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Teaching Information/Research Skills in Elementary School

February 21, 2009 21st Century Skills, Information, Literacy, Reviews 7 Comments

This post title is “Teaching Information/Research Skills in Elementary School”, but this post is as much for adults and older students.

Many adults are overwhelmed with the quantity and new kind of media that is available and accessible through technology. Older students in High School and College might not feel overwhelmed, but have never been taught how to navigate, evaluate, save and retrieve the information that they are seeking.


How and what kind of information skills do we need to start teaching in elementary school, that will grow and expand with our students as their grow older?

What do teachers need to know in order to introduce and guide their students in a

  • critical
  • efficient
  • effectively
  • safe
  • ethical

way as they navigating through the sea of information available?

We need to help students develop these kind of information skills:

  • locating information
  • evaluating information
  • learning from information
  • using (remix) information

I have written a few blog posts in the past months trying to wrap my own understanding what and how we can teach information/reserach skills starting in elementary school.

I ran across what looks like an amazing resource to include in lessons.

All About Explorers

All About Explorers was developed by a group of teachers as a means of teaching students about the Internet. Although the Internet can be a tremendous resource for gathering information about a topic, we found that students often did not have the skills to discern useful information from worthless data.

So we set out to develop a series of lessons for elementary age students in which we would demonstrate that just because it is out there for the searching does not mean it is worthwhile.

The idea of creating a website and sprinkling in false information to make a point about

  • not everything you find online is true
  • you are responsible to verify with other sources the information you find
  • use common sense when you find information that sounds “too good/ too outrageous/ too odd to be true”

is well thought through.

Because we wanted to make a point about finding useless information even in a site which looked at first to be fairly well put together, all of the Explorer biographies here are fictional. While many of the facts are true or based on truth, many inaccuracies, lies, and even downright absurdity are mixed in indiscriminately.


All About Explorers | Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about every explorer who ever lived…and more! via kwout

Students are invited to join in on Explorer Treasure Hunts, that point them to the site’s information page for each explorer (sprinkled with false facts) and one other link (with correct facts..well as correct as historical “facts” can be). Students then are asked to answer questions and fill them in direclty on the website. The submit button prints the page out with the answers.


There is also an extensive list of downloadable lessons and worksheets the teachers have used in their classroom in conjunction with this information skills lesson.

  • Lesson 1: Just Because It’s Out There Doesn’t Mean It’s Good
    Students go on an Internet treasure hunt to find information about a famous world explorer. They compare information from two different sites to come to a conclusion about whether they can trust all Internet sources.
  • Lesson 2: So How Do You Find the Good Stuff?
    Students are taught about the difference between publishing a book and posting a web site, emphasizing the selectivity of the publishing process. The “1 – 2 – 3″ approach to researching on the Internet is introduced. Students then get a chance to try out the first two steps.
  • Lesson 3: Google, What?
    In this lesson, search engines are introduced in more detail. Emphasis is placed on the fact that these are collections rather than selections and that there are no humans involved in the collection process. Students explore some search engines to see the differences in results.
  • Lesson 4: Where Exactly Am I, Anyway?
    Students learn about how to decode a URL and that it is the address for locating a web page. They also learn how to begin evaluating a site based on the top level domain (e.g. .com, .org, or .edu), as well as a few other tricks for determining the quality of the site.
  • Lesson 5: How Could They Be So Wrong?
    Students research the correct facts and draft an email to the AllAboutExplorers site webmaster to fix the mistakes they discovered in Lesson 1.
  • Explorer WebQuest
    Students will apply what they’ve learned about Internet research to a real world project.

Not only have the webmaster’s made available all the lesson plans, but they have also created a WebQuest for your students to complete. The student’s introduction is as follows:

Every year in our country, we celebrate many holidays. Several of those are in honor of famous and important people from our history, like Martin Luther King, George Washington, and Christopher Columbus. In this WebQuest you are going to find out more about an explorer your team chooses and about how and why we use holidays to honor them.

Who was this explorer? What is important to remember about him or her? How can you use a holiday celebration to tell his or her story well and communicate the important aspects of his or her life and accomplishments to the public?

Gerald Aungst, one of the webmasters of the site, was gracious enough to answer a few of my questions from his experience in developing and using  the site.

What grade levels are the lesson plans intended for?

The lessons are specifically targeted for our original audience of fourth and fifth grade students, but they could certainly be adapted down to second or third grade, and I have heard of middle school and high school teachers using the site as well.

What were some of the reactions when students found out that the information they found was wrong? Did some students not figure it out?

Reactions tend to vary. Some students start noticing “weird” things in the biographies, such as references to cell phones, and it dawns on them that there might be something odd going on. Other students plow ahead, copying information happily from the site. We always have a couple of groups that figure it out quickly and a couple that never figure it out until we point it out. It is particularly effective when we teach these in our own schools, because we can truthfully say, “What would you say if we told you all of this was made up, and we wrote it ourselves?”

