Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ready, Set, Search

When are children ready to search?

I didn't think much about information fluency when my children were younger. They're all married now and my grand kids are too young to be online, so I can't try searching with them yet.

My guess is that until children develop the capacity for concrete operations, they will be unable to understand, let alone use, effective techniques for searching.

So if the lead question I posed means 'at what age are children able to use effective search tactics to find information online,' I suppose we're looking at sometime between 7 and 12 years of age, depending on the child. Those are the classic years for the onset of concrete operations, described by Piaget.

Keyword searching requires the ability to think in an organized, logical fashion:
  • to perform multiple classification tasks
  • to order objects in a logical sequence
  • to be able to think in terms of categorical labels such as "number" or "animal"
  • to sort unlike objects into logical groups

If you think about it, searchers not only have to know a lot of words, they have to be able to sort them. Good searchers are able to take a word like "Buffalo" and know that it belongs to the more general grouping of "Animal." It also belongs to "Mammal" (a more specific type of animal). Most adolescents can think this way. What few know is that there's a term for a more specific word: hyponym. Hypernyms, on the other hand, are terms higher up (i.e., more general) on the classification typology. Typically, an effective search needs to move toward increasingly specific hyponyms. In the case of the Bison example I cite frequently, word swapping goes something like this: animal > buffalo > (ungulate) > bison.

A small fraction of students--even those in middle school and high school (stage of formal operations)--look for alternate terms or try to swap their way toward hyponyms. They CAN do it; they just don't. Younger children, prior to concrete operations would be hard pressed to accomplish this. Older students need to be taught to use this skill; young students need first to develop.

This doesn't mean that younger students should not be introduced to searching and search engines. They can be given effective queries to start with. At some point, however, they should be taught to look for more specific terms and try swapping those in queries.

Below are a pair of ineffective queries. What would you do to improve them? How would you encourage the children or teens with whom you work to improve them?

1. (Easier. First the question: What type of money was hoarded by Norsemen?) The query: money hoarded Norsemen

2. (Harder. First the question: What fish other than Piranhas is a threat to humans in the Amazon?) The query: fish threat humans Amazon

Solving these challenges without searching can be difficult. It's easier by trying the queries and looking at the results, keeping an eye open for better keywords. The challenge for younger searchers is: how do they recognize better--more specific--words? The challenge for older students is: how can you get them to swap their words?

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