literacy: Problems and solutions
article was published in Good Teacher, Term 2 2000
In a brilliant analysis
of the plethora of confusing definitions and interpretations of
'information literacy', a teacher-librarian colleague, Linda Langford,
concludes, "there remains a real need to explore how the concept
of information literacy becomes the natural or the basic practice
of teachers" (1998, p. 69).
This is what I set
out to do in my PhD research, working with 8 NZ teachers - 2 primary,
2 intermediate, 2 secondary and 2 tertiary, to develop a pedagogy
of information literacy for teachers. I started by going back
100 years and examining the various educational practices that
are now subsumed under the term 'information literacy'.
I discovered a substantial
body of documented practice in all Western countries throughout
the century, with an overwhelming consensus, since 1898, that
'projects', 'inquiry' and resource-based learning are, on the
whole, ineffective for students and challenging for teachers and
students alike. There is some agreement on the reasons why, eg:
The topics and the purpose of the work were frequently not authentic
to students, often not linked clearly to the curriculum, and student
motivation frequently seemed to be to get a teacher-set task done,
rather than intrinsic interest in the topic. Students seemed to
find it hard to visualise the process sufficiently to plan it,
and there was evidence of a mindless 'gold rush' to library/ Internet
as soon as the topic was decided.
Framing task/ overview/
Getting an overview of the task and topic was seldom done. Students
often appeared unable to find information on the topic because
they couldn't define the topic adequately. The need for students
to own the assessment criteria for product and process was occasionally
commented on, but there was little evidence of teachers helping
students to work out and 'own' criteria.
Students often lacked sufficient background knowledge to know
what they needed to find out. There was agreement on students'
need to link information purpose to selecting information, but
not on how this could be done.
using libraries and books: These have been documented since the
early 1900's! Students find identification of appropriate sources
of information difficult, and selection of relevant information
from the resources extremely difficult. Indiscriminate copying
is endemic throughout the world.
from library/ information skills/ study skills programmes:
This was documented in every country. Earlier programmes were
often characterised by teaching 'parts of a book', rather than
the 'intellectual foundations' of research. Librarians were criticised
by teachers for seeing information as disembodied from subjects,
while teachers were criticised for not knowing anything about
finding information in libraries! All agreed that library instruction/
'user education' was seldom applied and was often irrelevant to
classroom purposes in its focus on bibliographic aspects. Librarians'
information skills efforts were treated with 'apathy' by classroom
teachers. Information skills instruction was approached unsystematically
by teachers in most schools.
There was very little
evidence of teachers showing students how to shape questions and
analyse information. It was just assumed that students would be
able to go from teacher-defined purpose to precise information.
But even when information was retrieved (often by luck rather
than design, and often found for students by intermediaries like
parents or librarians) there was little evidence of analysis or
reflection on the ideas, content, facts, etc. There was overwhelming
consensus that students usually saw the purpose as finding information
and reproducing it in some way (formerly in charts, latterly in
multimedia-type projects) with little understanding and no critical
The need for more
analysis, synthesis, critical thinking
: EVERY study suggested
that students needed to make deeper, more analytical use of information,
but few made recommendations as to how. Students did not/ could
not use information critically or analytically. Skills (for critical
and analytical use of information) were not coached; what resulted
was recycled information, not cognitively processed knowledge.
Assessment was seldom formative. It was based more on the presentation
of information than curriculum-derived criteria measuring learning.
These factors, together
with the 'tyranny of exams' and the 'tyranny of time
and timetable' at secondary level signalled the limitations
of projects (inquiry/ research, etc) as a method for learning
information literacy skills, and the lack of explicit pedagogy
over the decades.
There is remarkable
consensus between some of the leading commentators in their analysis
of the problems and what is needed to improve this type of learning.
Of course, with hindsight, the problems seem obvious.
But, if it is so obvious,
why haven't we solved them?
Where progress has
been made and positive results noted, it has almost inevitably
been in the context of the use of some sort of framework, an information
process framework or a cognitive process framework. So, for example,
talking about the use of Gawith's Action Learning framework (1987)
used in the Infolink course, Bruce outlines school-wide benefits
in a NZ primary school (1999).