Do you feel that some students were (even more) confused about what were the true facts?

I haven’t had that experience, though I suppose it is definitely something you want to be cautious of, and it is the reason we explicitly teach students how information gets into books and onto Internet web sites. And even in the publishing world, with multiple layers of fact-checking, often errors make it into the final product. How much more, then, do we need to be cautious of the instant-publishing online world? After teaching these lessons, I insist that students find at least two sources, including at least one print source, to verify every fact they find.

What tips would you give someone who wants to use the lesson plans? What are some things to look out for?Highlights? Pitfalls?

I would strongly recommend using the full series of lessons and doing the follow up activities. While some of these can work well in isolation, it is the sequence that builds the understanding. Users also need to be aware that in some cases the content in the lessons is fairly specific to our own situation, particularly with reference to the subscription databases that are available to us. It is important that teachers using these lessons review them carefully and adapt the details to match what is available in your district.

I would also caution teachers to consider these principles themselves when doing any research of their own on the Internet. I have actually witnessed teachers who were present during our lessons with their classes and participated in the activities with us go later to search for something online and accept what they read at face value without checking the source or verifying the facts later. It’s important that we model these things for our students on a daily basis–show them that you apply the same principles to your own work as you expect them to do in theirs.

How could a teacher or media specialist customize your idea of creating a source of “false” information to another subject (not explorers) they are researching?

I have actually gotten requests along those lines to add more information on other topics and in other languages. While I haven’t had the time or energy to even consider pursuing such a project, with new Web 2.0 tools like wikis, a teacher could create a page of “false” information about a topic they are going to teach and have their students compare with a reliable Internet source.

What do you think of the idea to have students involved in such a project not only in uncovering “false” facts but actually correcting them online?

This is the entire purpose behind activity #5 in our lessons, “How Could The Be So Wrong?” I think it is crucial for students to learn that they not only have the obligation to think critically about what they read on the Internet, they have the power to do something about it. When they write to the webmaster in that final lesson, I read and respond to every comment. Now, granted, I’m not about to “correct” the errors that are on the actual pages–that would defeat the purpose of the site–but I do encourage the students to continue to pursue accuracy in their own research.

I believe it would be a very powerful experience for students of any age to follow up this unit with a visit to Wikipedia where you can have them search for–and correct–errors about a topic you may be studying in class. While it’s hard to predict when they might find such errors, and you certainly need to be cautious about what topics you explore in this way, it’s a perfect example of how the users of the Internet need to take responsibility for using it wisely and contribute to it effectively.

The more I “explore” the All About Explorers website, the more I am impressed with a well thought through concept.

  • As a webmaster, I can appreciate all the time and effort in designing, linking and updating the pages. The pages look well designed and “official” (not a home-made look). This supports the effort of separating the notion that content accuracy is coupled with professional looking packaging.
  • As a technology integrationist, I appreciate the fact that students are being guided and taught at school in using the internet to research curriculum related units instead of just being told “Google it” as a homework assignment. Technology is not the “enemy” that we need to protect our students from.  We need to teach/use technology as a tool COMBINED with the necessary skills to allow our students to use these tools in a  critical, efficient, effective, safe and ethical way.
  • As an educational media specialist, I am thrilled to see students being introduced to research skills that go beyond the book checked out in the library. Information found online or in any electronic form should NOT be discarded, prohibited, seen as less valuable or automatically inaccurate per se, but as an integral part of the research process.
  • As an elementary school teacher, I am thankful for age appropriate content and links, that allow my students to learn skills that are absolutely necessary for their future in the information age.

Watch this interesting video about The 21st Cenury Librarian from the New York Times that also mentions All About Explorers.

Currently there are "7 comments" on this Article:

  1. Ann says:

    Great idea. I have used some the the “hoax” websites in the past to do this kind of activity, but yours is more developed. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Ann Oro says:

    Silvia this is great. I’ve been working on building more into my classes on research of all kinds from books to the Internet this year. I read through your whole post and look forward to coming back tomorrow. It will complement what I’m currently working on with my 3rd-5th grade students. I’m sure I will be able to adapt it to 6th-8th, as well.

  3. Tonyq says:

    I love the idea of our students being explorers – thanks for the post. There are some great ideas and resources.

  4. [...] blogged about this site as a valuable resource a few weeks back. Lesson plans, activities and resources are [...]

  5. Susan Sedro says:

    Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I had seen it and bookmarked as an explorers site since grade 5 studies explorers. I wish I knew who had first told me about it because they did not know it was full of intentional inaccuracies.

    As others have mentioned, I greatly appreciate learning about such a useful unit to teach information literacy skills to elementary children. I have been searching for many years and most have fall so short of being elementary appropriate.

    Thanks Again, Susan

  6. Bini Sz says:

    In a similar vein, you can read articles and “news items” at the “Facts About” series. http://www.idiotica.com/cranium/encyclopedia/
    There are no teaching notes, but plenty of falsehoods!

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