Random Thoughts

Why K-12 schools are failing by not teaching SEARCH

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This past week I had the opportunity to spend a day with some of the faculty at Western Washington University talking about reverse instruction…or at least my idea of what that means.

To get started, we did a little reverse instruction of our own where I had them read the connectivism article by George Siemens before I arrived. Once I got there, we then set up the classroom for discussion with collaborative note taking and a back channel chat…both were new concepts to most present.

However, as cool as it was to be talking with faculty at a University, I soon found myself apologizing for the K-12 system and its failure in providing students with the skills they need to be ready for college.

As we were having a great discussion about the connectivism article and what it meant for universities and their classrooms, one faculty member spoke up with this:

I just wish they could find information better. They can’t tell the junk from the good stuff.

….and that’s when I started apologizing for our K-12 system. I find it sad that university professors are not using technology in their classes. They are not trying new things like posing interesting questions and having students research those questions and come to class ready to have deep discussions about them because “they can’t tell the junk from the good stuff”. As soon as this statement was made, heads started nodding around the room and with my own recent rantings on this subject as well….I led them into that discussion.

“I’m sorry the K-12 system has failed your students….they should know how to search by the time they get to college. But seeing that they don’t, until your students come prepared, you are going to have to pick up the slack.”

I then spent 30 minutes teaching university faculty how to search….because guess what……they didn’t know how to either. Which is exactly what I’ve come across with K-12 teachers, which helps to explain the unpreparedness of our students. So who is teaching our teachers the skills they need to teach our students?

Then today as I’m thinking about all of this I stumble across this new research done by the Pew Internet & American Life Project titled: How Teens Do Research In the Digital World

Full disclosure: I haven’t read the whole paper yet but am reading it as I write this. I think this paper should, if nothing else, raise our concerns on just how bad our education system is right now in teaching kids to search or reSEARCH.

Overall, the vast majority of these teachers say a top priority in today’s classrooms should be teaching students how to “judge the quality of online information.” As a result, a significant portion of the teachers surveyed here report spending class time discussing with students how search engines work, how to assess the reliability of the information they find online, and how to improve their search skills. They also spend time constructing assignments that point students toward the best online resources and encourage the use of sources other than search engines. (Highlights by me) (Student_Research p.2)

OK…so these AP teachers (that’s who the survey was done on) say they “spend class time.” We do not know how much, or when they are teaching the skill of search.

Teachers and students alike report that for today’s students, “research” means “Googling.” As a result, some teachers report that for their students “doing research” has shifted from a relatively slow process of intellectual curiosity and discovery to a fast-paced, short-term exercise aimed at locating just enough information to complete an assignment. (Student_Research p.3)

Really? Because I thought this was a given in society as a whole. Even in the age of libraries and encyclopedias, the research that most students I know did was often an “exercise aimed at locating just enough information to complete the assignment”…it just took us a lot longer to locate that information-it did not make it more meaningful. Let’s remember we’re talking about 14-18 year olds here. Everything is about “just enough information to complete an assignment”. If the assignment is not engaging, has no meaning to me, of course I’m going to do the bare minimum. Isn’t that human nature? Now, if the question matters to me, then research becomes deep and meaningful…but there is a sense of Drive here that is not being talked about.

OK, this table appears on page 6:

I’ll stop reading here as I’m tired and this research is frustrating me. It’s telling me things I already know. In fact, I should like it as between this research and my own experiences, I know this is an issue. I would say it should be one of the #1 issues that every school is looking at, and really it isn’t that hard of an issue to fix. Teach search skills, don’t talk about them, don’t think students already know them-teach them. Search is THE most important skill of our time. When I mean Search, I mean all six of these questions above. That’s search or reSEARCH if you want to get technical about it. I understand….the web as we know it has only been around for 18 years or so and Google only 8 years (well…since their IPO and people really knew who they were). In the history of education, that’s small potatoes, I get it. I get that education and educational curriculum are slow moving entities, but we are doing our students a disservice. We are not preparing them for university and we’re not preparing them for the world that awaits. We are failing on both fronts and really there is no reason we should be.

