The Googler Is Broken! Let’s Fix it.

what to do when you feel stuck

Years ago when I taught debate, there was nothing that frustrated me more than a student saying, “I need to switch topics. I’m researching and there’s nothing on this.”

Really? There’s nothing out there about abortion (or fill in any other widely written about topic)?  

Of course there was, and I usually needed to provide some quick guidance in internet searches. 18 years ago, I cut my students a little more slack. They hadn’t had daily access to computers for their whole school careers; it was still quite common for many of my students to not have internet access at home.  

But today? 2018 in a middle class suburban district? These kids have been googling their whole lives. So why do I still get similar questions?

The Googler is broken, folks.

The kids in our rooms have grown up with “to google” being a commonly used verb in their lives, yet many simply aren’t that adept at how to do it. And I think it’s almost getting worse. I think we used to be more explicit about how we taught varying search terms and using Boolean searches and employing synonyms. Now, our kids come to us seemingly on top of things with technology and it’s tempting to skip taking the time to zero in on those skills.  

We can’t.


Here’s what I do to slow down and fix the Googler.

Fix #1: Focus on synonyms and search terms

During a research pre-search activity with my AP Seminar students that I adapted from Angie Miller’s book  It’s a Matter of Fact (10/10, would recommend), I discovered that my students don’t get the point of searching with synonyms. I’ve told them to do that for years, and most of them were doing it (I think?), but a student comment this year made me realize that I hadn’t made the purpose of that exercise clear.

“This is silly! These all mean the same thing!” She huffed.

There was a record scratch in my head as I whipped around. Doesn’t she get what we’re doing?? Clearly, she didn’t.

It was a great opportunity to slow things down and talk about why and how we use synonyms as we search.  She was researching the juvenile justice system and has a question about whether or not we should incarcerate juveniles. She had been searching using “incarcerating juveniles with adults” and was finding lots of relevant articles and studies.  I encouraged her, though, to try searching “imprisoning kids in adult prisons” and see if there was any difference. Sure enough, she stumbled on to some very different perspectives. We talked about the different connotations of “incarcerating” vs “imprisoning” or “juveniles” vs. “kids” and suddenly it was crystal clear to her why synonyms matter.   

Fix #2: Teach them to crowd-source

Synonyms are great, but it’s hard to come up with them on your own sometimes. Another great fix is to slow down and show kids how to crowd-source when they’re struggling.  I was having a hard time with a student who was researching recidivism. He wanted to find information about what happens when people are released from prison and neither one of us could come up with good search terms. There isn’t really a synonym for recidivism! Plus, we wanted to know about the opposite of it. Luckily, right as we hit our frustration, my buddy (and fellow Moving Writers blogger) @ZigThinks marched into our shared classroom (interrupting as usual).  

“Zig! What would you search for if you wanted to find out what happens to people after they’re released from jail?”  

He quickly came up with “employment opportunities for released felons” and “jobs for former convicted people” and the student was moving again.

I think this was important for a few reasons. One, we modeled how easy it is to help one another. Talking as you research is essential to gathering multiple perspectives.  Two, and maybe more important, we reminded our students that research isn’t something you learn and move beyond. He and I are 40 year olds who still need to talk through our thinking.

Fix #3: Conference while they search

And…on that idea of talking through our thinking, that’s a fix, too. Crowdsourcing is one type of talking through thinking, but students also need one-on-one conferences with a teacher. Many of us conference with our writers when they have begun putting words on the page, but what about conferencing with our researchers?  When I conference with my researchers, I start with questions like these:

  • Can you show me a source that surprised you?
  • Why don’t you tell me about a source that you are loving?
  • Can you show me how different types of searches led you to different perspectives?
  • What is bubbling up from your research?
  • What are you starting to figure out?
  • Which new questions are emerging?


I could make lists of questions all day but usually once you start with one, the rest of the conference takes care of itself. You can quickly tell when a student needs to be nudged to consider another point of view or when a student is misunderstanding something.

When we want our writers to develop a weak writing skill, we give them lots of chances to practice it. The same practice needs to happen for our researchers. If we want fully functioning googlers, they need explicit strategies and time to practice.


How do your students do with research? What kinds of things do you do to help them deepen their searching?  I’d love to hear what you do! Comment below or connect with me on Twitter @TeacherHattie.

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