Category Archives: Google

Developing Thinking Strategies for teaching with ICTs

I recently argued that we should add a new Habit Of Mind – Thinking Digitally to our armoury: to help us think critically about how we navigate the new cognitive technologies. When I was a boy, I remember being taught explicitly how to navigate a book to extract the information I needed. We were shown how to use the table of contents, the index page, the title page, the blurb. These were skills which stood me in great stead over the years.

In many schools students are taught explicitly how to use search engines and online databases effectively, but, as one of those teachers myself, I don’t believe we are going anywhere nearly far enough to equip our students with good critical skills for finding and evaluating digital information. It is all a bit hit and miss.

searchWhen students Google something they may or may not get the results they are seeking. If they find information straight away, that is well and good. Search engines are becoming more and more intuitive, and are better than they used to be at getting around a sloppy query. But students need effective strategies for when they are not getting the results they need. In the course I run for my grade 8s, I teach them how to use quotation marks, plus and minus signs to refine their searches and generally think about what’s wrong with the results they are getting so they can refine the search accurately. But it is not enough. It’s a single session which gets lost in the day-to-day confusion of lessons. As a key cognitive strategy, it’s something we need to be foregrounding far more than we are. We need, in short a better strategy for teaching students to find information in a digital world.

When I floated the idea of Thinking Digitally as a new Habit Of Mind, one of my motivations was to move the whole question of how we use cognitive technologies centre stage, so that teachers across a range of disciplines, and not just the one responsible for teaching digital or information literacy would begin to see it as central to critical thinking practices within their subject specialization. Finding information in Maths presumably looks different to finding it in English, for example, and may well involve different tools and approaches.

There is, however, a common algorithm, and the beginnings of a common strategy. All memorable strategies need a good acronym. I call the framework TASER.

  • Tools: The first step is choosing the right tool for the job. Some questions need different search engines or databases. Wolfram Alpha is great for some uses, but Google will trump in other circumstances, while only Google Scholar alerts may be best for some purposes. Students need to know about a range of search engines, databases and search tools they can use within documents. Teachers cannot simply ask students to Google their research. They need to scaffold this process carefully and thoroughly.
  • Analyse: Students need to be taught how to analyse the question so that what they are looking for will actually help them answer the question.
  • Search: Students need to know how to refine their searches, to search online and within documents and their own devices! This also needs to be carefully scaffolded. Most of us learned the hard way! There are numerous tips and tricks that students can be taught. For example if you type -merchant in Google it will remove the obvious advertisements. That alone can help refine a search significantly.
  • Evaluate: Students need to be able to evaluate the veracity and appropriateness of the information. How can you trust the information on the site you’ve stumbled across? There are a number of CRAP Detection strategies which can be used, but again, they need to be taught. You cannot expect students simply to do it. We live in a world where information comes at us at such a rate we cannot possible evaluate everything. It needs to be a conscious act, with conscious strategies. Teachers need to guide students through it. Only subject teachers can really do this because so much depends on our sense of what fits and what doesn’t fit into our knowledge schemas.
  • Research: Students also need research skills. How do you take notes? How do you bookmark effectively, how do you capture citation information? All of these are important skills in terms of organising the information you have found so you can use it effectively without cut and paste plagiarism. And again teachers need to actively teach these skills. They don’t happen by accident!

Of course this is simply a skeleton framework for developing strategies for effective use of digital media and cognitive technologies for research purposes. But it needs to be taken out of the Information Literacy class and embedded in every classroom, or it will be ineffective, which is where I think we are at the moment.


A Red Wheel Barrow: Using Google Images to Teach Poetry

At the heart of poetry lies the image, that highly condensed, often deeply metaphorical carrier of the meaning of the poem.

so much depends


a red wheel


glazed with rain


beside the white


William Carlos Williams

One of the chief difficulties faced by any English teacher when trying to help a class learn how to read the imagery of any poem, in conjunction with the formal aspects of the poet’s craft, such as the use of enjambment by William Carlos Williams in the iconic imagist poem above, is that students struggle to lift the image off the page. It is presented to them as words on a page, and at one level they need to keep that in mind, but they also need to learn how to deconstruct an image and explore the associations and references in relation to the formal structure of the poem. Experienced readers are able to superimpose a template of one layer upon another and unlock nuggets of understanding. But most students are either too literal in their reading of the poem, or are not able to extract an image from the words on paper.

Lines of a drawing and lines of a poem.

