Teach me how to Google?

Here’s what I realized today: my students don’t know how to use Google.

You might think that sounds crazy. Kids have grown up using Google. It’s second nature, right?

I don’t think so. I think that growing up in the information age may be having a perversely counterintuitive effect on them. Namely, they have no idea how to find information.

I took my frosh to the computer lab today to give them time to work on their essays on “The Cask of Amontillado.” They were armed with teacher-approved outlines and sample essays. I got them signed on to GoogleDocs and settled in for what I hoped would be an hour of frenzied typing with plenty of over-the-shoulder writing instruction.

Not so much. I did end up hopping around the room like a madman, giving plenty of instruction, but very little of it pertained to writing. Starting with the most frequently asked, these were the top questions of the day:

1. What was the name of the guy in the story?

2. How do you spell “catacombs”?

3. What’s Poe’s first name?

4. How does this sound so far?

Oh, how I wish question #4 were at the top of that list! That would have meant that I spent my day helping students articulate their ideas and clarify their writing. I love doing that! But instead, I spent my day responding to those other questions. Let’s look at them.

1. What was the name of the guy in the story?

I’m not even worried about the fact that they can’t remember these two names (the only two names – besides Luchesi – in the story). Who cares? And that’s exactly the point – there’s no reason to memorize the names of the characters because we can find them so easily! Or so I thought. To each kid that asked this, I told them to find out themselves. But how? We didn’t bring the textbooks down! Use the tools in front of you, I said. There are no tools in front of me! This actual exchange happened once, which caused me to mime ripping my hair out (I’m quite bald, so this always looks odd). I said, you have Google and the entire internet in front of you (you know, the most powerful tool in human history?).

After this exchange, I simply told each kid that asked this question to Google it. This instruction was usually met with a moment of hesitation. Some even asked, “How?”

Seriously. How do you google it. Can you imagine how difficult it was for me to hold back the tone of condescension in my voice when I explained, “Well, you type “cask of amontillado” into that Google search bar”? In fact, you don’t even have to do that. You can type “cask,” and Google will figure out the rest. Then you click on any 667,000 results that pop up 0.23 seconds later, and find the characters’ names in a plot summary or in the text itself.

2. How do you spell “catacombs”?

I often hear students cry out in distress, “How do I right-click?!” when in a Mac computer lab. It seems a lot of them rely on that technique for spell checking their Word documents at home. The fact that GoogleDocs doesn’t even let you control-click to find suggested corrections threw them into utter despair. “What do I do? I don’t know how to spell that?” Google it, I said, again. “But how – I don’t know how to spell it?” Just type a guess into Google, I said, trust me.

Again, with great trepidation, they’d begin to type their guess at the word into the Google search bar. Did you mean catacombs? “Oh look ,there it is.” Yup. Whaddaya know?

You can probably guess how question #3 went at this point, too.

So what does this mean? How is it that these students seem so unable to find out the simplest pieces of information? Is it laziness? Is it easier to wait with a raised hand or (who am I kidding) call out and try to get a teacher to give you a piece of information than to type it into Google yourself? Is it really possible they didn’t know that Google could help them?

To my generation, and to all those that came before me, the magical ease of Google may be due to the baseline we have for finding information. When you grew up having to walk/bike/get driven to a library, search card catalogs, follow the Dewey Decimal System, then search through the volume you finally find for an answer to your question, Google’s 0.23 second solution is incomprehensibly easy.

But when Google is your baseline, when you and your parents have always been able to find the answer to any question in an instant on your phone, maybe the act of typing the word in the search bar doesn’t seem so easy. Maybe it’s only natural to try the easier version first: asking the teacher.

I’m afraid, though, that the ease of finding right answers somehow leads to more indifference about making sure your answers are right. I hate to launch into a “kids these days” rant, but, for example, I Googled “dewey decimal system” a few moments ago just to make sure that I was right about the spelling and capitalization. I was pretty sure I was right, but since I only had to actually type in “dewe” before Google guessed what I wanted, and then it only took another 0.14 seconds for confirmation, it seemed worth it to me. And I know there will always be good students (like me) and less enthusiastic ones, but still, it’s troublesome how many “Cast of Amontilado” essays I’ve read over the past couple of years.

