The Keyword Search Activity That Teaches Critical Thinking

We’ve all been there. After typing in a search query, the results just don’t match our expectations. We try a new combination of words, changing our search from a question, cutting it down to just an essential few words, hoping the results will give us information to a burning question. Students also experience the same frustrations, whether they’re conducting research in a science classroom or looking for the perfect picture for the book trailer they are making in English language arts.

But search engines like Google are powerful and often essential resources, and students of all ages can build skills that help them navigate these spaces. A good place to start is by modeling good search behavior.

When visiting a classroom last year to lead a lesson on multimedia creations for a group of elementary school students, we tackled this issue together. As we created videos about our favorite things, one of the students wanted to share how much she loved the Disney movie “Frozen.” The first word they typed into a search engine didn’t give them a perfect result—the keyword “frozen” didn't give them pictures of Elsa. So instead we brainstormed together, thought about synonyms for their search terms and worked through the challenges of searching in robust online spaces.

A quick search for "snowflake" helped her find a wintery icon to use alongside a recording of her voice talking about her favorite movie. Although she might not have been too worried about copyright violations or a cease and desist letter from Disney, it was an easy segue into talking about permissions and thinking deeply about different ways to represent our ideas with visuals.

These are big topics to talk about at all levels, and ones I spend a lot of time thinking about too. Conversations with Lila Shroff on media literacy and Kristen Mattson on digital citizenship have expanded my view of the roles these concepts play in classrooms, regardless of subject area or grade level.

The Activity

Teachers can model this process by thinking aloud after conducting a search. They can walk students through their thought processes for picking and choosing between a list of websites in a set of search results. Students can see how teachers make snap judgments to rule out certain search results and how they dig deeper into other search results to evaluate their authority.

For example, you might say: I noticed that this source might not be reliable because… or I feel that this is a trustworthy source because…. This conversation with a second grader will feel different than one with a 10th grader but is rooted in the same goal. Supporting students as they navigate digital spaces is an essential practice. You might think aloud as you pull up a current events article on your screen from a trusted source and point out a few reasons why you come back to this resource.

Model Behavior

The “All About Me” project is often a good activity to teach about searching because students are excited to share their favorite things with their classmates. It usually doesn’t take long to think of your favorite food, movie or place to visit, but deciding what visuals to use to represent something as straightforward as guacamole, Jurassic Park or a national park can present a barrier.

When sharing this activity with this group of students—or modeling the process for teachers joining me for a webinar—I talk through this process and “think aloud” in the same way I might share an observation or what I’m wondering when reading a book aloud to students. They watch me say aloud as I’m working on my quick demo, “Instead of typing in guacamole, I’m going to try and search for avocado,” or “I don’t love the picture choices that come up when I search for national park—I’m going to type in mountain or hiking instead.”

The Brainstorm

After modeling for students, have them develop their own burning questions. This could include a set of questions related to their own wonderings, or a set of trivia questions you share with your group. In pairs, students can jot down the keywords or phrases that might lead them to an answer to their question. Encourage students to list more keywords and phrases that they might need to revisit to find their answer.

(Tech tip: You might want to introduce a graphic organizer or encourage students to work in a collaborative document to organize their keyword search ideas.)

Gather Information

After students have brainstormed their keywords and accessed a source online, show them how you will gather information as you read. It is important to model how you skim or read a page on the internet to gather information and record what you’ve found. You can revisit your think aloud and modeling from earlier to show students how you review a list of a dozen search results. Let students see your thought process as you check the names of websites or have a gut reaction based on a snippet or preview of text.

After students have spent time gathering information, bring them back together to share their reflections and discuss any obstacles they faced while searching for information. In my “All About Me” example, one of the barriers students faced was how specific their search terms become. We talked about how sometimes you need to narrow down your search and other times you need to widen it.

You can root this activity within a content-specific research question or give students the flexibility to research a topic they are passionate about. For this activity, the conversations and thinking around a search is more important than finding the “right answer” to a question. Encourage students to reflect throughout the process, question something that doesn’t seem quite right, and use a variety of keywords as they search for answers to their questions.

Ed. Note: This article includes strategies you can find in Pam Allyn and Monica Burns’ quick reference guide “Engaging Students in Reading All Types of Text.

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