Jane Mount/MindShift
Jane Mount/MindShift

The first few days of school are a vital time to set the right tone for the rest of the year. Many teachers focus on important things like getting to know their students, building relationships and making sure students know what the classroom procedures will be. While those things are important, Alan November, a former teacher-turned-author and lecturer says the most important ideas to hammer home will help students learn on their own for the rest of the year.


“The name of the game is to find the right information with the right question,” said November during a workshop at the 2014 gathering of the International Society of Technology in Education in Atlanta. “My job used to be to give you the information, now my job is to teach you how to find the information.” November firmly believes this dynamic needs to be made very clear in the first five days of school.

“The best teachers were kids who had really struggled with the material and really understand what it’s like to learn.”

Kids think they know how to use the internet to search and find the information they need, but November has found through many interviews and school visits that often students have no idea why Google or any other search provider works the way it does. And they don’t know how to phrase questions to get the answers they seek.

“Kids literally take their teachers assignment and Google it,” November said. “They don’t understand that Google doesn’t speak English or any other language.” He’s tested his theory in classrooms, asking students to research the Iran Hostage Crisis. Students inevitably Googled the event and cited the first few pages that came up. But every resource was written from a U.S. perspective on an event that affected two very different countries.

“Your kids are not thorough,” November said to the hundreds of educators gathered. “They don’t see what they don’t see, so it’s really important that teachers challenge what’s missing.” Even more important is for students to learn the syntax of searching. To find sources from Iran students need to type “site:ir” in order to direct a search engine to explore that part of the internet. Even using that trick doesn’t solve the problem because Iranians don’t call that event “Iran Hostage Crisis,” they call it “Conquest of the American Spy Den.”

“It’s my observation that we are not instilling a discipline and rigor of the grammar and syntax of the tool they are going to use more than anything else for homework,” November said. And worse, when he asked kids about the kinds of assignments teachers give, students said 85 to 90 percent of the answers could be found with a quick internet search.

“I think we should give kids problems that you can’t look up on the internet,” November said. “Or, if you do, build the capacity to do it well.” With the Iran Hostage Crises example, a teacher could require that students use sources from Iran, and could spend time brainstorming the right questions to ask a search engine to get the best information. These skills will help students throughout the rest of the school year and should be covered early.

“In the first 5 days I think we should front load really high level research skills,” November said. That means teaching students to “power search” using Google operators, the words that define how Google searches. “A lot of kids have never used the advanced system of Google algorithms,” November said. Without it, the internet is a vast space with little organization. November compared power searching to the Dewey Decimal System in a library – without it people are just wandering around a building hoping they find the right book.


Another important concept to impart within the first few days of school to students: you can make meaningful contributions to the world, no matter how old you are, November said. He described MathTrain, a website created by middle school math teacher Eric Marcos. Marcos asks his students to make math tutorials to help one another and posts them on the site. Some of the tutorials have been viewed over 50,000 times by people all over the world. When students learn their work can make an impact, they’re not only more motivated, but they work harder.

“A global audience can be more motivating than a teacher in the classroom,” November said. And kids love to connect with other kids, so why not give them that experience early in the school year and make it a regular occurrence. Most kids say they will ask a friend for help with something they don’t understand before asking the teacher, November said. So why not let kids teach each other and help them see that what they are learning can help others.

“The best teachers were kids who had really struggled with the material and really understand what it’s like to learn,” November said. “Sometimes teachers suffer from knowing too much. The material they teach is easy to them and it can be hard to empathize with the stumbles of a new learner. Kids who have struggled with the material understand the pitfalls and can often explain them in ways other kids will understand.


The school year is often broken into so many units of study, standards to cover and snippets of time, that kids rarely get to work on one sustained project for very long. November is a big proponent of letting kids define and work on a project that has very few parameters and no rubric, and that will be presented at the end of the year.

