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Teaching research skills in a Google world

Doing researchIt’s the Battle of the Resource Juggernauts: Old-time champion Dewey Decimal and 21st-century superstar Google continue their fight for the title of “most valuable resource.” Longtime Dewey devotees boast better accuracy and supreme reliability, while young fans appreciate Google’s unmatched speed and agility.

Always a frustrating struggle for high school teachers and college professors, the library versus Google rivalry has now found its way into middle schools and elementary schools. With technology being introduced to children at very young ages, how do schools safeguard the teaching of sound research skills in a ubiquitous Google-Wikipedia world?

Parents worry about the “Google generation”: young people whose first (if not only) source for information is a quick Internet search. Today’s students have grown up in an online world; “just Google it” is the usual method of resolving disputes, confirming facts and accessing information.

We know we must protect kids from Web dangers. Protecting their education from too much Internet influence can be trickier, particularly for parents whose children all but leave them in the technology dust. Google, for example, can solve math equations, make unit conversions and substitute for Cliffs Notes. But maybe you knew that.

Eliminating a child’s Internet use completely is no longer a practical option. Computer skills are more important than ever, and students benefit from starting early. That’s why the goal shared by most parents and educators is to teach kids how to use computers without allowing the benefit of good ol’ fashioned books to be forgotten. For schools that require students to carry a personal laptop, finding that balance is particularly important.

Middle school laptop programs, such as the program at Villa Academy in Seattle, use computers to create an interactive learning environment. Application software, CD-ROMs, and the World Wide Web can expand teaching techniques and increase learning possibilities.

Students need online and off-line skills

Does that kind of tech teaching come at the expense of helping students learn traditional research skills? Many argue it does not. Andy Shaw, a branch manager for the Seattle Public Library, points outs that “the person who used to grab a World Book Encyclopedia to do an entire report will likely use Google in the same way.” These are the folks who are always looking for “a quick and easy way to take shortcuts,” he says.

But the Internet is not always a shortcut. “Kids are fascinated with the speed,” says Karen Strand, Villa Academy librarian. She tries to emphasize to students that while the Internet might seem faster, “so much stuff pops up — how much time are you really wasting?”

The objective is to teach students to find information efficiently and assess sources thoroughly. Whether a student is online or off-line, he or she must begin research with a central question, then identify and evaluate resource material, Strand explains. “The steps to conduct a proper research paper are the same.”

Strand’s greater concern is the age appropriateness of online search engines. “Young kids are not cognitively ready to use Google,” Strand says. “They like pressing buttons and seeing what they get, but they often don’t have the critical thinking skills to evaluate multiple sources.”

Strand works on this skill in the classroom. Together the class learns how to combine key words in order to narrow search engine results down to the most relevant material. For older students, the next step is learning to evaluate these sources for credibility.

Providing links

Even a very specific Web search can return thousands of results. For the inexperienced (and even experienced) searcher, this can be overwhelming. Villa Academy computer teacher Elizabeth O’Neil provides students with a collection of age-appropriate links that have been, as she says, “previewed for content, readability and ease of use.” If students have exhausted the provided links, they may request to use Google on a case-by-case basis.

Less-structured searching occasionally has its place in the classroom. Amy Mead, Villa Academy middle school teacher, allows students to use Google or Wikipedia in some instances. “Sometimes a quick overview is helpful for students,” she says.

The use of search engines to pursue and fine-tune research presents a learning opportunity. For teachers like Mead, who appreciate the value of both media, research is about “learning to evaluate sources, in hard copy and electronic form.”

The beauty of the World Wide Web is its indiscriminating global scope. It is a source of unlimited and uncensored information with great prospects and inherent hazards. Under the guardianship of responsible adults, young students who are just learning to judge and interpret knowledge can achieve a healthy balance between online and printed information.

Katie McPhail is a Seattle-based writer. In addition to ParentMap she has written for Northwest Runner, inTravel Magazine, and the Eastside Business Journal.


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