Using pictorial representations of the imagery is one way a teacher can try to make the words come alive, and help the student make concrete what often appears as a senseless string of words. Before I had access to an Interactive White Board, I used to draw the images from a poem on the board, or ask students to draw what they saw in the lines. Google images, however, allows you to search, or get a class to search for images of what is mentioned in a poem, to discuss as a class which images best matches what the poet is presenting to us, and to build a collage of images which can be used to unlock the poem.

When students argue about which image best represents what the poet had in mind it makes a powerful statement about the nature of the inter-relationship between the poet’s voice and an individual reading of a poem. But more than that it allows a teacher to explore how images are deconstructed by devices such as enjambment. In the poem above, the way the lines are broken up presents a reader with new ways of reading the image.

The third line, for example, presents us with “a red wheel”, which changes our perceptions of the colour of the wheel from the image as a whole “a red wheel barrow”. One interpretation is superimposed upon another, and new possible readings of the poem are uncovered.

So much depends on how we read the poem.

Interactive White Boards offer ways of quickly finding and displaying images in visible forms for a class discussion. I like to select a student who is responsible for finding images of what is being discussed and displaying them for the class to see. Students will shout out advice and get far more involved in unpacking the imagery of a poem, than if only the dry words were used.

A great activity is to get students to create presentations linking the words with images they have searched. I often get students to create collages of poems they have chosen, and present them to the class with a discussion of the poem. I think it also helps students see tools such as PowerPoint or Prezi as visual adjuncts to their commentary rather than simply slides which they read out.


The Curate’s Egg: A Blended Approach to ICT Integration

ICT integration is a bit like the proverbial curate’s egg: good and bad in parts. I believe that is is absolutely vital to remember that when you start using ICTs in your lessons, not every bite is going to nourish, there will be many sour moments along the way.

When it works, it can deliver spectacular gains and generate a great deal of excitement. When it doesn’t, frustration and anger follows in its wake. You organize a fantastic lesson in which students are going to use their devices to follow a trail of QR codes to find the answers to a question, and suddenly there’s no wi-fi … you’ve found the perfect YouTube video to use for a listening comprehension, and suddenly the Internet goes down!

A teacher, taking their first timorous steps in ICT integration, faced with this experience, sometimes does not make another attempt. Even tech-savvy teachers can get totally frustrated. But that’s not what I’m talking about, although it is a very real problem.

The blended classroom is a classroom in which both face to face, and online instruction is used. Blended pedagogies, in the same way, deploy both digital and analogue technologies. Students may watch a video, and then write a response on paper, or act out a scene in class, and then maintain a reflective blog online. I like to use the metaphor of the curate’s egg to think about both the good and bad moments that are inevitable in any use of ICTs, and to think about the necessity for a blended approach. If I remember that all lesson units should have both a digital and an analogue part, I am more likely to strike a balance, and avoid over-reliance on either.

I believe that this balance is necessary because knowledge, and how we access knowledge has changed radically. Google has transformed the amount of facts and figures we have at our finger tips, and the speed with which we can find things out. This is a vital part of a twenty-first century world. And yet the ability to find something is not knowledge. Knowledge is about the way things are organised: how we relate one idea to another, the meaning and significance we attach to raw facts. This requires deep, and reflective reading, rather than rapid fire assimilation and synthesising of facts. To understand something you need to follow a sustained train of thought and reflect on the logical connections between ideas, and how they relate to everything else you know about the world. And yet you also need to be able to assimilate information rapidly, given the plethora of information available these days. Knowing how to use Search Engines effectively is vitally important to allow one to scan the horizon for salient facts, but so is reading the page, reading deeply for the narrative.

Combining digital and analogue reading, and by reading I mean understanding, is very much a curate’s egg. What’s good for one purpose may be bad for another purpose. This creates a massive conundrum for teachers, and highlights the perilous situation we find ourselves in. Ignoring digital media is clearly wrong, but so is racing to adoption before thinking it through. The safest approach is to ensure that we use both, and try to establish a balance.


Posing the Right Questions: doing meaningful research

googleGoogle provides almost limitless access to information, but not to understanding. We increasingly need to be able to search and access information quickly, and apply what we find to problems facing us, on the fly, so to speak. In classrooms across the globe students are increasingly called upon to do research for assignments, and no-one would argue that this is not a necessary part of what constitutes good practice. And yet the ability to find a fact does not indicate an ability to incorporate it within our knowledge structures, and research increasingly points to this gap in our students’ understandings.

One of the major problems involved in any research task is how to avoid the cut & paste trap. Given half a chance any self-respecting student will use the cut & paste function to their advantage. It is madness to think that anyone would do otherwise. Simply asking for correct citation does not help, nor does threatening to use Turnitin or other plagiarism checkers. I’m not saying that students should not be providing citations and bibliographies for their assignments, but it is not a bulwark against plagiarism. The key really lies in the question behind the assignment you have set.

