The Mercury Model of Information
Literacy : Strike a dark light
Timaru Principals' Conference June 1998 : Keynote
This paper addresses what I suggest is a foundation of myth in
our classrooms; a foundation of myth that will influence the effectiveness
of how IT is used to support teaching and learning.
Hearken, cries this manic little woman with all the fervour of
one who has seen a dark light in Auckland, the age of cognitive
bypass technology is upon us. Repent and restore cognitive functionality
to your unwashed infidels or languish forever in the unrealised
rhetoric of IT.
I'll explain what I mean by my key terms:
- unrealised rhetoric
- restoration of
- cognitive by-pass
Apart from motivation and enjoyment, which may, arguably, be
conditions for learning, but are NOT synonyms for learning, there
is, to date, little concrete evidence of any significant IT-related
increase in quantity and quality of learning. I expand on this.
Restoration of cognitive operationality
All this means is that brains don't train themselves. The computer
that sits on top of the occipital joint needs to be programmed.
It needs to be TAUGHT how to learn, TAUGHT how to think and TAUGHT
how to select, reject, analyse, synthesise and interpret information.
We wouldn't dream of buying computers without buying software,
but we go from year to year assuming that someone, somewhere,
somehow has taught students how to think, taught them how to learn,
taught them how to use and process and produce information with
Cognitive by-pass technology
There is no such thing as good IT or bad IT. It's a question
of what you do with it. Computers have raised busy work to an
art form in some schools. Effective use of IT to support and enhance
learning is not guaranteed by merely installing it. IT-based learning
needs to be designed and monitored carefully if it is to be cognitively
enhancing, not cognitively-bypassing!
If we want to avoid cognitive by-pass technology, make our infidels
cognitively operational and turn the rhetoric of IT into enhanced
learning, we could do worse than re-examine some of the myths
which cushion our reality. What are they? We'll start with seven:
• that faster technology = faster learning; that more sophisticated
technology = more sophisticated thinking
• that information = knowledge; that computers are the processors
and purveyors of knowledge
• that children are genetically programmed for IT-based learning;
all you have to do is plug them in a leave them to explore and
teachers can concentrate on 'more important things'...
• that more = better; more learning = better learning; more technology
= better learning
• that better learning is acquired through one-off courses on
so-called learning styles, accelerated learning or brain gym
• that what you read on the screen is true; that it has validity
• that finding information in libraries, on Encarta, on the Internet
is information literacy.
The remainder of the paper is a somewhat tongue in cheek examination
of these myths that I have called The dance of the squirming myths
because I think, through exaggerating them, they give cause for
thought, and for squirming!
1. That faster technology = faster learning; that more sophisticated
technology = more sophisticated thinking
More than ten years ago Norman Beswick asked how it would benefit
a child who had difficulty reading one book to have the contents
of the world's libraries at his fingertips.
I think one of the most insidious and damaging assumptions built
into the web hype is that we are breeding children who are somehow
more intelligent than their predecessors; that, somehow, because
of the technology, will be able to think faster and more effectively.
On the contrary, the simple truth is that, to use the current
jargon, we will never optimise the use of IT until we optimise
the use of the cognitive capacity of children's brains. These
are exactly as they always were, ie some kids are dumb, some kids
are smart, and lots are in between although these words are so
politically incorrect that they are only used by children themselves!
Yes, the world has changed. Yes, all children need education like
they never needed it before.
There is nothing magical or mythological about IT. It is splendid
stuff if you know what you want to do with it and if you have
a driving purpose and someone to help you. The difference will
be whether you have a well trained brain which is trained to learn,
and a mind-driven purpose for using the stuff.
2. That information = knowledge; that computers are the processors
and purveyors of knowledge
This is an interesting one, because, as computers become more
sophisticated, there is no doubt that they can process information
more quickly and flexibly than the human mind.
It goes back long before computers, to ask whether the stuff
that was pasted between the neatly drawn borders and title of
the ubiquitous project chart represented knowledge or information.
The answer depends on the extent to which it had been filtered
through, processed and interpreted by the mind of the creator
of the project. Sometimes it was. Often it was pasted up slabs
of information. I think we have a lot to thank photocopiers and
computers for. They have saved a lot of anguish for kids who were
untidy and not artistic. But the point I am making is that cognitive
bypass learning has been alive and well and continues to flourish,
and sending kids to the library with a question is simply not
In the seminars I'm running for teachers I teach three simple
strategies - nothing new - brainstorming, mapping and key questions,
key search words and key concepts. You can see teachers' eyeballs
glaze over - old hat, they say, we've 'done' that with our kids
for years. Well, firstly, if you have, why are student's projects
still anorexic knowledge-wise? This is another myth - that if
we know about it, we assume that it is done.
Imagine going to doctors and dentists who know that disinfecting
instruments is important but sort of assume that patients will
do it for themselves. We misuse the term self-directed or autonomous
learning to imply that students don't need to be taught how to
Remember Bruner's spiral curriculum. We, as professionals, could
do worse than go back to it. Remember the curriculum document
that specified eight essential skill areas and seven essential
learning areas and indicated that all skills should be taught
at all levels. Did this mean chunking it up into nonsensical tasks
at each level and ticking things off, or did it mean that KNOWLEDGE
BUILDS CUMULATIVELY FROM INFORMATION if it is encouraged to do
so through repetition and the systematic use of learning skillls
that are modelled and monitored.
