Modeling Googling

First a request – STOP telling your students “If you don’t remember _______, go home and google it” or “If you need more practice with ____________, just google it, there are lots of resources for you”.  Please stop!   Don’t use these words in your classroom again until you read what I learned the hard way below.

My prior school (I switched schools this last fall) was a 1:1 device school.  All my students had iPads and all the teachers used and modeled them regularly.  My 2nd year at this school my class was unable to tell me something that they had learned the prior year.  Rather than tell them what they should have remembered I said “Get out your iPads and google it”.  My students immediately took out their iPads.   As I walked around a number of my students were googling the word ‘math’ and opening the first few documents that came up in hopes of an answer. My students googled ‘math‘.  We were trying to write a linear equation and they googled ‘math’.  ‘math’.   ‘MATH!’.  I thought, “omg, I did not realize I had to teach googling”.  My students could use numerous apps with ease, but effective googling was beyond them.  As a result of this experience.  I have changed my practice in the last 2 years.  My changes have led to noticeable differences in my classroom, particularly with my students who struggle the most.  I thought I would share the tweaks I’ve made in my own classroom with you so that you never have a student that googles ‘math’ hoping to find the answers they need..

TWEAK #1: Googling in class.

One math teacher I strive to be more like is Leif Carlson.  He is so good that a University from another state took notice and videotaped his classroom to use in their PD (and has written articles about him – aka Mr. Smith – you can find in NCTM’s journals).  This University, with the permission of my friend, gave me permission to use his videos in my own PD.  In one video Leif answers a students wondering by pulling up the Google search engine on his projector and googling the question in front of the students.  Students could see what he typed into google.  He then asked students which link to click to find their answer.  Within moments they had their answer.    Not only did his students learn the answer to their question, they had also learned how to find answers to their questions on their own.

Since seeing Leif’s video I have made sure to use google’s search engine projected so my students could see what I am doing.  I don’t care what grade you teach, I highly recommend doing this.  I especially recommend doing this many, many times in September when the school year is getting started.  If we don’t model how to use a search engine how do we expect our students to use this resource effectively at home.  The world keeps changing and one change I’ve made as an educator is that teaching students how to use technology to learn (even if you don’t have computers/ipads in your classroom) is as important as teaching them how to calculate slope.  If students know how to utilize the web it extends their learning outside of our classroom time.

TWEAK #2: The words you google matter.

If we want students to become more efficient in tgoogle fractionsheir google searches, we need to teach them what words to type into their preferred search engine.   I have felt good about how I do this by doing a few simple things:

  • In class, use warm-ups like the one to the right.  Ask students what phrase to google.  Then pull up a search engine and google their phrases.
  • On thwrite out google phrasee bottom of all Homework Assignments during the first month of school I
    include a sentence like “If you want to know more about this topic google “Quadratic Equations writing vertex form”.
  • After a month of doing this I transition to writing “Write a phrase you should google to learn more about the topic in this homework.”
  • Make homework assignments s that are simply something like “Google ‘solving systems of linear equations'” and record everything you learned in 20 minutes of researching on the web.
  • Sometimes words in math like ‘slope’, ‘scale’, ‘graph’ have other meanings in real life or have too much stuff out there that is not helpful even though it is the topic we are studying.  To help with this I have found it helpful to give students very specific procedures for what to type into a google search engine. Here are mine (I’d love to hear yours)
    • For definitions, type “Math definition of ___________” (the word math tends to sort out a lot of other unhelpful stuff).
    • For most other stuff I have them type the 1-3 word phrase for the name of the unit we are working on in every search.  For example, we just finished a unit on ‘matrices’ so I recommended this word be included in every google search.  Other word/phrases from this year include ‘inequalities, probability, quadratics, sequences, series, recursive, transformations, exponential….”
    • I also try and title every assignment with the concept or skill we are working on.  Sometimes this is a learning target and other times it is just a phrase.  I tell them that these are always good clues of what to google.


We all teach a lot of students who will not click buttons on websites that would make their lives so much easier unless we show them these buttons exist.  If students are using a search engine they often rely exclusively on the first page of resources (that I am sure someone probably paid big $ to appear on page one) that come up.  Sometimes these links are helpful, but many times they are not.  Many of our students will learn better and faster if they have a visual or can watch a video.

