Thinking Outside the (Search) Box – Part 1

Teaching middle school information skills has been fun and challenging. I learned early on that I could demonstrate the most beautifully designed, easy to use database, and the students will still go to Google. It’s what they know. It’s what they are comfortable with. It’s the habit I wanted them to break.

So I came to class one day and said the five most frightening words I can utter during class, “Guys, I have an idea!”

Thus began The Eight Grade Google Challenge.


Beginning the second week of school and continuing until the end of the first semester in January, all eighth grade students are asked to give up Google. They can choose any other search engine they want as long as it’s not Google. Exceptions are made for Google Images and Google Maps.

We talk about the relative advantages of the other big name search engines: Bing, Yahoo, and Ask. We even look a little bit at the history of search engines and how Ask started as Ask Jeeves and was the first search engine to let you enter a question rather than simple search terms.

We look at Infotopia, which has long been a favorite of mine for middle school searching. While it is technically a Google custom search, I do allow it during the challenge. We talk about how the sites are vetted by teachers and librarians and the advantage of knowing that the sources you find through an Infotopia search are most likely reliable sources.

Then comes the heavy hitter, and my personal favorite, DuckDuckGo. DuckDuckGo bills itself as “the search engine that doesn’t track you.” This opens the door to talk about what it means to be tracked online and how online companies (and others) make money from the data they can collect about their users. We discuss the terms of use agreements that almost no one reads before agreeing to and what that means for the privacy of our photos and documents.

This project also offers an opportunity to teach how to customize all of our devices. Once the students choose their search engine, we go over how to reset the default search engine on our preferred web browser (which often leads to a discussion of the difference between a web browser and a search engine, a distinction many haven’t made before). Then we tackle the phones and the tablets and the ereaders.

The purpose of the Google Challenge is to try to break the mindset of, “Oh, I’ll just Google it.” While Google is off the table, students give the databases a closer look. They try out different websites. Sometimes they even go to the OPAC and look for a book!

There are always a few students who adamantly declare they cannot live without Google. These are often the same ones who hug their laptops and kiss the screen the day the challenge ends. But I’ve noticed a few of the most vocal opponents in September are still “DuckDuckGoing” in March. I’ve also noticed a few sixth and seventh graders who already have switched to DuckDuckGo because they want to get a jump-start on the challenge.

The entire project is on the honor system and there is no penalty for using Google occasionally. In the end, everyone wins the challenge. I have the satisfaction of knowing students tried something else for a few months and maybe better understand how search engines work and make money. The students have stepped out of their comfort zones for a few months and learned that their answers lurk in places beyond Google. The students also have the satisfaction of having me spring for an off-campus pizza party when we’re done. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned working in libraries, it’s that if you feed them, they’ll go along with your crazy ideas.

Author: Amy Gillespie

Categories: Blog Topics, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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