3 That children are genetically programmed for IT-based learning;
all you have to do is plug them in a leave them to explore and
teachers can (to quote an eminent politician) concentrate on 'more
To put it more strongly, there's almost a feeling of the computer
being a genetic modification; somehow plugging kids into computers
enhances their natural cognitive capacity, and it happens more
with them than us because, as you know, they were born attached
by a mouse, not an umbilical cord, and they all find it easy.
It is easy to scoff, but, the fact remains that this is what
many politicians think. There is no doubt in the mind of NZ's
Minister for Information Technology that teachers and unions stand
in the way of progress - I heard him say this categorically to
an audience of suits in Wellington last December - and that if
we could plug kids into computers teachers could be better employed
doing other things while students learned.
Telelearning, if it is to succeed, needs much more careful planning
and development. What it does is shift the teacher's time to two-thirds
preparation and feed back and one-third 'face-to-face' online
teaching. As the pioneer of telelearning for teacher development
courses in NZ I know exactly what happens when beancounters come
along and apply a formula to you which equates standing in front
of a class with teaching, assumes that teachers who are interacting
with computers and phones are 'learning' themselves, and says
THIS is your time allowance for writing a course. Actually, when
I'm face-to-face teaching I very seldom even write a lesson plan.
When I'm online teaching I plan it to the nth degree to make sure
that what is happening on the other side of the line is LEARNING,
not just listening to my teaching.
Simply, personal experience in developing and delivering IT-based
learning over the last seven years reinforces the tiny bit of
research there is in the field which states categorically and
unanimously that IT-based learning is enormously powerful but
it needs to be well designed and well monitored and managed. This
requires different skills from face-to-face teaching and, especially
in the development stages, requires MORE time, MORE expertise
(technical as well as pedagogical) and will not, in the long or
short term save money. It may well see that money being spent
differently, teacher time allocated differently, and different
skills required of teachers. This is NOT technical knowledge as
much as pedagogic knowledge - knowledge of how people learn and
how to teach people how to learn - the very knowledge that people
don't get in preservice training, or in most tertiary courses
- the very knowledge that I am claiming makes all the difference
between cognitive bypass approaches to using IT, and using cognitive
skills to exploit the amazing potential of these machines to complement
and enhance learning.
A computer in the hands of someone who can read, learn, think
critically and analytically is a wonderful tool. In the hands
of someone who cannot read, learn or think, it remains a toy and
a brilliant babysitter! Computers are brilliant tools if they
are regarded as EXTENSIONS of the human brain. In other words
the more you've extended your brain the more use a computer is
4. That more = better; more learning = better learning; more
technology = better learning
I think one of the unfortunate consequences of the drip feed
introduction of the new curriculum statements alongside all sorts
of other things like unit standards, NEMP, performance management
and ERO requirements, is that teachers feel that they are too
busy to see the wood for the trees. The challenge of the NZCF
was simple - to integrate the essential skill areas into the essential
learning areas, no more, no less. But what we've seen in each
successive Curriculum Statement is this simple challenge turned
into a myriad of achievement objectives and different terminology
to describe an official sanctioning of what can be called enquiry
or resource-based or problem-solving approaches to every area
of the curriculum including maths, science and technology. I am
now seeing what I describe as a conveyor belt approach to enquiry
topics. While resource-based learning or, more precisely, constructivist
information literacy learning is the academic 'field' I till,
I simply don't think that more is better. Skating across the surface
of knowledge from topic to endless topic is a contradiction of
everything we know about deep learning, and learning to love knowledge
I am totally convinced that it is better to do one major resource-based
learning, inquiry, problem-solving, call it what you will, unit
a year in any subject area, or integrated across several, and
coach the skills BEFORE students do the learning, monitor the
use of the skills and evaluate the knowledge they acquire as a
result of using the skills. This is a diagnostic approach which
provides evidence of the specific areas in which students need
more coaching and more practice. It can be done, it is being done
and it is not difficult.
What it does require, however, is a clear understanding that
learning skills need to be modelled and monitored over and over
again; that they do not arise through the use of IT, and that
IT most frequently is used to disguise lack of skills not facilitate
better use of skills.
It is the teacher that makes the difference and if we want to
make better use of technology we're going to need more teachers
who CAN model and monitor learning skills - cognitive skills,
not technological skills - we're also going to need a lot more
people, and I don't think these need to be teachers - with high
level technical skills.
5.That better learning is acquired through one-off courses on
learning styles, fresh water, scarf-juggling and carrot sticks,
accelerated learning or brain gym
It's a bit like that idiotic Minister of Education who thought
that saluting the flag would instil civic pride; it's acknowledging
that something needs to be done, but gestures are not enough.
The brain is infinitely trainable, as that marvellous educator
Reuven Feuerstein, who visited New Zealand in January has proved.