Guess What?  A surprisingly large number of students will never click the ‘Itree diagrammages’ or ‘Video’ links on Google if we don’t model this.  I highly recommend you model this in your classroom a couple of times.  For example, after my
spring break we will start our probability unit.  My students have made tree diagrams in prior years of math.  It is amazing how much they can reteach themselves if they google ‘probability tree diagram and then click ‘images’.  Also model for them how to click an image and then click on the webpage that that image comes from.  You will be amazed how useful this is to some students.

google imagesimages click here

In addition, don’t assume your students know how to find videos to watch to relearn material they may have forgotten.  I know many of you are creating your own videos for students to watch.  What an amazing resource for your students.  Even if you have your own videos – you still need to show them how to find other videos for 2 reasons: 1) Sometimes your students need to watch a video on how to add fractions, a skill taught in 5th grade – there is no way (unless your last name is Khan) that you’ve created a video for everything your students need.  2) You will not follow your students to their next math course.  They will need the skills to find videos even if you are not in their lives.

MY FAVORITE DAY in the last month was when a student with an IEP who had been struggling all year to focus in class and do much of anything exclaimed to me when I was working with her after school one day. “Ms. Van, I started watching videos of what we are learning at home.  They don’t always make sense, but when I come to class the next day things seem to make more sense and it only takes 4 or 5 minutes to do.”  She was so excited that she was for the first time in years feeling a bit of success in math class and felt in control of what it would take for her to get smarter.  Her guardian emailed me a week later and said “XXXX was talking to her Uncle in SD and he must have made a comment about her not being “good” at Math. She said “oh no I’m smart at Math. I just have to be able to completely focus and have it explained to me one on one.” Well of course that isn’t possible but I was thrilled to hear her describe herself as “smart” instead of the put-downs she’s labeled herself with in the past. Progress!”

If I had not committed to modeling things in class to empower my students to control their learning I am pretty sure I would not have heard these words.  Even if it helps one student – us teaching skills to our students related to technology are worth it.  So worth it.

TWEAK #4: Googling is a great thing to use on day 1 of any unit.

I have found I LOVE starting many units with a 10-15 minute activity that utilizes googlegoogling quadratics.  It is great formative assessment data for me and often ‘reteaches’ students previous learning faster and more effectively than anything I would have done in front of the class – no matter how creative or clever I am.

What do I do?  It is simple.  I start with a partner task where I ask students to brainstorm at least 10 things they know about ________________ from previous classes and I provide them with a computer/ipad (or let them use their phones) so they can utilize google to remind them what they’ve learned in the past.  My goal is for students to use google with a partner and with me around to help them refine what they type into the search engine.  I am always amazed how much students can find on a topic in 10 minutes time and I love hearing them tell their partner “Oh, I remember this” and “Remember when we did this in Mr X’s classroom”.  Here are a couple of examples from my students  this year during Unit 4.

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TWEAK #5: Googling new material.

Two weeks ago my coworkers and I made a pretty cool task (i should really blog about this task soon) for our students where students were given clues to find a treasure hidden somewhere in our school.  The first clue was designed to help our students figure out which floor the treasure was located on.  Here is the clue we landed on…

Although we had recently worked with matrices, our students had never been taught how to find a determinant.  We told our students to utilize their phones (comp
uters/ipads) to find the solution.  Students quickly got to work googling phrases  like ‘findingdetermdeterminant of 2×2 matrix’.  Some students clicked ‘video’ and watched a video to teach them how to find the determinant ‘images’ and found images pictured to the right.

My student teacher and I walked around the room and not a single group asked us for help finding the determinant.  We heard them say things like “It can’t be on the 53rd floor, let’s try again” and  “Oh, I know what to do, let’s…”.  Within 5 or so minutes every single student had calculated the treasure was on the 3rd floor and had the work to prove it in their notebook and then went on to solve clue 2 and 3 (on graphing inequalities).

Why do I tell you this?  If I had decided to teach my students how to find the determinant of a 2×2 matrix it most likely would have taken 20 minutes of class time and I their teacher would have been the giver of this knowledge.  When I allowed my students to research this topic on their own, they did it more quickly and owned the learning.  Frankly, I was not even a part of it.  What a lovely thing.  This experience reminded me that there are many things that I can entrust to my students to learn on themselves and google can be one tool in how they do this.  When they leave my classroom they can control their learning.  Heck, they carry around a tool 24/7 that gives them access to anything they want to know…..this leads to my last tweak….