“They resist because they have all this anxiety over the unknown,” November said. “They are seeking safety in your rubric.” But insisting students give it a try can yield strong projects, and more importantly it gives students the experience of defining the project and deciding when it’s good enough. In a computer science class November taught, the most resistant student ended up building a massive database of resources for people with disabilities in her town. She couldn’t finish it by the end of the year, so she came in during the summer to complete the work.

“That’s the difference when students define their own problems with intrinsic motivation,” November said. They care so much they’re begging for the computer lab to stay open during the summer.


One great way to teach students how to learn is to show them how teachers learn and what their sources are. November favors Diigo, but there are lots of sites that help people organize what they’ve read online and share those resources. For teachers who are actively improving their knowledge of the subject matter they teach, why not share that digital library with students and show them what lifelong learning looks like?

“I think teachers should demonstrate how they learn in the first five days,” November said. Typically we demonstrate what we already know and have learned. That has to change. We have to teach students to learn to learn.”

A great way to do that is through social media, one of the best ways for teachers to connect professionally and find ideas to further their own craft. If Twitter is such an important tool for educators, why keep it from students who also want to know how to connect and build a network?

“We should teach them to follow the best minds in the world on whatever their passion is,” November said. He remembers showing a boy interested in becoming an entrepreneur the Harvard Business Review’s Twitter page. The magazine follows heavyweights in their fields, who are accessible to students in ways they never were before the internet, if student know how to look.

“Before the internet there were two important things to teach: content and skills, like writing,” November said. “Now there’s a third skill which is to build out your network to the world.”

Teaching students to view Twitter as a research tool, a way to see what the brightest minds in a discipline are thinking and reading is akin to teaching them to search the internet powerfully. It’s giving them the tools to continue learning long after the test.

Four Skills to Teach Students In the First Five Days of School 28 August,2014Katrina Schwartz

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  • Alan November

    Hello Katrina,

    Huge thanks, for an amazing job capturing the important points of my #1st5days talk! I am grateful to you.


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  • Ashlea Miyauchi

    I confess, as an English language teacher, even I would not have known how to find information on the first example in this article. I’m considered myself a fairly digitally literate person, but I’m more likely to turn to my own students for advice on how they search for information in their home countries. This is in addition to the multitude of undergraduate and graduate level research my students, how do teachers even keep up?

  • BeckyBrot

    I know that students need to use the internet for research. I know it’s a vital tool. But they don’t read. They skim. They don’t pause to look up terms they don’t know. We need to slow down a little bit here and make sure that they really know how to read and annotate what they’re reading before we turn them loose on the abyss that is the internet. I don’t think our classrooms should be without technology, but tweeting and searching through the unedited mass of information on the internet only teaches them to fumble in the dark.

    • So, teach them. That’s what the article says, that they can’t use the internet for exactly the reasons you bring up. So, we teach them to use it correctly.

      • mccmomof3

        It would be nice if we had enough computers/other devices to do just that. Instead we’ve got districts spending millions on stupid teacher evaluation systems like “Teachscape” (created by Bill Gates, I might add) and ridiculous textbook substitutes like “Discovery Education” instead. Most of the videos available on Discovery Ed have free equivalents on YouTube, etc. Leaders and politicians need to stop seeing teachers as the problem.

    • Gillian Bottrell

      I fully agree. Oftentimes, I see students ‘write’ a research paper, with no annotations, constructed of a series of direct cuts and pastes. Needing to become a critical thinker is vital, knowing the basic research skills, grammar and spelling is important too. If middle and high school English departments work as a cohesive unit, young adults would graduate school much more prepared. A phone fixes misspellings, a computer disregards them. I am a special ed aide and have worked in a structured special ed classroom and have also visited general ed classrooms to assist students with an IEP. Listening skills are gone too.

      • DrPhrogg

        Agree on articulation but not easy to come by. Too much defending of fiefdoms
        . On writing exercises, the coordinating department should include a specific subject area, such as science, and the English department.

        This cartoon was first published in January, 1985. Still apropo today.