But why would ease of finding information lead to indifference? Is it the same reason that I’ve never been to the top of the Empire State Building? Growing up in New York, you know it’s always there, so why do it now? Growing up with Google, you know the answers are always there, so why find them now?

And whose job is it to teach kids how to Google? We 9th grade English teachers spend weeks teaching them how to navigate the SIRS and Gale databases to find scholarly articles, but that is starting to seem as sensible as teaching someone how to make a cheese soufflé instead of how to fry an egg.

I’m not mad at middle school teachers here, the way high school teachers sometimes get when our kids can’t write a sentence. I get it – we all thought they knew about Google! We see them manipulate their phones so dexterously, always texting their friends and using savvy-sounding abbreviations and even hashtags. And we think we’re on top of it with all of our 21st century learning goals and media literacy objectives.

But maybe we need to take a step backwards first. We’re all trying to make sure they become lifelong learners. It’d probably be good starting point, then, if they knew that the screen in front of them has the answers to pretty much every question. And it’s really not that hard to find them.


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  1. #1 by Shawna Martin on October 19, 2011 - 12:39 pm

    We recently hosted a talk for the teachers at both lunches in the library with a friend of Anne’s and Susan’s who is a librarian at Google (what a cool job that must be!). Much of what she was addressing was that the teachers don’t know how to Google properly either. She spoke to lots of the Google Advanced search stuff and also introduced the website / game / puzzle of A Google a Day.


    It looks like a great way to engage students in a puzzle while teaching them how to think about couching search terms in a context that will let you find what you want to know.

  2. #2 by yoni on October 19, 2011 - 12:51 pm

    Yes, that is excellent! I think you’re right about agoogleaday! What a great warm-up in a 1:1 class. So the hope is that the puzzle-y nature of it will engage kids who might not have that intrinsic need to find information and make sure it’s right, yes? Could work. I like it.

  3. #3 by Shawna Martin on October 19, 2011 - 3:13 pm

    Right. Specifically, what Tania (the Google Librarian) was touting was the need to think both abstractly and visually about what your results would look and search accordingly. So if you are looking for data that is going to be in a spreadsheet or a table what labels would it have on it that you might search for. If you are looking for action pictures of a baseball team, you might want to use the color filter to search for the green of the outfield or the brown of the infield along with the text based name of the team, etc.

    The agoogleaday puzzle uses the hints that help you see how to couch the terms to answer specific questions and also frequently emphasizes that you have to actually read on a page to find the answer, not just go to an answer site that has it all spelled out, often incorrectly.

    As usual this was a thought provoking post. I love your perspective that Google seems easier to us because our baseline is so much a part of a difficult distant past (who the hell is Dewey?). But I think it seems easier to us also because we have lots of experience with the metacognition around finding answers and they have barely any experience. So getting to the point of thinking about what to ask a search engine to search for is just a farther reach for them.

    So if your students can’t use email, don’t know how to use Google and just want you to read to them . . . exactly how different are these digital natives from the adult digital immigrants I coach all day? Hmm.

  4. #4 by yoni on October 19, 2011 - 8:16 pm

    Color filter! I need to play with that.

    Actually reading! Yes, that seems to be the ticket, doesn’t it? Reluctance to do any reading at all can be a pretty powerful force that we’re always butting up against.

    Thanks again for reading. My conscience is killing me, though. That piece about our analog baseline came from talking about this with Laura, so she deserves much of the credit for your favorite part.

    But that is a really interesting point about our experience with metacognition. I think those are helpful terms for pinpointing the difference in how we attack questions. Ok, so all we have to do is continue to try getting our students to…
    1. become better readers/read more
    2. think about their thinking more
    Those objectives sound like they could have been developed by any teacher and have nothing to do with technology. So, as your final point seems to suggest, nothing really matters?

  5. #5 by Sarah Fitz on October 23, 2011 - 8:19 pm

    What an interesting post, Mr, Fine!

  1. On that article about the Waldorf school « Fine Findings

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