The project which
best shows the positive results achieved by applying a six-stage
information process model in a secondary school was that undertaken
by Todd and McNicholas at Marist Sisters in Sydney. They note
student progress in: sense of control, independence and self-reliance,
positive attitudes, enhanced self-esteem, mechanism for self-analysis,
charting learning progress, more accepting of learning as a challenge,
identifying learning weaknesses, managing the quantity of information,
more global view of information, lateral information seeking,
meaningful learning, develop reflective thinking, improve memory,
increased concentration and focus on the task, develop skills
of self directed, autonomous learning, transfer of learning, exchange
of ideas, improved test scores (Todd, Lamb & McNicholas, 1993).
All of these areas
represent areas of persistent weaknesses in documented practice
over decades and in different countries. Many more recent Australian
accounts of practice (in Access and Scan) do signal progress,
particularly in relation to negotiation of a relevant, authentic
learning purpose, establishing and developing prior knowledge
and ensuring ownership of learning, and in helping students use
the information gleaned with more purpose and discrimination.
In contrast, there
is the persistence what Rudduck and Hopkins (1984, p. 113) described
as "images... of a rhetoric of independence, belied by didactic
teaching, an instrumental use of the library and a pedantic view
of knowledge." This is an insidious sub-plot which runs throughout
this body of work and is most evident in the studies of secondary
students. Quinn (cited in Sanger, 1989, p. 162) says "We urgently
need to look more closely at learning from learners' points of
This was the view
most frequently missing. Many (resource-based/ inquiry/ research
units) were NOT planned or conceptualised from the learners' points
of view; they were usually firmly teacher-centred, library/ information-centred,
and provided the context for learning but little guidance. Learners
were given the freedom to fail, not to learn.
It seemed a timely
juncture to ask whether the six-stage information process models
(adapted in 1984 from Irving/ Marland's original 1978 nine-stage
model by Gawith and published here in 1987) were an adequate base
for a new information literacy pedagogy which might embrace all
the persistent negatives turned into positives, ie:
Helping students to
authenticate learning by:
links to curriculum learning
links to self-as-learner: skills, competencies, practice
links to purpose/ audience
links to curiosity/ need to know, to expand knowledge
Helping students to
establish prior knowledge by:
Helping students to
establish ownership of learning:
goals, purpose, audience, roles
plans, deadlines, checkpoints
criteria for process and product
Helping students to
define their knowledge needs:
˘ focus questions
- key concepts, key terms, key questions
knowledge needs in relation to curriculum objectives
Coaching the selection
appropriate information sources, information technologies,
˘ use of
information retrieval techniques and technologies (eg search engines)
˘ use of
key concepts, key terms, key questions
˘ use scanning
Coaching the analysis
optimum information to match need (purpose/ audience)
Coaching the construction
of knowledge from information:
information using reading, listening, viewing, thinking skills
and graphic devices to analyse the information
strategies - use of 'reflective conversations' to establish key
understandings, key facts, ideas, themes concepts,
key opinions, premises, arguments, key causes, effects,
of knowledge by:
knowledge into clear messages related to learning purpose, assessment
requirements, audience, medium and technology
strategies for self-regulated learning, self- efficacy, self evaluation,
of information and cognitive strategies.
evaluation of content knowledge AND process.
My conclusion was
that the six-stage information processes have a role to play,
but more profitably within a broader, simpler framework, which
is easier for students to grasp and for teachers to teach.
Challenging a model
which has underpinned so much of my professional life since Ann
Irving first introduced it to me in 1978 has been a liberating
experience. I haven't found a panacea, but I can see new ways
Bruce, J. (1999).
Teaching information literacy skills. National Education: Information
Technology. (pp. 8-12). Wellington: New Zealand Educational Institute.
Gawith, G. (1987).
Information alive. Auckland: Longman Paul.
Langford, L. Information
literacy: A clarification. School Libraries Worldwide, 4 (1),
Marland, M. (Ed.)
(1981) Information skills in the secondary curriculum... London:
Rudduck, J. &
Hopkins, D. (1984). The sixth form and libraries: Problems of
access to knowledge. (LIR Report 24). London: British Library.
Sanger, J. (1989).
The teaching, handling information and learning project. (LIR
Report 67). London: British Library.
Todd, R., Lamb, L.
& McNicholas, C. (1993) Information skills and learning: Some
research findings. Access, 7(1, March), 14-16.