"What? Of course, we know how to Google! Come on, Ms. Sackstein."
A full room of seniors stared at me like I had three heads, confused and maybe even insulted that I had the audacity to suggest they didn't know how to search the world's more well-known search engine.
Taking them at their word, I set them on a mission to search for high school publication advertising policies in NY. They logged into accounts, opened up Google, and do what anyone who knows how to search Google does: put keywords into the line and when the exact hit doesn't come up in the first three options, proclaim there isn't any information out there.
Minutes go by and they are all deeply engaged with the computers. I hear rumbles of frustration and questions about what they are supposed to look up.
"Did you find anything? I can't find anything. There's nothing here. Ms. Sackstein, there isn't any information. Am I doing this right?"
"Are you sure? I asked. What did you search?" "Just what you told us to search."
"And what was that exactly?" "Advertising policies in NY, right?"
As I walked to each group, they all had similar information on their screens, but none of them were in the ballpark. They found articles about commercial advertising in schools or policies about laws governing commercial involvement in schools, but nothing specific about advertising policies in scholastic publications.
One group found a lot about bans on selling sugary substances and why schools can't sell them anymore. Some were searching laws associated with advertising, but all of them definitely missed the mark.
Processing their utter inability to search effectively, we needed to figure out what was going wrong. I mean, if they all know how to use Google, how come no one found information that was appropriate?
"Stop what you're doing. Attention to the front. Someone, please tell me what you did to find information?"
"I put NY advertising policies in school in the line and searched images first. Then I tried a variety of different words but arrived at the same conclusion. Nothing!"
"It's not enough just to have keywords. You need to work with what you have. Try using quotation marks to limit what you're searching for. Try using the advanced search to narrow the field. Then take the time to view different sites, not just the first three that appear. Now you try."
As I walked around the room the second time, students were still having a hard time, but some were getting "luckier", closer to what the assignment required of them. They wouldn't be able to write their own policy if they didn't research what one looked like and what should be included in it.
One of the greatest challenges my students face is my unwillingness to tell them what to do directly. Always looking to support their learning styles and voices, I offer help and guidelines but never one and the only way to accomplish a task. This ambiguity creates a lot of anxiety for my students as they are more consumed with getting good grades than learning. Refocusing them on the learning process is just as important as them reflecting on what they actually know.
My students thought they knew how to Google. They were insistent upon it. I was crazy for even thinking they didn't know, but what each of them realized is maybe they don't know. As much as this can be uncomfortable to recognize, it is also the first essential step to changing their situations. Once a student realizes they don't know, they are receptive to learning and therefore have the opportunity to experience the process and make it their own.
At the end of the class, each pair of students was able to create an advertising policy for the school publications. Using different models and websites to make it happen, their more specific searches were able to get them more reliable sources for the task at hand.
Google is a powerful tool, but like many tools, if it isn't used correctly it can be useless and frustrating. We can't take for granted that our students know how to successfully use tools that we see them using all the time.
It is imperative as teachers, that we acquaint ourselves with the full function of technology, so we can use it effectively with our students.
Using technology for the sake of using it serves little purpose, but once we make it an integral means of developing understanding it becomes essential. Students look to us as models of this usage, so the learning must begin on our laptops so we can show kids how to use these tools with proficiency.
How can you teach students to better use the tools they think they know? Please share
*This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog in June 2016.