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« The Flattening of Almost Everything #2: Information Retrieval | Main | There Won’t be Vertical Search Engines! »

The Search Bee

It  is obviously crucial that education adapt to change.  The search bee should replace the spelling bee.  Spelling used to be a crucial skill for success; it isn’t anymore because of spell checkers.  But now the ability to use a search engine is essential.  I don’t think I’ve written a single post on this blog without Googling somebody or something.

Yesterday I blogged that the information space is now flat.  It is no longer accessed through hierarchies but through links, tags, and search engines.  People who can use these tools well have an advantage over those who can’t.

I imagine a search bee as students being given specific facts to find and winning by being the first to find an answer.  Obviously each competing student has to be at an online computer.  Through a series of elimination rounds, the school or school district, or state school system gets to quarter final, semifinal, and final rounds which would be public events like spelling bees were.  There would be live attendance, web cast, and traditional broadcast of these.  If school systems can work through their anti-commercial bias, search engine companies would make great sponsors for the search bees.

For lower grades, the questions would be very precise:  “What is the first train after 10:00 AM on March 1, 2005 from Oslo to Stockholm?”, “Who first said ‘millions for defense but not a penny for tribute’ and on what occasion?”.  For higher grades, the questions should be more complex although that complexity makes judging the answers more difficult.

Before blogging this, I Googled “Search Engine Contest School” to see if I could find some good examples of these contests.   Everything I got back was about how to get your web pages a higher ranking in a search engine, a valuable but more narrow skill. So I Advance Googled eliminating items with the word “ranking”.  I got one dead link that looked relevant but no real hits.

From this quick search, I don’t think that schools in any number are holding search bees.  But my suspicion is that somewhere this is being done.  It’s too obvious not to have been thought of before.  My interest is more than academic: Mary and I would like to help our local schools teach the critical skill of searching and it would help to have some examples.

So another way to ask a question is to toss it into the blogosphere.  If you know of search bees being held or particularly good examples of teaching search skills, please post them as comments or trackbacks to this post.

Of course, there are many other skills that need to be taught if we are going to stop whining about outsourcing and continue our leadership in technology and standard of living.  Boolean logic is actually a predicate to excellence in search engine use.  Classic writing skills are perhaps now more valuable since they are an entrée to the blogosphere and since we communicate so much by email.  Today’s writing, though, has to concentrate on the use of hyperlinks rather than the formal citations I learned in school and needs to include the use of tags.

Information distribution hierarchies used to play a role in qualifying the information we receive.  This role often resulted in filtering out good ideas or mangling the information so it’s good that information distribution has flattened (more about that in a future blog). But now we have to know how to filter our own information.  Students who haven’t been taught real science can’t filter junk science.  Students who don’t know what a false syllogism is can’t spot one when it comes flying out of cyberspace.  Ditto an oxymoron.

Our schools need to adapt massively to a changing world.  Search bees are one good place to start.


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» Search Bees from John Battelle's Searchblog
Tom Evslin suggests we start Search Bees (like Spelling Bees but for finding stuff). I can't agree more. Great idea. I'm teaching search to my son's third grade class this week. Cool!... [Read More]

» SchoolMarm Engines on Search, Spam, and Misspelling? from Search Aids and Getting Found!
I don’t spell well. Is it dyslexia or carelessness? Perhaps a bit of ADHD ? A bit of all three I suppose. The dyslexia hurts the spelling (I certainly would prefer to get it right the first time, it wastes time to correct it!) The rush and impatienc... [Read More]


Tom Norian


I do understand and appreciate your thoughts.

As broad as my *survey* education was I had no aptitude and aquired little techinical knowledge of liguistics.

I do certainly regard liguistics as one of the most "hard" of the social sciences.

I find it enormously facinating that lilts in sylables (or whatever?!) can trace words from the mongols or picts to Ibania or ethiopia or wherever.

But I'm not sure that I buy the current understanding of the brain. I tend to think that parrrell to language there are others within cultures who keep their memories in concepts and spacial relationships rather than words.

A Gloria Aldred, a Motzart? Jefferson and Franklin seemed to have an abilty to merge relational knowledge and linguistic tradition as do many other influential leaders.

But I agree you can't make a point without language that does TWO things: Can be understood without giving a reason to dismiss it, and Which Resonates and latches to the subject involved.

The abilty to change an argument with verbs and cultural associations facinates me.

I would appreciate any books you'd point me to in understanding the subject if they were replete with historical annecdotes.

Neil Thomas

Currently we have to learn to "drive" search engines because of the lack of logic and capabilities within these systems.

Search engines which respond to basic "flat" queries and reply by firing thousands or millions of links at you blindly are not the way that we will be searching in the future, so why spend time and effort teaching a generation of children to use tools that will be obsolete in 20 years.

It is only by the experience of life that we know how to craft our queries to extract more information. Teaching children the crude limited "Information mining" techniques of today sets them in a limited mould.

It would be better teaching the children the relationships between the information they wish to find and the "Key Elements" required for recognition which will allow them to search for it.

For example typing Oxymoron into Google brings up masses of links. However if you don't know what an Oxymoron is then you need to follow a different approach.

