Teaching Kids to Search (without mentioning “Algorithms”)

How do you make search engines more interesting to 5th and 6th graders?

The word ‘algorithm‘ doesn’t mean anything to them, let alone the average grown-up. To paraphrase Kevin Slavin, algorithms are the things nobody reads.

This is the time of the year –when students are just discovering new software and software upgrades on school computers — that’s perfect for discussing with students about search engines, where they are headed, and what exactly one is doing when one enters a string of keywords in a search box. The changes taking place in the engine behind that box seems to happen not every few quarters or months, but probably every few weeks. It’s “onslaught of algorithm updates” is impossible for anyone –let alone a kid– to keep up with,

What you don’t want is a 5th or 6th grader sailing into high school using the same search habits, thinking it amounts to “research.”

This week I began introducing them obliquely to Search through Venn Diagrams and their connection to Boolean logic. Even as I mentioned it, I was aware that the typical and, or, near, not triggers are becoming less and less important in Google, but they still get amazing results. Students get a kick out of seeing how a search term can be tweaked to reduce the number of results from millions to thousands to hundreds.

Someday I will have to invite an expert to talk to them about the pros and cons of tricking Google, or hacking Google for better results.


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