At the beginning of each school year I like to integrate what the 5th graders are doing in Social Studies with many of the technology standards that I have to cover. After a couple weeks of research, some graphics editing work, and some word processing, the students manage to produce a pretty nice looking baseball card about a famous European explorer. I’ve blogged about it before, so I’ll just point to the post for the details, but what I found myself reflecting about this morning was how many of the students aren’t actually reading the websites that I’ve provided them for researching their explorers.
Now I’ll be the first to admit that the students aren’t really doing any research (a fact that I’m not happy about but have to endure in order to get the project done in the little time that I see them each week). It’s the weak point in the Webquest I built about creating these explorer cards, and I feel that the outcome justifies the means, considering that I only see them for 45 minutes each week. However, I always make a point to emphasize the importance of reading through the websites I give them carefully in order to answer the questions I’ve provided about their explorer. Even though they’re carrying out the digital equivalent of a worksheet, the students still have to carefully read, process, and reformulate the text in order to find answers.
Example; Student A looks at a website, trying to find who sponsored their explorer. He starts skimming the page for the word sponsor, only to be disappointed when the word doesn’t come up. Student B looks at the same website, trying to find who sponsored their explorer. She looks at the headings for the word voyages or expeditions, and then starts reading the entire section to determine not only who sponsored their explorer, but also why. She eventually learns the answer
I often recount this observation for the students in my class, hoping that many will pick up on the clue that reading in order to learn the answer is much more effective than skimming in order to discover the answer. I even go so far as to show them that by picking one of the websites at random, I can start reading, and in the first paragraph find the answers to almost half of my questions. And yet still I watch students struggle with the urge to “hunt and find” answers.
I know what you may be thinking, “these are digital natives, that’s how they process information, in bite size pieces!” As a matter of fact, I actually encourage the students that have effective skimming and searching skills to find the answers like that, but they’re the ones that will also slow down if they need to to re-read and take time to process. It’s usually the students functioning at much lower levels of processing or comprehension that want to rush through and find all of the easy answers, as if they’re playing a video game and trying to hit each waypoint or objective in as short a time as possible. I know that the design of the activity is really what’s hurting me, or at least not helping, but I’ve struggled to find an effective way to get the students to search through the websites I’ve provided them, read carefully, and process on their own. Too often, as we get pushed for time, I’ll find myself plunking certain students in front of the website I know will give them the answer, and then tell them not to leave that page because it has all of the answers. 5 minutes later, and they’re confidently stating that they couldn’t find anything, which leads me to sit down and actually read a paragraph or two outloud (these are 5th graders remember), and then talk them through processing the text. And they’re not hards texts to read either; we’re talking Enchanted Reading and Thinkquest sites, websites geared for kids.
Perhaps I’m just being a bit too harsh and unrealistic of what I hope to achieve in the short time I have to give these kids the opportunity to search. The one thing I know for certain, is that allowing them to search for the answers on their own will produce several class periods of stalled research, while students type in poor search queries like “why was Francis Drake unsuccessful”. Maybe this is just the motivation I need to start working on a really great, but efficient (fits into 40-45 minutes), lesson about effective searching.