  • Zabrina Mystery

    This isn’t something you teach in five days. This is something you work on the entire year. On the part about projects and grades, while I think it is admirable to be willing to try large scale projects, the reality for most people who work is that you need to also know when to scale back so you are successful. Students need to know how to manage what they want to do and what is expected of them. Business is so focused on results that you have to be careful. I never set a goal at work that I can reach, my pay, schedule, and potentially my job depend on it. I would also caution when following a mentor, that just like researching you need many different sources. There are many successful people that get things wrong.

  • Kristin

    We can still do some of these things to some extent, but the fact is that most of the first five days of school (at least at the secondary level) are spent pre-testing. We administer two standardized and one writing test, to be used to evaluate student progress in the interest of the new teacher evaluation tool. You have to work pretty creatively to get any instruction in to that first week!

    • Heather Kenyon-Haff

      You mean, you actually get to that before a kid or two acts out?

  • TC

    Using the internet in the classroom is almost like a dream. Our internet is unreliable and our computers are very slow at the school I work for. The kids are not taught how to type properly until high school, unless they choose to take the elective typing class in middle school. If every child had access to their own laptop and high speed internet…. wow, we might be able to work wonders! I agree that we need to help these kids learn how to teach themselves… it is imperative to their success!

  • Laura Duggan

    I think you also need to specify your student audience. This is aimed way higher than elementary school!

    • Josh Luke

      Why should it be? 5th and 6th graders are more than capable of this level of research, and if they aren’t, they should be.

      • George

        That depends on whether or not they know how to read and whether or not they have access to the Internet. And no, not everyone can do either. Considering the massive job losses in our country that have not rebounded and government slashing educational budgets to shreds, I doubt any of our students would be able to be taught this.

    • DrPhrogg

      Analogies used to be taught starting in 5th grade. At some point, it was decided that they were too hard for 10 yo students and the concept was put off until 7th grade. When they could not do them, they were moved to 8th grade, then HS. Then it was decided that HS students found analogies too difficult, it should be done in college, and the SATs dropped them. Now college students are struggling with them. Metric use starts in 5th grade. There is little practice & no real skill building. The skill is not retained. The fact is that some thing are not achievable in a single school year. It takes coordination between grades and it takes many years of practice to become proficient. Sometimes, it is all about choosing the appropriate goal.

      • Danelle OH

        You hit the nail on the head. It has to start with skill building which is lacking in school curricula. If a 5th grade student is deficient in reading comprehension (and often in reading ability period) then expecting any progress in learning to critically think through an analogy will be a fool’s journey. The same for teaching metrics to students without adequate mathematical thinking skills (and without a solid foundation in the rules of basic math). That said, expecting scaffolding (required to learn these fundamentals) in classrooms with 30+:1 student teacher ratio is absurd-doubly so when the ability range in the individual classroom is often spread over several grade levels.

  • Stephen F. Duncan

    Want to make a real difference? Teach epistemology – teach them to understand how we know what we know and not just to accept an “authority” for the answer – be it an academic or a non-academic source.

  • Danelle OH

    If you want to teach kids four things that will positively impact their lives, I suggest the following:
    1-Don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know.” Comfort with uncertainty is a hallmark of intelligence-being a know it all (that does not know it all) is a pretty clear marker of ignorance. Kids now are groomed to believe they know everything intrinsically. They are taught that a good guess is equal to truth. I can’t tell you how many freshman college tutees are left gobsmacked the first time they hear that freshman level opinions are absolutely worthless in a research paper (and so is cut and paste plagiarism-even when the source is Wikipedia).
    2-The foundations are important. Yes, it sometimes is boring to rehearse taxonomies or do that 500th equation; however, once the fundamentals are embedded in our brains, we can think critically about information and find creative solutions to problems. Also, without those fundamentals we end up bad consumers of science, politics and information. How are kids supposed to do internet research if they can’t break apart an argument or critically consider the information presented? Research isn’t a skill-it is a tool. Teach them logic, argumentation and the fundamentals of science, math, literature and civics. This way they can research any question with a critical and literate mind instead of grabbing at needles in the internet haystack.
    3-Learn to be interested without being entertained. Your college professor isn’t going to rap differential equation lectures. Sometimes you just have to find the drive inside yourself to push through the grunt work. This goes along with will power and delayed gratification-two skills that should be mastered by middle school but are found lacking in college students.
    4-You will likely end up average and that is okay. Average is average for a reason-because that is where most of us fit. Artificially boosting self esteem does nothing but create a bunch of expectant under achievers who feel duped and screwed when they find out super stardom is not in the cards. It is far better to teach kids that hard work, grit and determination will always pay off but the pay off isn’t likely to be a Bentley and 5k square foot mansion in Malibu. Some of us will be plumbers and others will be doctors. That is okay. In fact, I use the products of my plumber every day and my doctor once a year.