Links you might want to explore:

Start The Year By Teaching Search

K-2 Search Lesson Plan

3-5 Search Lesson Plan

6-8 Search Lesson Plan

9-12 Search Lesson Plan

I started blogging in 2005 and found it such a powerful way to reflect and share my thinking about technology, this generation, and how we prepare students for their future not our past.


  1. I do a lot of work with teachers on digital literacy. They think they know but they don’t….. I usually (to save face_ ‘Of course YOU all know how to do this but your students probably don’t. here is a lesson you can use with them.’ In fact they realise they didn’t know squat about how to search or how to evaluate what they find. My ‘Tree Octopus’ lesson gets them every time!!

    In short I agree with what you’re saying about the problem. And I think teachers really really need to hone their skills in this area. Thanks for the lesson plans. I will try them if i can and send you feedback.

  2. Yikes…I kind of feel uneasy reading this post when I read this statement:

    “I’m sorry the K-12 system has failed your students….they should know how to search by the time they get to college. But seeing that they don’t, until your students come prepared, you are going to have to pick up the slack.”

    It is REALLY easy to point fingers…for example, many schools are trying to go “gradeless” but have to stop at the high school level because of the way that university institutions are taking in students based on grades. Are you going to apologize for that? Interestingly enough, many education programs teach sound assessment policies yet don’t incorporate them into their own practice.

    There are definitely flaws within K-12 and the university system. Instead of the notion of “picking up the slack” for each other, maybe we should talk to one another and say what we need, and actually try to make it happen. Neither system is perfect, but I think we could do a lot better by helping each other out, instead of pointing fingers.

    • Jeff Utecht Reply

      Thanks for the comment George. I agree that higher-ed and the K-12 system should be working more closely together. There is definitely a disconnect there that needs to be looked at.

      I understand there are a lot of “policies” for lack of a better term that keep some real change from happening. But I don’t see skills that we teach being a part of this.

      Every curriculum I have ever seen talks about research skills. But what does research mean in today’s world and are we teaching today’s research skills? I think this is a skill that most teachers think they are teaching well. Even the Pew Report where teachers are saying they are teaching these skills then gives the data that shows that most teachers don’t think kids are good at searching or finding valid resources. In the graph above teachers, who say they are teaching this skill then say that students are either “good” or below at actually doing it.

      Am I pointing a finger? Yeah….probably…because reSEARCH has always been part of the K-12 curriculum but how we do that has changed and I’m not sure our methods and theories have in the way we teach that to students. I could be wrong on this….but that’s been my observation in most K-12 schools I have visited around the world. To be fair I haven’t been to Canada….maybe it’s not the same up there.

      • Jeff Utecht, I disagree: I think teachers know they aren’t teaching research well. Like you, they get quite frustrated seeing the gaps, and I am one of them. While I am going to go through your post in more detail later, here is an initial response: one reason schools don’t teach research well is a process error. Many teachers view the instruction as a means to an end product, like a paper or a speech. Few would see research as a separate assignment, a skill to be zeroed in on for students, a skill in and of itself and worthy of assessment in and of itself. When research is buried in a final product rather than pulled out as its own strand, it gets ignored and compromised. Part of this, too, is resources. Developing initial research skills takes coaching, intensive coaching, a hard feat to do with 30 kids with different topics crowded in a room of computers you can only get occasionally. Mostly, however, you hit the problem: drive. In the writing class I teach, only a handful of kids have drive, even when given full choice of topic. I can treat research as its own assessment, I can learn to coach more effectively with 30, but I have yet to learn to instill drive when students have full choice. Working on it, though.

        • Jeff Utecht Reply

          HI Kris,

          I don’t think we disagree that much. I agree that most projects are a “means to an end” and focused on the content rather than the skills. I think that’s a change within education that we need to focus on. Content is important…but not as important as the skills needed to get to that content as it changes to quickly. What would school look like if standards were skill focused instead of content focused?

  3. Lindy Buckley Reply

    This post is absolutely on the ball. As a grade 5 teacher I deplore the situation where my students will start the year going straight to Google. I will often give LiveBinders of websites that I have already checked and have them browse within the LiveBinder for what they want/need to find out. During the year they will have lessons on using the Internet. Our librarian does a great job, but teachers need to be teaching these skills as well, not relying on one or two library lessons. And this needs to be started way earlier than Grade 5. I think by Grade 5 they ought to be able to search.

