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2002 Gwen Gawith: Re-defining research

2002 Opoho School: "The Opoho Possum Hunt"

2001 Gwen Gawith: "Infobliteracy" - Part 2.

2001 Gwen Gawith: Responding to "Into a Further World" by Elwyn Richardson.

2001 Carolyn Coil: Teachers make the world of information become knowledge.

2001 Gwen Gawith: Why Read?

2001 Gwen Gawith: "Infobliteracy" - Part 1.

2001 Linda Selby and Maureen Trebilcock: A call for teacher-librarians

2000 Gwen Gawith: Information Literacy: theory into practice - Part 2

2000 Gwen Gawith: Information literacy: problems and solutions.

2000 Alan Cooper: Information literacy; the past is not enough.

1999 Gwen Gawith: The origins of information literacy.

1998 Graham Prentice: Knowledge architects.

1998 Gwen Gawith: Getting a handle on information literacy.

1997 Gwen Gawith: NEMPing through information literacy.

1992 Gwen Gawith: learning for the future.

1987 Gwen Gawith: Information skills for an information age.

1986 Gwen Gawith Information skills for an information literate future.

1984 Gwen Gawith: Getting a handle on information skills.


information literacy:
definitions & discussion

Information Literacy

This article was published in Good Teacher, Term 1 2000

Alan Cooper

Education tends to look back to past success as a model to follow, but past successes no longer supply the needs of today. Literacy is an obvious example of this. The back to the basics advocates want the literacy that they had in their schooling. They look back to simpler times when literacy was restricted to the ability to read and to write. While this is still necessary it is no longer enough.

Edward de Bono in his latest book, New Thinking for the New Millennium, explains why this is so using this metaphor of a ship at sea:

"The lights keep going out. The engine is faltering. The rudder is unreliable. The first mate is drunk. The crew is very demoralised. The service is appalling. The passengers on the ship are very dissatisfied. Then a new Captain and first mate are brought in by helicopter. Very quickly everything changes. The morale of the crew is lifted. Service improves. The engine is fixed. The lights stay on. Everything is fine. But the ship is still heading in the wrong direction."

de Bono then goes on to say that this is usually what happens when we set out to fix things within an existing context. We simply do not look to see if the basic context needs fixing. If we are to avoid this trap in the education arena, we must have concern for the future.

The future context is a knowledge one. Just as we once had an agrarian revolution followed by an industrial revolution, we now have an information revolution. This information revolution affects every possible sector of New Zealand business and enterprise, and society in general. Too many have yet to realise this. The education sector and teachers in particular are no exception.

That is the nub of the problem. A new context is upon us, requiring new and different tools including a new definition and understanding of literacy.

There is an immediate problem to overcome. Defining literacy can so easily become an academic exercise. One recent book, The Literacy Dictionary, published by the International Reading Association details, 38 different types of literacy, working through the alphabet from academic literacy to workplace literacy. Surely this is overkill?

It is. If teachers and others involved in education are not to be overwhelmed then the need is to look for simpler solutions, step by step, one at a time. What needs doing is to pick the substantive and substantial.

This is not easy but there are signposts.

The poetic refer to the teacher as the sage on the stage. Others, less poetic, talk of the teacher as the dispenser of knowledge. Whatever the term the teacher is finding the answer for the class. The teacher is doing the thinking rather than the kids.

This is where the need for a new meaning for literacy must be anchored. Once this is realised the importance of information literacy becomes obvious.

Information literacy is partly about finding out information, partly about the need for accuracy and precision, but all about interpretation. This of course brings into play the higher level thinking skills of analyses, synthesis, and evaluation.

Thinking skills become the key ingredient of this new literacy. They could perhaps be termed literacy in their own right: the literacy of thinking. However, their real place is as a subset - a very substantial subset - of information literacy, lest we fall into the over defining academic exercise trap.

Art Costa talks, writes, and cajoles us to use what he calls Habits of the Mind. One of these is precision and accuracy.