TWEAK #6: Search Engines and Phones

Probably the most important tweak I would ask you to join me in doing is to ask students to research, look-up, learn using their cell phones.  If we want students to extend their learning experiences outside of our classrooms then we need to give them experiences in class using the tool they are most likely to use outside of school – their phones.  DON’T assume that since your students are highly proficient with Snap-chat and other apps that they have skills to use their phones to help them with their mathematics.

I will be honest and say I don’t do too much of this the first month of school as I set norms to control their phone use in my classroom (meaning – you don’t get to ever have them out unless I say).  Once these norms are set, we start utilizing our phones A LOT.  It may be to take photos of something on my Smart Board, take photos of a friends notes if they were absent, use DESMOS and utilize their phones search engine to find answers to their questions.

2 hours a day I work in our schools Math Center tutorinphoneg any of our 2000+ students that stop by.  Often when I am working with a student you will see me point at my own phone, tell them to get out their own phone and download the green, free Desmos App.  If they are struggling with solving an equation we type the function into Desmos on THEIR phone and use the graph to figure out what the solution is and then work to find an algebraic solution.

If I want students using Desmos, then it will most likely happen if they know how to do it on their phone.  If I want students to look up how to do something they forgot how to do, it will most likely happen on their phones.  If I don’t model this in class, then for many it will never happen outside of class.

By the way, I know you may be thinking – not ALL of my students have phones.  I teach in a high poverty urban school with high numbers of new immigrant students.  Most of my students have phones.  Not all, but most.  Those that do not tell me that they have access to a parent phone or a friends phone.  For many, their only access to the internet is through a phone.  No excuses for us.  We need to be utilizing this tool.

Let me close with this…  As math teachers we can wait for someone else in our schools to teach our students how to utilize technology tools.  We assume that they must be learning this in their technology courses.  Even if your site has wonderful technology classes, here is what I know for sure.  The instructors  in these courses are not as skilled as we math teachers are in helping our students find effective math resources online as we are.  It is up to us to teach these skills to students. It honestly does not take that much time.  Just some simple tweaks to what you are already doing.  If you commit to doing this for a year and are watchful you will notice students who struggle the most learning how to learn for themselves.  (which is the most amazing thing ever).

If you use at least 3 of the tweaks listed above, you now have my permission to once again tell your classes.  “If you don’t remember _______, go home and google it” or “If you need more practice with ____________, just google it, there are lots of resources for you”.  If you model google, your students will use it.

PS.  I often get asked by teachers how I find all the fun cool stuff I use in my classroom.  I have realized that many of us also struggle to utilize the features of google ourselves for our classroom.  I will be offering a FREE PD in June 2016 for anyone who can find their way to Minneapolis on how to find (via google and…) the BEST resources for your math classroom.  Check out my twitter feed for dates & information on this PD session as well as several others I will be offering.  @saravdwerf.

SIDE NOTE:   Yes, I know that there are search engines other than google and this post has a clear bias towards google.  I will leave you with this….

  • I don’t call them tissue, I call them Kleenex, even if I am using ‘Puffs’.
  • I don’t call it refrigerator, I call it a Fridge (frigidaire) – even if it was made by Kenmore.
  • I don’t call it a frozen ice treat, I call it a Popsicle.
  • I don’t call it adhesive strip, I call it a Band-Aid.
  • I don’t call them stickies, I call them Post-Its – can you blame me, I’m from Minnesota the home of 3M (makers of Post-its)
  • AND, I don’t call it search engining, I call it Googling.  Nuff Said.
  • If you are interested in other Name Brands that have replaced the Generic name check out this site.  Enjoy.

WHEW!  That was a long post.  If you made it this far, I am honored.  Thanks for visiting my blog.  I love to hear from people.  Comment below or tweet me @saravdwerf

Sara VanDerWerf

I am Sara Van Der Werf, a 24-year mathematics teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools. I have taught math in grades 7-12 as well as spent several years leading mathematics at the district office. I currently teach Advanced Algebra at South High School and I'm also the current President of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics (MCTM). I am passionate about encouraging and connecting with mathematics teachers. I'd love to connect via twitter.  Join the community.  Tweet me @saravdwerf.

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