    Our classrooms are all full of librarian and teacher chosen books appropriate to the grade level. We teach how to find a just-right book from the selection available to students. Students learn to recognise these just-right books because of the exposure. I believe they need to have this same emphasis in teaching how to recognise and choose just-right websites.

    Regarding universities, I think that assumptions are made that because those kids grew up with computers they will be very tech savvy, but this is not the case. Being totally comfortable with a computer doesn’t mean that you can use it efficiently. My daughter currently at university didn’t know what google docs were….

    There are several gaps and disconnects in all this, for sure….

  4. Searching what matters. Google in post SEO world is like browsing K-Mart as each person is in a filter bubble feeding the ad-words network essentially. Good and bad has little to do with it. Search is about RTB and funnels.

    And yet teachers are signed onto Googles platform, told to use its apps completely unaware that googles detection and recognition technology is feeding content and data to its demographic sales-machine. From search to drive.

    Being able to search is perhaps the least of our google worries.

  5. Goes full circle, teacher colleges don’t train the teachers adequately enough to teach the students to have these skills (don’t get me started on technological pedagogical skills)! So everyone should be apologising!

  6. The reason is that today we are focusing only on how to use digital media, but we are grosly lacking to instill the required digital thought process. The content needs a complete change in the system. Who cares to break the existing set up if not with the principle of urgency.

  7. Jeff Layman Reply

    @ Jeff; the research may be infuriating, and it may be something we intuitively knew, but at least we have an anchor in research to guide our defense in teaching what many see as a silly skill. Sometimes I wonder if the rate of competencies and skills needed as a teacher are beginning to exponentially outstrip our ability to learn/train them. Research based results, like what you linked above, at least give us a justification to explain to teachers that they need the skill.

    @ Dean; isn’t that the hidden cost of free? TANSTAAFL, man.

    • Well, it’s all related, right? Students don’t need the skill until they need the skill. Rhetorical, yes but if we’re not engaging students in true inquiry, if we’re not solving “wicked problems”, if there is no need to aggregate, curate, analyze from various perspectives, then there is no need for research. I went through my undergraduate degree with little need for research skills as a Math and Computer Science major. I learned research skills as a teacher and in completing my masters. I didn’t learn it until I needed it and I didn’t need it until later in life. I think research skills are important because I think critical thinking and lifelong learning are important; I see the three as strongly linked. I bet that there are those who disagree with me.

  8. What I like about your lessons is that you reinforce the importance of revisiting and modeling. This isn’t about teach and move on: this is about a community of learners (teachers and students) using the skills, honing the skills and revising them over and over again. I tried your lessons for K-2 and 3-5 (adapted for relevance to local curriculum) and I could see lightbulbs going on for both the teachers and the students. And that’s “just” Google (which has a whole curriculum that teachers can access – http://www.google.com/insidesearch/searcheducation/index.html), not database or deep web.

    I’m planning to work through the Google search teacher training myself and invite some other colleagues here on the journey with me. The goal is twofold: share online resources with teachers, and support them in using online tools for their own professional learning.

  9. As a librarian who serves the education programs at Western Washington University I read this post with interest. It is definitely on the ball and resonates with a lot of the discussions I have had with other librarians. It is good to see a non-librarian taking on the issue!

    The main problem here, in my view, is that our information environment has shifted from one of scarcity, where sources were reviewed and edited, to one of super-abundance. Despite this shift many teachers and professors are working in the old paradigm and not really addressing issues of information literacy. Students have their own set of erroneous assumptions complicating the matter.

    At Western Washington University Libraries we have decided address this issue in part by stepping up our credit course offerings. We have a basic research skills course that was recently increased from 2 credits to 4 and added to the list of general university requirements. That class allows us to go in-depth and address multiple topics related to different sources of information, information authority, and citation skills. We also just hired our first instructional designer, who will be focusing on developing online content to improve students’ research skills.

    Given today’s complex knowledge society I think this is a good topic to focus on!