    • PeepleWatcher

      I whole-heartedly agree with you, Danelle! In my work, I’ve often seen medical students (at a high-ranking medical school) who lack critical-thinking skills. I also believe that Wikipedia should be questioned when it is the primary resource for research papers. (Critical-thinking skills, here too.) It isn’t the ultimate correct information for academic research.

      • Donna Gehring

        Students should know that Wikipedia is NOT a primary source to start with!

        • BritishK

          My kids learned that in elementary school.

        • Jen

          Actually, Wikipedia is recommended by many educators as a place to start for some background knowledge to build research from…but still not a primary source for the research itself. It can be a good place for younger students to get some basic information – they can then build there questions & use advanced search tools from there.

          • Jen


      • Danielle Watley AbdurRaaziq

        I am really surprised that guidelines where you have been weren’t set!!! In college we were not allowed to use Wikipedia as a source and that was stated in bold. As for me personally I wouldn’t want to quote anything without researching it. It is definitely not the correct information for academic research.

    • Livetoread63

      Since I’m not seeing any politicians here, it is doubtful any of us will be allowed to skip the “think, pair, share” mentality on the current political agenda.

      • Martin Lawrence

        ha resistance is futile, if they dont agree dont share, great observation

      • Danelle OH

        Who thinks of this junk psycho-science? Think, pair share (from what I gather this is the product of some charlatan re-framing dialectical thinking for primary school use) can work in a college level seminar course or advanced topical high school course where students are already competent thinkers (or should be) with a foundation in the basics (hopefully). The key to this type of learning/thinking is a foundation of knowledge and a teacher competent in dialectical thinking who can guide the students through the process with thoughtful questions and provoking insight. Using this as a core teaching process with youngsters is just asinine. Not that I think dialectical thinking has no place in the lower schools but it should be centered on the process of learning how to use this as a tool for deeper thought not just as a way to deal with large class sizes and overwhelmed teachers.

        • Peggy

          I’ve used think pair share with children from kindergarten through high school with great success. Providing students brief think time and an opportunity to share/discuss with peers allows for processing time. After the sharing, I always used random sticks (pop sickle sticks with names in a cup or pocket) to call on students. If a student can’t answer, he can get the information from his partner. Some students won’t be able to answer without help but they never-the-less participate. Sorry you haven’t had success using this strategy with younger students.

        • BaileyP

          As a person currently working with high school seniors with the college selection process I don’t think it is silly question to ask-“What is your passion?”. I actually have my students fill out a sheet with various questions to do some self reflection on that matter to help guide them with selecting a college major. I do agree that people can & often switch majors like I did, but that didn’t take away my interest in the subject matter or the skills that would have allowed me to be successful in that career. Also, plenty of people know their interest & passion @ a young age including my uncle who @ 5 knew he wanted to be a doctor & he still is practicing to this day @ almost 70. However, that being I agree with the rest of your feedback on your post.

    • Monique

      Wow. Danielle, your comments are even more prescient than the article. You are absolutely right. (And at 5’6″, I envy your 5’9″ stature!)

    • Pamela

      I totally agree with YOUR four essential skills Danelle.

