Thursday, February 4, 2010

Chaining searches / how kids search / teaching kids how to search

Yesterday's search challenge wasn't much of a challenge. The simplest search solution I know is to first find the Gladwell article on basketball with a query like:

[ Gladwell basketball ]

The first result will be the New Yorker article.  Clicking then on that article you'll quickly find that the CEO we're looking for is Vivek Ranadiv√©.  The next search should be obvious:

[ Vivek Ranadiv√©  ]   

And you will quickly see that Vivek Ranadivé is the CEO of Tibco.

As I said, this isn't that hard of a challenge.  All you had to do was to:

1.  Find the Gladwell article and skim it, looking for the coach's name.
2.  Search for the coach's name, then look for the company name. 

The reason I wanted to start off with a simple problem like this is that this "chaining searches" together to solve a problem is a fundamental skill--it's something you actually have to learn at some point in your life. 

When I go out to teach at elementary and middle schools, I'll often find that kids will have a hard time creating their own chain of reasoning like this, at least until they're in the 6th or 7th grades.  It doesn't seem to be a matter of intelligence as much as practice in working out the search chain. 

In her work at the Univeristy of Maryland, Allison Druin (and colleagues) often use "The Vice-President's Birthday" problem to assess this chaining skill. 

The problem is this: 

"On what day of the week (Sunday, Monday, Tuesday...) will the Vice-President's birthday be next year?"

Again, it's not that hard: 

1.  What's the vice-president's name?
2.  Once you have the name, lookup his birthday (day-month-year). 
3.  Once you have the date, search for a calendar for next year (that is, this year + 1).
4.  Find the date, read off the day-of-the-week. 

But figuring out that this is the sequence of steps you must go through to figure out the weekday is just a bit over the heads of many 7-to-11 year olds.   As Druin (et al.) say "Despite experience with searching, children tended to fall back on... natural language queries..."  and points out that  "Frequently those natural language queries were the verbatim questions asked by the researcher." 

To the eye of an expert searcher, this sounds crazy--but we frequently see people in our studies searching for whole phrases that repeat much of what you have asked them to find. 

However, the skills of seeing to the essential core of a question and divining search terms is a real skill, and there is a fair bit of evidence that adults basically do much the same thing. 

So, teaching a kid how to search effectively is partly one of showing how to choose search terms (and almost nothing about Boolean ANDs or ORs).  and partly one of how to break up a complex problem into a sequence of easily achievable substeps.  Those two skills interlock, as you can see in my favorite kid query for this problem:  [ vice-president birthday Sunday ]   He then went on to repeat this query with Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday... He was good-natured about it and gave the wry explanation that "well... if his birthday IS on a Sunday, then I'll find it.

Maybe.  But it's not a good strategy to follow.  A much better way is to devise a search that will yield an answer that can be used in the next step, and not to test all of the available options.  (Imagine if I'd asked "when was the last year of the Civil War?"!) 

More on how to good search strategies in times to come. 

Allison Druin (et al.) paper on how kids search is available at her site at University of Maryland:  "How Children Search the Internet with Keyword Interfaces."   (This will be published at the CHI 2010 conference later this year.)