Free Range Google

Screen Shot 2015-04-19 at 11.01.07 AMNo, Free Range Google is not an official thing … yet, but it is the best way I can think to describe the part of my class where I remove the barriers and let the students wonder and search. This is counter some of the arguments on Twitter recently from my PLN, but that is why I have necessary pre-requisites:

  1. Background Google Search Skills
  2. Digital Literacy
  3. Connection to Content
  4. Objective (to learn and share … something)
  5. Teacher Engagement


At the beginning of each year the search strategy of my students is to enter the exact question they want answered into the search bar, obviously this is not the most effective. I talk with them about keywords and search parameters. As a teacher, I do not have to Screen Shot 2015-04-19 at 11.14.02 AMdevelop lessons for search skills, Google has already done that. There are also many great infographics and other resources to help students visualize search strategies, including a new one I saw this week. Search skills were a major focus of my BYOT4 Club; every meeting they started collaboratively working on the Google a Day webquest. There is skill and good modeling involved to consistently get strong and specific search results. I scaffold. At the beginning of the year when students ask random content questions that I do not know, my response is “Let’s look it up.” By the second part of the year, I entrust multiple students to search and they fact check each other. I don’t let them settle with the first result, and by having multiple students look they verify with different sources. So yes, I say “Google it” and still find it to have educational value.


Current event discussions that we have every Friday are a great chance to mix in digital literacy skills.The students officially get taught digital literacy in their computer class, but applying it in a real world setting makes their computer lessons more valuable. New sources are often biased or there are conflicting reports, especially with something as tense as the police brutality stories of late. I don’t promote the conversations, but the students deserve answers. They hear the stories on their own through media, so we talk through the hype and ask questions about the author and their facts. I do down play news stories that relate to school violence or anything sexual since they are 11 or 12 year olds, but they still ask about it when they hear. They start to use a critical eye for things they read online.


Students, and adults, like Googling random things. To make it meaningful, there must be a connection to the content. When I have them search, sometimes their interpretation of the connection is less concrete than I would like, but if it helps them remember the lesson in the long run, it has value.  For example, a month later a student could still describe in detail the climate and economic activity in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada because he had searched for houses and noticed large greenhouses to supplement what they could buy at the store while still living in a subarctic climate. Pretending to buy a house led to a deeper understanding. This also works well as a preview strategy before we delve into the depths of the lesson, like searching for National Parks in a random state before we studied the states. Or the first guided search was “kids fun facts AND [ocean/continent of choice],” they were getting their own specific end results without being taught how to get there. Once we do get to the content, the students have a direct correlation and an instant connection.


The random searching could be endless. Personally searching takes me down a rabbit’s hole, where one result leads to another question. For my students I set a finite search time. “After 15 minutes, upload a picture of what you found and a short explanation on Edmodo for the entire class to see.” They generally are not searching for information I already know, so they are expanding everyone’s knowledge, including mine. Textbooks do not connect well with pre-teen interests. Often students find the same things interesting, they love talking about what they are reading as they find it. It is such a positive to overhear the excitement of what they discovered.


The ‘overhearing’ brings us to the last part: teacher engagement. While teachers do not script the search terms, they have to constantly moving around the room and prompting student thought. This is not a passive lesson. Some questions are easy “why do you think…?” “what would happen if…?” “how does this connect to what we talked about?” This is the opposite of a passive lesson; it is mentally exhausting to interact with each student and to transform their exciting search results into a tangible lesson connection. Talking to the students is easy; they are all eager to share their results, it is moving on to the next student that is challenging.


Is this a worthy use of class time? Not all my units have textbook readings, and not all the readings inspire students. Some in my area of certification feel letting students discover knowledge on their own is unprofessional and almost equal to blasphemy. This is the same mindset that would change Wikipedia to prove that they are correct, and that Wikipedia can not be trusted. (side note: I wonder what percentage of intentionally incorrect changes are made to Wikipedia articles by educators trying to make a point? I would less than celebrities/politician smear campaigns and more than bored pranksters.) Should everything I use to support my teaching – websites, apps, stories, articles, etc – be peer reviewed and approved? Expensive textbooks are approved, but not always correct, especially ones as old as my students. I believe that there is value in allowing students to Google some of their own supplemental resources instead of relying solely on teacher pre-approved ones. Now is the time to learn good search skills while they have a teacher as a guide. How will district policy adapt to the rapidly changing education resource landscape? Will they trust teachers to do what is best for student learning? We shall see.

About Lisa Butler

Middle school geography teacher, tech trainer, Flocabulary MC, Nearpod PioNear, and Edcamp Hershey Founder. I have embraced the power of purposeful technology and am creative with their application. If I am not doing something with ed or tech, I am probably reading children's books, baking with a toddler sidekick, running around, or dreaming of traveling.
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