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2000 Robyn Boswell: Future Problem Solving - NZ kids foot it

2000 Alan Cooper: Thinking to learn

2000 Gwen Gawith: Information literacy in action at SCONZ

2000 Gwen Gawith: Blooming questions

1999 Art Costa: An interview with Art Costa

1999 Robyn Boswell: International Future Problem Solving success

1999 Gwen Gawith: The survival of the book: Co-existing with Gog and Magog

1999 Gwen Gawith: Lost the plot: Reading for what?

1999 Gwen Gawith: Rushkoff and visual literacy

1999 Gwen Gawith: KFL: Knowledge Free learning?

1998 Gwen Gawith: Ban projects: Teach information literacy

1998 Gwen Gawith: The cry for deep learning…

1998 Gwen Gawith: The Mercury model of information literacy

1998 David Hyerle: Thinking literacy in an age of ICT

1998 Pauline Donaldson: A virtual classroom with 3500 students

1997 Jeff Bruce and Gwen Gawith: information literacy and Infolink

1997 Gwen Gawith: How to ? or not to?: That is the ?

1997 Gwen Gawith: Unlocking learning: Key words

1996 Gwen Gawith: Epistemic fluency or the cognitive trots!

1995 Gwen Gawith: A serious look at self-efficacy: waking beeping Slooty!

1993 Gwen Gawith: The National Curriculum and the information process

information literacy:
learning & thinking

The Mercury Model of Information Literacy : Strike a dark light

Timaru Principals' Conference June 1998 : Keynote address

Gwen Gawith

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 of IT
  • restoration of cognitive operationality
  • cognitive by-pass technology

Unrealised rhetoric of IT

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 critical discrimination.

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 and authority

• 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 the answer.

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 learn.

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 important things'...

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 to you.

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 and learning.

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 and authority

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 valuable knowledge.

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 shonk merchants.

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.