But it has to be little and frequent, building cognitive pathways
and habits, doing the equivalent of hours and hours of scales
before you can play concertos.
What I see all around me is the naive assumption that if we give
children the technological equivalent of grand pianos they will
be able to play concertos. But, on the other hand, if they are
visual learners, they feel uncomfortable with this type of learning,
so don't worry , we must avoid distressing them.
I see things that people got from simplistic one day courses
being accepted as God-given truths and used as the most blatant
and damaging mechanism for justifying the low performance of children
who need to be stretched, not shrunk.
It's a bit of a worry. Read Gardner, read Sternberg, read Feuerstein,
get to grips with Myers Briggs or Gregorc, but treat with great
caution the one-day merchants who attempt to re-cycle their ideas.
6.That what you read on the screen is true; that it has validity
There's a lot of rubbish purporting to be information on the
Internet, and you wouldn't know it was rubbish if you didn't have
the knowledge to discriminate. Above all else an information literate
person is one who can use, interpret and produce information with
critical discrimination, who can select and reject information
and use it to build knowledge. The Internet is a valuable source
of information but to use it with discrimination requires a level
of knowledge and understanding that is not present in the technology.
Simply, the Internet spreads muck a lot faster. It doesn't make
muck into knowledge.
It shouldn't have taken the Internet to highlight the fact that
probably the most crucial information literacy competency is the
ability to REJECT information and to detect plagiarism, passing
off and copyright breaches, but the Internet has, thankfully,
highlighted the amount of unauthoritative, frankly shonky JUNK
lurking in cyberspace (and a lot more locally) purporting to be
Information literacy is about Shonk Detection. As teachers we
have a poor record for this, so how can we teach our students
to practise what we do not preach?
Muck detection should be taught across the curriculum and in
teacher education - preservice and graduate. For teaching muck
detection you do not need technology. You need the type of teachers
who are, themselves, knowledge-rich critical thinkers, skilled
in information sifting and analysis and discrimination.
7. That finding information in libraries, on Encarta, on the
Internet is information literacy.
Information literacy is the type of literacy that results when
people are able to find and use information selectively and effectively.
Finding it is, relatively, easier than using it. Using it with
critical discrimination is a massive challenge because it requires
a level of thinking and learning skill beyond many students often
because they have not been taught adequately.
If you forget about information literacy and ask yourself what
an information literate person should be able to do, it becomes
easier to see that information literacy is at the heart of learning
just like reading and writing. An information literate person
is able to analyse, synthesise and collate information, relate
it to an information purpose and interpret the results in the
light of their own knowledge. The more the information overload,
the more the multiplicity and sophistication of information technologies,
the higher level of information literacy needed. Increasingly
that information is likely to come from people, possibly through
the medium of technology, and not from traditional libraries or
even papers by academics even if they are published on the Internet.
What we need is not technologically sophisticated teachers, but
teachers who teach their subjects with passion and depth of knowledge
and push knowledge and insist that, however it is presented, wordprocessed,
multimedia projected or whatever, it is knowledge, not superficial
infogloss technospinspeak or, simply self-seeking spinspeak and
muck. It is not EASY to bring teachers up to speed with technology,
but it is a lot easier than it is to inspire lacklustre teachers.
When you unpack them like this, that these seven myths seems
so self-evident that you may wonder why I have wasted your time
stating the obvious. I do not apologise.
The obvious is not so easily spotted when it is embedded in the
rhetoric of teaching and the reality of the everyday life of an
educational institution where priorities seldom seem to relate
to the quality of learning or thought processes!
When you feel you have to do more and more with larger class
sizes, you either try everything and burn out (which I am seeing
happening increasingly), or you do exactly what has served you
well in the past and no more (contrary to media opinion, I don't
see much of this), or you pin your faith on panaceas, myth and
The trouble is that you only need one or two people to rave about
how something worked in their classrooms (I'm not denying that
it did; we all know that if you're enthusiastic enough about something
your kids will love it and, as such, it 'works') for it to become
mythologised as a good thing and for teachers to feel vaguely
guilty and inadequate if they are not doing it with their kids.
A lot of the work with IT-based learning has come into this category.
I don't have a problem with a lot of what has been done by IT
enthusiasts. Much of it HAS been excellent. What I have a problem
with is people who go to conferences and think 'Right, if we raise
money and get that stuff and stick it into our schools, the same
things will happen'.
All I am saying is teach children to learn, teach children to
think, model it and monitor it daily, and then design really potent
and persuasive contexts for them to use technology to support
their learning, and you WILL be amazed at the results.
Leave out teaching them to learn, teaching them to think; leave
out the day-by-day modelling and monitoring and it doesn't matter
what technology you provide, they will probably 'enjoy' it, they
will probably, initially anyway, be more motivated, but they will
learn no better and acquire no more knowledge than they would
have without that technology. So, take these 7 myths back to your
schools and ask, not just hypothetically, but collegially in a
series of staff meetings, what evidence there is that they are
not alive and well in your school. You haven't got time? Well,
that's my point. Schools that haven't got time for learning are
in deep trouble.