  • Stig

    mathtrain.tv, not mathtrain.com

  • ostaff1

    1) Most teachers don’t know how to do that power searching, much less know how to teach their students. In the example given, very few teachers would be comfortable allowing their students to sort through Iran’s web sites–and a significant portion would be against teaching Iranian propaganda.
    2) Many schools (most, in my area) do not permit students to display their work on the Internet. FERPA, in combination with CIPA, has such a chilling effect that teachers are discouraged from making students’ work publicly available.
    3) Open-ended assignments are lovely when you don’t have 144 days to document covering 120 distinct curriculum objectives, because 1 in 5 school days are devoted to standardized assessment. Especially when you have to sign a legal affidavit every week saying you covered X pages on Y date using Z key words from the provided teacher’s manual and those affidavits contribute to your year-end contract renewal, as do standardized test scores.

    4) This is only possible when you don’t have an explicit district policy against electronically communicating with your students via anything other than the district’s email account, which has a tiny size cap and automatically deletes material after 1 year.

    • Tara B

      For what kind of fascist school district do you work?!? I teach in public schools in Illinoís and it’s nowhere near that level of insanity. I am so sorry! Get out of there if you can, there are greener pastures!

    • Danelle OH

      Before students learn to “power search” they should learn to read and think critically. Anyone can conduct a power search but doing so is worthless if the person cannot differentiate between solid information and junk. That is where the teaching comes into play (or should). I do not blame teachers. The problem is most often found in the politicians (and their pseudo-scientist cronies) who, despite having zero competence in the core subjects and even less in the psychology of learning, create these bizarre and often dangerous policies that do little to help and much to harm the progress of students from childhood to productive, thinking citizen.

  • Aimee Leigh

    My students always knew two words, and used them: “Frivolous” and “Relevant.”

  • DrPhrogg

    I have taught 2 specific tools. Students used flashcards very early on to learn number facts, but then never use cards again. Vocabulary, including root words, prefixes and suffixes, is critical both in science, and in the real world. I use cards to drill vocabulary before we get to that chapter.
    In specific syllabus areas, allowing students to explore and find their own answers is the flavor of the day, but remember, the scientists who made these discoveries had years, if not decades, to follow their research. In areas like Climate change or Evolution, I present current beliefs, then ask students to determine what research or evidence would have to exist to support current theory. Now, computer research has a goal. The textbook becomes another research too, instead of a focal point.
    I also use a critical thinking assignment early int he year. Choose a controversial topic from a list of over 100, Present both sides of the issue, and draw your own conclusion.No Internet articles present both sides fairly. Max length is 10 pages, not counting references & bibliography. Minimum is whatever it takes to make the issue clear. Their grade is not based on whether I agree with their conclusion or not, but on how well they support their decision. Hunting is a good example, but abortion is not because both sides of the latter are not founded in science. I will not grade ethics or faith issues in a science class. Following this, they write a letter to any politician, local to national, on a current issue of public interest.A political letter must be short or it will not be read, just counted. Total length is 1/2 page. Learning to pick important points and present them clearly is another skill not usually taught, but it is important if they are to be involved in their community as adults. The assignment is worth 25 points. If you get a response, the value is 35/25 points. If it is a personal reply, and not a form letter, you get 50/25 points. Some of my students have changed career goals after finding out they really can make a difference in their community/world. While my area is science, this can be utilized by most subject areas.

    Other skills I teach early are notebook styles useful for college, abstracting current articles, and preparing for open-ended questions. Each of these involve a skill set that will last a lifetime.

    • Terri Punches

      I would be interested to know what is on your list of 100 controversial topics?

    • Danelle OH

      I have had a few teachers like you over the years. Those are the teachers I remember most as I make my way through difficult concepts and new material. Funny, most of those teachers were science teachers/professors.

      Your students are very lucky.

  • Anemone999

    In my experience, and those of teachers in my family, the greatest challenge is to teach students which web sites are factual and which are opinion-based.

