Google Scavenger Hunt: Teaching Critical Thinking?

Thomas Friedman is obsessed with fiber-optic cable. I mean, why wouldn’t he be? It is, as he notes, one of the most important shifts in how we conduct the business of this planet, and truly “flattens” the world. Online classrooms are evolving quickly in the fantastic world of the internet, some for free and offering credit to entice paying tuition down the road, some for the pure joy of decimating knowledge to the world (for ex. Yale Open Courses); however, does something get lost with the physical absence of the classroom?

Efficiency is gained with the online classroom. Only those participants that are motivated and engaged are required to be “present” and delivery of material is on an individual basis. While the amount of feedback and assessment format varies depending on the online learning platform, in many cases it is not unlike the traditional classroom of the industrial era (that we largely still mimic today). Yet, as I teacher who wants to keep my job and feel as though it is valuable there must be some intrinsic benefit that is lost?

Varied learning styles, and diverse geography does not impede the pleasures of an online classroom. Whether from an internet café in Dakar, New York or Taipei, one can participate in an online course. Students who may need more time with the material, or wish to revisit the lecture need only slide the progress bar of the YouTube to the required moment in the lesson (also the rationale behind the flipped classroom model). The worldwide web is a superhuman university librarian, aiding with supplemental resources, quick online dictionaries/encyclopedias/spark notes and a plethora of resources to help understand virtually any content. So, again, I am led to wonder why bother with the teacher?

From a job security standpoint, I do wonder about my role as a teacher with the onslaught of online courses. My role is no longer about disseminating information (as I ruminated about in an earlier post here). It is about teaching skills alongside content.  It is about teaching writing and critical thinking. Can they learn all this without me? Maybe. I assert a large role of the modern teacher is in curriculum design. It is important, as we design, to craft experiences (both physical and virtual) to allow for the development of critical thinking and student-driven (and paced) learning.

I teach a class entitled “Research Methods”. In this class, owned by the history department in our school, our objective is to use history we find compelling to teach the skills of research. The content, as a history nerd, is the fun part (we started with Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost a great read for 10th graders). As I was composing my syllabus, with the section titled “Skill Objectives” I asked myself, what do I honestly want them to leave this semester-long course being able to do?

#1 Navigate the internet to find resources

#2 Comfort to confidently assess and critique sources

#3 Integrate sources into their writing

Ok, then how do I open the class in a way that is not drier than the Sahara? We have all been to those boring librarian lectures on how to use a search engine– and this from a self-proclaimed nerd. My Solution? A Google scavenger hunt. At first I thought this would be an easy exercise for my students. I had a friend do it to test it out and she completed it in about 15 minutes, double that for the class and I believed I had a 30 min exercise. As with all of my “brilliant” ideas, this one did not quite work as efficiently as I planned…..they were very challenged by it in a wonderful and illuminating way.

I think too often in the adult world when we marvel at the internet we think about the ways we can manipulate it. Our own lens of practiced critical thinkers clouds our judgment in this case.  Then, we see the ease of young children and teenagers with touch screen-pads and their ability to find music and movies at near lightening speed and as we reminisce about the age of CD players and Walkmans, we forget this does not mean they understand how to or are able to find something of use. Critical thinking, even in a basic form is not something most kids can do easily. In the world of internet research, it took years for me to be able to narrow my search terms down enough in my school’s library catalogs (again, I went to college with the gift of the internet, I am on the cusp of that younger(er) generation.) Skimming is an art I was practiced at, not from the internet, but from trying to find some semblance of meaning in my college texts. Reading an index and a table of contents to find what I needed was a skill I had to adapt of perish into the stacks.

When and how do we learn critical thinking? Experiential learning is one fundamental way (which is partly why I think there is a current surge in this area…but again it is not new; Thoreau wanted us all to take our classes for a “walk in the woods”).  Another way is through a different type of experience—one where students are not doing a lab, or an outdoor experiential learning course, but a virtual experience.

This scavenger hunt I designed evokes my father’s old treasure hunts where one clue led to the next little piece of paper around the house. The questions build on each other. You have to find a correct answer for the previous question to quickly find the answer to the next question. The students found it quite difficult, but ultimately it got them thinking about how they can use the internet. This scavenger hunt introduced students to….

  • The need to be critical of sources…as 20/22 of my students did not question the validity of pigeonrank (the April Fool’s Joke Google played to explain how they sort their results)
  • The real usefulness of Wikipedia (the cited sources at the end)
  • Google Scholar
  • “Standing on the shoulders of giants”, the ancient quote that really defines a fundamental theory of learning
  • Google Books
  • Online Exhibits at Academic Institutions.

PS. I began drafting this post in February. As I have finally finished it as I am now thinking about how I will open the course in September… (this course started in January) I would love feedback on this hunt. If you tried it were you successful? Did you learn something new about the internet? Did it force you to think critically? How do you teach critical thinking? What is your ratio of skill/content work in class?


1. What does the term “pigeonrank” have to do with how google sorts its results?

2. How does google sort its results?

3. What is the motto of Google Scholar?

4. What is the translation of“nanos gigantum humeris insidentes”? What language is it? Who is it attributed to? What date was it first recorded? What does it mean?

5. What is the first result for “pigeonrank” in Google Scholar?

6. What is available to read from this result? (What part of the article)

7. What do you learn from what is available about “pigeonrank”?

8. Who was Al-Khwarizmi? What version of Google (Web, Image, Maps…Scholars) provides the most informative first result?

9. In the Wikipedia article for  Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (Al-Khwarizmi’s full name) what is the html for the full text of the first encyclopedia entry cited (by G J Toomer).

10. Check to see if any books by Gerald J Toomer are available on Google Books.

11. Who did Gerald J. Toomer publish a biography about in 2009 from the Oxford University Press?

12. Provide a picture of the subject of Toomer’s 2009 biography.

13. Why would the Tarlton Law Library potentially have been useful to Gerald J. Toomer?

14. What would Gerald J. Toomer have seen in the atrium near the entrance if he visited Tarlton Library?

One thought on “Google Scavenger Hunt: Teaching Critical Thinking?

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