You need to know the dictionary definition of Oxymoron which will then tell you what it is.

Typing Dictionary Oxymoron into Google elicits a full page of dictionary references.

Of course if you can't spell it makes the whole process that much more difficult. Google is working on that but it is not foolproof.

Simply having search bees is not an answer in itself. The whole question of surfing the information on the web is difficult. The information is often hierarchical but presented as flat in the terms of a search results list.

Therefore you can receive a mass of links to hierarchical information, often over many different hierarchies; however you cannot see the remainder of the information in each hierarchy. Forcing you to craft ever more clever queries to get information from a store that you have already hit.

So the best prizes for searching would not be for how fast you received the information, but how few queries you had to make and how precise (less number of matches against highest number of hits) it was.

Then we would have a generation of adults who know how to Identify the information required, Identify the unique qualities that it has, craft the search terms matching the unique qualities and extract the information.

However if search engines were able to divine what you were trying to look for, the whole process would become that much easier. To the mobile phone “tell me what an Oxymoron is”.

Then the best qualities would be in ensuring that the search engine did not “misunderstand” you. The old saying “God protect me from a forgiving system” will become more and more apt.


This is an awfully interesting subject. At least to me.
We have to consider on one side the human intelligence and on the other side the artificial intelligence.
To have good results searching a computer IT IS A MUST understanding how the computer thinks.
That is: its logic and deductive skills are much different from ours.
Intelligence is a matter of conceptualizing rather than calculating.The capacity of a machine for calculation leaves the human brain standing.
If you write a word you can have in a few seconds such a huge amount of links a human brain would take weeks to produce.
But the advantage is reversed when it comes to real understanding.
The artificial intelligence programmes are based on logical deduction and rational response, while the real intelligence can accomodate subjective as well as objective processes.
And that is about the unpredictable and irrational (on the point of view of a computer)
The human brain can calculate and rationalize as well as to be able to see and make connections.

So, to be a good search bee one must understand how the computer logic works.In a simple and limited way, but with huge potential in the few things it can do.
And that in my opinion is very difficult in a child, who imagines randomly and makes improbable analogies.



Michael Parekh

I'm not sure teaching kids how to search on the internet through a Search Bee per se is necessary...they are getting fluent on that by themselves I'm sure since it's a medium they know better than we knew what encylopedias and libraries were for.

I think Tom's excellent post on Search Bees and the thoughtful commentary on it thus far highlights a critical broad need to re-examine the curriculum of teaching in our schools today, in particular on how to think "horizontally" rather than "vertically" (history, civics, math, science, etc.) It almost seems that a class on thinking across subjects, using search engines and the internet as tools, might be better than just a search bee.

Maybe the two ideas can be fused...a class that draws on the learning from all the vertical classes, applied to answering questions that require horizontal thinking, searching, and discussion.

Come to think of it, this may be good for those of us out of school as well.


Two things:

-http://www.cybersurfari.org/ (I used Yahoo, not Google :) )
-How is this any different from saying that kids need to be taught the fundamentals of good research? If anything, I'm a better search user as a result of having learned good research techniques throughout my educational career. I kind of feel like what you're suggesting is akin to a "learn how to use your calculator" class. Why not learn how to manipulate math better and then apply those skills with whatever tools you choose?


I think it's great idea. When I was in grade school we had fact-finding competitions/bees which made us all pretty good at using encyclopedias and similar resources. I believe this gave american-educated kids an advantage over their italian peers (where I'm from). It makes sense to 'train' kids to exploit the info resources available to them now and develop their skills, even if it's for a different medium...

Artem Frolov

Russian search engine Yandex http://www.yandex.ru/ held a "Search Cup" contest http://kubok.yandex.ru/ five times, starting from 2001. They even published contest rules under copyleft, so anyoune could use them to hold similar contests.

Pages linked above are in Russian though, so probably they are of no use for you, sorry.

DG Lewis

Wouldn't it be better to have search engines where you could simply enter, for example, "What is the first train after 10:00 AM on March 1, 2005 from Oslo to Stockholm," or "Who first said 'millions for defense but not a penny for tribute' and on what occasion"?

Aside from teaching the clarity of language, logic, and semantics to ensure you ask precisely what you want to know, it seems to me that mastering internet search skills is somewhat akin to mastering Unix shell scripts in the '80s - a useful skill given the limitations of the environment, but ultimately rendered largely moot through the emergence of better technology.

It seems to me that, ultimately, the search engines that are best at parsing natural-language queries will dominate, and that this technology will be the differentiator more than will indexing or webcrawling.

I do agree completely, however, on the need for writing skills. (The biggest compliment I was ever given is that I don't write like an engineer...)

Shannon Clark

Many years ago (early 90's) there was the Internet Scavenger Hunt which ran very much like what you are suggesting, though with better search engines and the rise of the WWW it changed over time. More recently it appears that many educators have set up scavenger hunts as learning tools.

If you search for : Internet Scavenger Hunt

you will find that many schools around the country seem to be running these already.

One site set up with hunts for schools is http://homepage.mac.com/cohora/ext/internethunts.html

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