g. Wikipedia mentions the “conquest of the American spy den”.

While it would be convenient to imagine that we can just teach students to learn about advanced search techniques and inquiry design in one orientation session in the library as we do with the Dewey Decimal System that will not be sufficient. Many students have a very difficult time of transferring knowledge from one setting to another. We need all of our teachers to recognize the critical and essential role they play in preparing students to be web literate. This needs to happen at the point of giving an assignment across the curriculum and beginning when we teach students to read. (Watch young children who cannot even read ask Siri for an answer.)

What should concern every educator is that our students are typically woefully unprepared to design intelligent searches. Sadly, too many of our students do not realize how insufficient (almost dangerous) their research skills are. Their own misplaced sense of confidence about how to use Google is preventing them from asking their teachers for help. Your students need you to embed web literacy skills into the design of the assignment. They just do not know they need you. The concept of the “digital native” knowing a lot more than the “digital immigrants” is largely a myth. Both groups need to become web literate.


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