Using the search engine right

Independent e-Learning Consultant Rob Ellis gives some tips on how pupils can use search engines properly.

When Terry tweeted about his post ‘Using the right search engine’ I rather flippantly suggested that he’d be better off simply reordering the words in the title to read ‘Using the search engine right’.

You need to search properly to find what you're looking for!Leaving aside the damage I’ve done to the English language with that there is a serious point here. Despite the prominence given to information literacy I’d say that, anecdotally, there is widespread agreement on its importance but little progress on organised adoption in schools.

In the past, teachers and their pupils had the comfort of knowing that their content had been mediated by publishers, although looking recently at some old history books that confidence might have been misplaced.

Nowadays the route to information is through ‘using the search engine – right?’ and I see a similar widespread confidence in the outcome, not only the belief that it kindly prioritises the results for you but also a misconception that you only get reliable stuff.

While many have a healthy scepticism of sites like Wikipedia (and I’m not one of those who would dismiss its value) it is not enough to write off a site or indeed to accept it blindly as many might do, say, the BBC because of reputation. There need to be strategies for verification of the information a user gets from any site.

So where do we start and what can we teach children or, more to the point, what can they learn? Here’s my take on it.

In the early years a child should learn where they can find information usually supported by an adult. I suspect that over time the range of locations in which information can be found will tend towards the Internet but the form in which it will be held is anyone's guess. They should learn to find their way around a website recognising hyperlinks and be able to give an opinion about the appearance and content of a website already being aware that not everything online is true. Vitally they must know that they should tell a trusted adult if they come upon something upsetting.

The upper primary age range places heavy demands on teachers and learners. Crucially they should start to compare information from selected websites for purposes of verification and be able to use what they find. Search engines come into play now and a good starting point which bridges the gap between a teacher prepared list of sites and total freedom is Google's customisable search engine. Briefly, if you aren't aware of it, it allows the teacher to populate it with their selection of websites and then the search will use only those sites. Through this they will begin to learn how search engines work and to use key words and phrases.

They need to develop their website evaluation skills to include ideas of reliability and validity while understanding that differences between websites might be down to differences in opinion as well as possible inaccuracy or malicious intent.

Now they should begin to learn about bookmarking, a skill that becomes increasingly important and sophisticated.

I’ve been rather too prescriptive about what should happen in specific age groups so far so let’s say that when ready children should know more about how a search engine works so that their view of a site’s validity is not based simply on where it appears in a search. They need to acquire skills that will allow them to narrow searches more effectively perhaps using the engine’s own more advanced features, discover who a site’s publisher / author is, whether all the links in support of a site’s content are to other sites by the same author or not, search only different sites or countries and so on. Recognition that using the same search engine in different countries and cultures might yield different results comes now.

By now they have an understanding of validity and reliability and should develop this knowing more about what might motivate an individual or organisation to post online and how time itself can affect a website as its owners neglect it or update it.

The issues of copyright, where to find legally usable materials, plagiarism and how to acknowledge sources are all part of this too.

At their most sophisticated learners will understand so much more about the nature of information, or perhaps I should say how data becomes information. The sources they have available to support learning have changed out of all recognition in just a few years and too many people are still treating a trawl through a search engine like a trip to the library but now it is neither efficient nor safe.

On the plus side because of the demands the Internet makes for information literacy we can expect learners to be far more critical of the material they are given and that can only be a good thing.

It won’t have escaped readers that if this is a précis of the ‘what’ of using a search engine the ‘how’ has enormous implications for continuing professional development. It is a skill that every single teacher and learner needs to develop and is arguably the most cross curricular of all.

Rob Ellis has more than 30 years experience as a teacher and senior leader in schools. More recently he has worked as a local authority officer and is now an independent e-learning consultant. Information about him can be found at and URLs for his blog and other websites at He can be contacted by email at