    • I totally agree that teachers should take the Google Power Search course because most don’t really understand how “Googling” works. I teach a master’s course on information literacy, and find that another reason they don’t teach it is that it’s not formally part of the school’s curriculum or scope and sequence. I believe that schools should make an effort to include information literacy components in all grade levels, and search being a big part of that.

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  11. Phillip Cowell Reply

    “I’m sorry the K-12 system has failed your students….they should know how to search by the time they get to college.

    lol, and the HS teachers say the say about the MS
    And the MS say the same about the ES

    But it’s OK….because industry says that same about the colleges!

  12. Phillip Cowell Reply

    Oh, and research doesn’t really have much to do with technology-it’s much more to do with critical thinking, analyzing etc. Tech is just the tool.

    That’s why when teachers say to me “Can you teach my students how to search for information?” I am never quite sure what they mean.

  13. Hi Jeff. I agree that schools are not teaching search techniques well, or at all. To be blunt, some schools are not even teaching traditional research skills.

    I have kindergartners and search is hard to teach because they are not all reading and spelling yet. I looked at your K-2 lesson and I take the same approach. (phew! 🙂 I have all the kids sit together and put the search page up via projector. I ask them what words I should use if I’m looking for x topic. I try to view that process as teaching them a thinking skill. What to look for when you have a topic you want to know more about.

    After this step, when the search results are returned, is where I run into age-appropriateness trouble. The first issue is a lack of understanding about why unrelated things show up. I try to explain but it’s all a little techie and goes over their heads! The second issue is teaching the skill of how to narrow search results. Talking it through with them, they have a beginning understanding of it, but it is still a little challenging. I think it’s okay, at their age that I’m just getting them used to search skills, even if they can’t yet apply it.

    The search engines I like to use with my kinders are: Qwiki.com, DuckDuckGo, and Yahoo! Kids. We also search Flickr to gain a visual understanding of topics. I still use Google but it’s not as visually appealing to them.

    • Hi Elvina, I recommend using a custom search engine with links that you have found with students in K-2. This way they are practicing locating rather than evaluating content which you can model and build on as developmentally appropriate.

  14. We know the problem is in the content development that shapes skills in the chidren. The contents should be arranged according to the demand of skill sets that our children are likely to have to compete in the digital era. I am looking for curriculum designers and engineers for the similar project. I just want to know if I could get some like minded professional, reformers and visionary folks.

  15. Hi Jeff,

    One of your commenters stated all this “needs to start before grade 5.” That is hitting the nail on the head. In the urban areas, there is not enough instruction going on; lack of engagement creates an explosive atmosphere in the classroom. Students LOVE using the computers but here in Connecticut, although I have found most classrooms have whiteboards; most students do not have access to computers…maybe one to three in each classroom. EVERY classroom needs a computer for EVERY student. Kids need to learn to engage themselves at an earlier age and use their cognitive abilities or they lose the ambition to do so, and you can see it in any fifth grade classroom.

    Abused kids, neglected kids, hungry kids, every kid has an affection for the computer. How better to meet the demands of classroom management, building new pathways for learning in students, and creating equality than through cyber-learning? Everything online is instant (gratification) everything is available right then and there…this produces positive feelings in a student who then wishes to have those good moments repeated…much like an addict, you can “hook” your student on learning at an early age. Even the students who come with limited language skills seem to wire-themselves-in quite quickly.

    Kids can research what new game they like, the cheat-sheet for that game, and other people who play that game online. Researching is not the problem, engaging them in a higher order of thinking is. An earlier start is the answer to that problem; one can’t wait until a student is in high school to teach them how to correctly research. By that time, a student has created poor work habits in many cases, is socially active and lacking in time, and because no one has ignited those brain cells for higher learning, they just don’t see the point.

    Money is always a problem in any district, but society needs to know that either you spend it on education or you spend it on bigger prisons, hospital bills, and police enforcement. (At least here in the “tough” states.)

    • Jeff Utecht Reply

      Good point….I think we overlook sometime the engagement factor that computers have with kids. It is an important piece of the puzzle. If kids like using something, like learning with a certain tool, why are we not doing everything in our power to give them the tools that engage them? It’s a good question I think we need to be asking.