Ask a class to write an essay comparing marriage practices in different cultures, and you are inviting a patchwork quilt of cut & paste. But with a little thought, OK maybe a lot of thought, it is possible to pose questions which will discourage, or at the very least not advantage plagiarism. The question should ask for students to research, but not to reproduce that research directly. For example, if you asked a class to write an essay explaining, if they had complete free choice, which culture they would prefer to be married in, their responses would need to interpret and process any research done rather than simply regurgitate it.

To my mind if you pose a question that invites plagiarism, you have nobody but yourself to blame when you get it, and you are doing your students a disservice by not exposing them to questions which invite interpretation and evaluation rather than reproduction.

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Posted by on September 10, 2015 in Critical thinking, Google, Plagiarism


Why should I Remember it, if I can Google it?

“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” I remembered the quote, of course, but had to Google who said it. It was Alphonse Karr, the nineteenth century French critic, journalist and novelist. That just about sums up my relationship with Google. As one who was born before the Internet, I tend to rely on my memory, but I use Google to double-check, and find out the bits I don’t know, or have forgotten. My sons, digital natives, born in the Internet Age, seem to have a different approach entirely. When my eldest came home and announced that he had to learn a list of a thousand words for his Latin exam, I was horrified that his teacher could have given them such a list just before the exams and expected them to learn it virtually overnight! Then I found out he’d been given the list eighteen months previously!

latinWhy hadn’t he bothered to learn the words when they were given to him? Well, it appears that you can use Google translate to meet all your Latin vocabulary needs, so there’s no pressure  to memorize long lists to do your homework! His marks had always been good so he never felt the need to commit the words to memory

And then I found out that in his Physics exam they are given the formulae, given the periodic table, given everything that back in my day we had to learn off by heart!

With 24/7 access to Google, it seems that memory is dead!

Except that it isn’t! To use Google at all you need something inside your own head, something to guide your searches, and to assess the validity of what comes out at the other end! To evaluate any search engine query implies a scaffold of knowledge upon which you can hang the new knowledge. While the Internet presents an enormous potential for expanding, and holding our knowledge, it cannot replace knowledge itself. It cannot replace the thought processes and thinking that went into creating it, or the thinking that goes into recreating it in our own heads.

This puts me in mind of Daniel Kahneman’s notion of Fast and Slow Thinking. He characterises two types of thought – System 1 thought, which is fast, subconscious, stereotypical thought. We reach conclusions based on recognised patterns and deeply ingrained metaphorical categories. System 2 thought, on the other hand is slow, effortful, consciously arrived at: logically thought out thought. It is far less frequent than system 1! With the same inputs, the conclusions reached by these two types of thought may be entirely different.

Both these types of thought are necessary, or at least unavoidable. Sometimes we need to act quickly, and reach conclusions rapidly. We cannot always retire to a barrel like Diogenes to think things out thoroughly. The main purpose of a sound education, framed this way, is to create deeply ingrained habits of thought which will render our fast thinking more efficacious and sound. If we are used to thinking issues through, our initial intuitions should be more thoughtful. Hopefully. If we have spent time learning how to think things through logically and thoroughly, our basic instincts should be more sound.

I have a suspicion that our relationship to memory needs a similar division into what we have committed to memory,and what we have available to us stored in our network! We cannot possibly remember everything! We have at our fingertips an almost instantly available resource allowing us to find out just about anything, anywhere, any time. This may include facts and information that we have not previously processed in our minds. We need this type of information often to make quick decisions about whether to sell our shares in South American zinc, or to determine what snake has just bitten us, and what action to take. A quick Google search revealed that indeed researchers talk about two types of memory. Memory which is external, stored on paper, in group knowledge or, increasingly on computers or networks is called transactive memory.

We also need, however, a wide range of information committed to memory which allows us to assess and evaluate other information. I have a feeling that anyone who tries to use Google translate, for example, to read Cicero in Latin will come completely awry unless they already have a large number of Latin words in their memory already. According to research (Sparrow, et al, 2011), we apparently remember far less when we know we will be able to Google the answer when we need to. We are growing more dependent upon remembering where we can find the information that we need, than in actually remembering the information. We are in short, becoming symbiotic with our machines.

This is a somewhat disturbing thought, but the growing importance of transactive memory indicates the increasing degree to which our cognition is social. It is easy, though, to draw the conclusion from this that we do not need to memorize anything anymore. I suspect it simply means we will have to remember more, so that all that extra information we can access, makes sense!


Betsy Sparrow, et al. Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips, Science 333, 776 (2011); DOI: 10.1126/science.1207745

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