    Although we grew up with real institutions which we trust as far as their Internet content goes, everything seems equally trustworthy to them on the Internet.

    • granitegirl

      and now (2016) which are spoof sites. It isn’t just The Onion anymore!

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  • Heather Kenyon-Haff

    Great ideas, but of course, you need to start with TEACHERS and PARENTS. Both of which generally haven’t been taught any differently than the kids, which is mostly trial-and-error, informally, and usually pretty superficially. Teachers are usually more open to the concept of teaching the process of learning. Parents are so used to “education” being pouring facts and knowledge and regurgitating for standardized tests, this would be difficult.

  • Martin Lawrence

    what an aggravating and empty article

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  • In terms of student safety, my list of top three are all privacy related …
    Passwords should be easy to remember and hard to crack;
    Passwords should never be shared with anyone but parents;
    Protect that laptop, phone and tablet with … yes, you guessed it … Passwords.

    This is as important to the modern day safety as “Look both ways before crossing the street.” More at: http://www.privacywrites.com

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  • Good article. I was disappointed to not see “Manage Technology Use” as one of the advices given. Our kids need to understand that technology use is necessary as so is “technology resting.” Our brains were not made to be functioning in information overload mode the way we are experiencing it now. Sooner or later, we could see a severe burn-out epidemic in this country and abroad.

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  • John McCarthy

    I appreciate how Alan November is essentially talking about culture building that involves students in the process. It is about teachers being metacognitive to model the same process to students. The key point that resonates for me is “Meaningful Contributions.” This leads to student voice and can kick off a powerful year of in-depth inquiry via engaged learning, which also draws in the other point of student passion. Of course to do this, teachers need to give up the illusion of control. It’s possible and productive to go this path. Thanks Alan!

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  • MarilynBarbara

    Plan activities for your students that will enable you to observe their
    learning styles and gain an idea of their abilities and needs.


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  • James O Sullivan

    The simple fact is that students are told to think but not show how to think effectively. Critical thinking is a term bandied about with no simple strategy for teaching or applying critical thinking. Parallel thinking strategies, such as the Six Thinking Hats, are far more effective. Creative and Lateral thinking can also be easily taught to children of all ages.

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  • shilpa mukharjee

    Very useful Information!!

    According to me, From the day your baby is born, you are a teacher of spirit. If you create an atomosphere of trust, openness, non-judgement, and acceptance, those qualities will be absorbed as the qualities of spirit.In a perfect world, parenting would come down to one sentence: Show only love, be only love. But in the world we all cope with, children grow up to face much non-loving behaviour, primarily outside the home but sometimes within it as well. Rather than worry about whether you embody enough love to qualify as a spiritual teacher, look upon spirituality as a skill in living, since that is what it is. I believe in imparting these skills as early as possible by whatever means a child can understand.

    Read us @ http://www.victoriouskidsseducares.org/blogs/how-to-start/

  • I would add one more: “How to have a conversation in person?” ….a lost art. Whether it be inquiry-based instruction or project-based learning in the classroom or real world – maybe a job interview? Followup? How to use your voice rather than your thumbs to communicate. Let the Internet do the research (efficiently) but find a conversation face-to-face for taking problems into opportunities for a solution. I would bet those Silicon Valley engineers all sit in a room together to design chat rooms? …. Goal: Less 60 Hz Blue light (screen time)

    • Throughout my teaching career (40 years) I taught research and research papers. It is easier now with access to databases and research publications on the internet, but one thing has not changed: interviews. The persuasive research paper required of seniors where I taught for 26 years demands two interviews, and it is this requirement that causes more difficulty than all the rest. Actually finding people with specific expertise and asking relevant questions is a HUGE obstacle for nearly every student! Even contacting people via email becomes a barrier. Of course, once they conduct the interviews, students are amazed at what they can learn by speaking to an expert who can fill in gaps in the literature.

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Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She’s worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She’s a staff writer for KQED’s education blog MindShift.

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