      • I agree. I am Head of Pre-K – Grade 2 section of my school and I see teachers RESISTING giving the students these tools at times because they don’t believe the engagement is the same as sitting passively at “circle time” and “listening” to them, the teachers. Many teachers just can’t shed the habits of old and are suspicious of “new tech tools”, insisting these tools can’t match traditional ways of engaging students….but I think it’s the reverse. I see teachers struggling every day with getting a whole class to “pay attention & listen” whilst they use the Smartboard in the belief they are satisfying the need to incorporate technology……instead of giving control to the students. Engagement is surely linked to a degree of control, and if we don’t give students some control over their learning, they’re less likely to be engaged. Using a search engine gives that control ! Dominating a whole class group with no matter how sophisticated the technology might be doesn’t come close but sadly, that’s the typical scene in so many Elementary classrooms, especially the lower grades.

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  20. Ashaunte Gaillard Reply

    Hello Jeff. This post is nothing more or less than the honest truth. As a fourth year student at the University of South Alabama I can count on one hand how many of my teachers actually use modern technology to teach their class or even challenge their students to do so. After reading your blog about the not being able to properly search, it makes perfect sense why my professors don’t do so. Its because they don’t know how! I can also relate to your rant about how K-12 teachers don’t teach their students how to search properly. This is definitely something that all teachers need to read and be informed about. After reading this blog, it just makes me more agitated with how professors can teach for like 15 years but can’t keep up with moving technology as it pertains to education. Thank you Jeff for this post!

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  22. Jeanne kitchell Reply

    I understand where teachers are coming from, but the technology guy as I call him is at fault as much as the school district. When using our computers at our school, if they are not working as I call it, I call him and his answer is ….”just turn it off and on untill it connects” what kind of help and answer is that. I am not the one being paid to keep these in working condition it is him and the district. If our students are falling behind in learning how to use the computer and the internt, then i balme the district for not having the proper man power to keep it going for us teachers. We need to really push forward and get the machines and programs for all our students from k to 12, so that they can keep up with the rest of the world.

    • Jeff Utecht Reply

      Hi Jeanne,

      I agree there are a lot of things that need to be in place. Having technology that works and is supported makes all the difference. If a district isn’t willing to support the technology then it makes it hard for teachers to use it in a way that can truly effect learning.

  23. Hi Jeff…

    I am working on my dissertation (Advising in the 21st century) and I was wondering if you have any thoughts on online advising or know of anyone I might interview about how that is working out for them? I know you get around…the world…lol. Hope all is well.

    Happy New Year,


    • Zane Dickey Reply

      I think the point about “Drive” is important and providing students with a research framework to actually help them figure out what their purpose is and to work autonomously toward mastery is a key to building into the curriculum. Once students understand the basick – I used this resource – http://www.crlsresearchguide.org/Big_Six_Steps.asp – they are better equipped to then go out and create their own questions to research those ideas and knowledge that will engage them. In my experience a school needs a framework because what happens before the research takes place (what is the question, issue, idea, perspective being researched first) to then figuring out where to search and which source is best to then taking this information and presenting it in a concise matter is also important all the while citing the source material. I would also include presentation skills that piggy back the research too. I am not talking about Powerpoint either but having the students provide information with source material that makes their claim a justified true belief because they can back it up with quality varied sources. See here for a good source: http://www.presentationzen.com/

  24. I agree with Kris in the issue about the importance of content face to skills.
    All your points are very reasonable, I think

  25. I totally agree with you about the instant gratification factor. The Internet makes it possible to find loads of information without ever having to synthesize.

    My kids have attended school in a small, rural school district. They have been using technology since elementary school and have learned how to use the Internet to search. They are expected to site their sources. Our district requires a seniors project in order to graduate. This is a 15 page research paper and oral presentation of their findings. I have attended the presentations for years and find the project amazing, because having to work on a project like this opens doors for kids in terms of their thinking and views of the world.

    Teaching how to use tools is great, but the reasons that they need to do great research needs to be included in the scope of the projects to develop the processing of the information, too.

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