This is a suitable starting point for the information literate because those who are information literate have precise and accurate knowledge about searching for information. They know all about the importance of syntax when searching the Internet and the using of quotation marks and the use of "AND" when doing advanced searches. They know which search engine to use and how to use the index of these search engines to locate headings they may not otherwise have thought of. They know that detail is important and that correct grammar and especially spelling are essentials. They know what those little prefixes - gov, com, edu - mean and their possible significance to the accuracy and authenticity of the information. They know to look in more than one place for information and that cross-referencing is needed.

Posing questions becomes the vital activity here. Where it is the teacher that asks the question, the question needs to be open ended.

Costa has coined the term Cogitare - where we consciously use our language to evoke thinking in others. Syntax and vocabulary, used by teachers in their questioning and assignment setting, needs to include the specific cognitive clues to involve the required thinking process. Thus the instruction is at once more precise, more cognitively empowering, and student rather than teacher focussed.

Instead of saying, "Lets look at these two pictures," those speaking Cogitare would say "Let's COMPARE these two pictures." In this way embedded in the vocabulary and the syntax is the instruction as to what thinking is needed. Other key vocabulary as to which cognitive process to follow are, classify, cause and effect, analogy and so on.

Graphic organisers are an important additional strategy here. It could even be argued that they are an essential part. By far the best of these are the Thinking Maps devised and developed by David Hyerle. They are considerably more than just a complement to other processes. The eight maps each shaped to facilitate a different cognitive thinking skill do more than just facilitate the process. Moreover they easily link to Bloom's higher order thinking skills of analyses, evaluation, and synthesis.

It is important too to remember the connections to other areas of literacy. Cogitare also means to be specific and to spurn the fluffy and the general. The media, especially the electronic media bombards us constantly with the vague and the fluffy - better than - and such like phrases either implied or stated but never specified.

Making connections are always important. Here there is an excellent opportunity to have links between information literacy and media literacy.

Regurgitation especially when neatly presented is valueless, yet so often teachers at all levels do just that. Assignment setting is thus crucial Assignment setting also can contribute to information literacy. Cogitare is as important here as in questioning. As Jamie McKenzie would advise, attention to Bloom's higher level thinking skills requiring judgement through comparison and evaluations is the process needed.

Assignments can only develop this deep thinking when they are open ended, but specific enough to require precision of thought and action. However, as Gwen Gawith's Action Learning model teaches us, sooner rather than later it must become the responsibility of the student to learn to formulate their own questions. The monitoring and developing of these student self-generated questions by the teacher is in itself a sub set of the teaching of information literacy. The teacher needs to learn too.

The stage-by-stage information process is a process, maybe even the process, by which the development of thinking, by asking the right questions as advocated by Costa, Mackenzie and others, can be developed. But many teachers still take students' questioning and grasp of the information process for granted.To paraphrase de Bono as long as its tidy it doesn't matter if we go in the wrong direction!

A sentence in the Annual Review and summary of Financial statements for shareholders in British Telecom states, " New ways of learning, new ways of teaching, new ways of sharing information mean that education can be for life". This can only be if educators at all levels, including the tertiary level, enable their students by giving them information literacy.

Information is not knowledge. Knowledge has to be constructed from information. Too often we allow the two terms to be interchangeable. If we have knowledge workers working with knowledge and going no further we are at best short changing ourselves, at worst putting our nation at risk. What we need is information workers working with knowledge.

A week or two ago the London Times had a feature article on the need for creative people. The article stated quite firmly that what was needed were people who come up with solutions when others only see problems. One operations director was quoted as saying, " We ask a lot - ideas, stamina, enterprise, analytical and organisational skills."

To do that we must have information literacy. The need is urgent.


Alan Cooper has taught at all levels from primary to tertiary, including being a deputy principal of a secondary school and principal of St George's Primary School in Wanganui. He now conducts courses and presents papers overseas and in NZ - at the Learning Styles Institute in New York regularly, and the World Thinking Conference in Edmonton in 1999. He is an Associate of the New Zealand Institute of Management and has contributed to Art Costa's and David Hyerle's forthcoming books.