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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

Ban projects - begin teaching information literacy...

This article was published in Good Teacher Term 3 1998

Gwen Gawith

There's a nice new term for it - synchronicity. By happy coincidence Gael Woods, education reporter from Radio NZ, rings me in the same week that I'm going to the NEMP forum where educators from all over New Zealand are considering the implications of the 1997 NEMP national monitoring of information skills, social studies and maths at years 4 and 8. Gael is interested in the 'project' phenomenon, and specifically how many parents appear to invest a considerable amount of time on their offsprings' projects. Could I explain how projects help children to learn? Well, um...

Suddenly I'm forced to surface, examine and articulate the recognition that has been growing steadily more uncomfortable in the years that I've been teaching information skills, writing books on information skills and researching information skills for my PhD. It's a recognition that will challenge many teachers who will see it as a contradiction of the very things I've been saying, writing and teaching for many years. I think that:

Projects are often a totally overdone excuse for not very good teaching practice and minimal learning outcomes. If you think my 'Infolink' course is a synonym for projects, I think you should read this article carefully.

Now that this heretical thought is out in the public confessional, I'll use the NEMP results to try to justify my concern, and to present alternatives.

Let's start with the NEMP report on the national monitoring of information skills at years 4/8. Information skills are one of the eight essential skills of the National Curriculum Framework. They are supposed to be taught in the context of each of the seven Essential Learning Areas at every level. Because information skills are pervasive across the curriculum, information skills will obviously be monitored in every learning area, but:

Despite the substantial coverage of information skills in other reports, it was always intended that national monitoring would include one set of assessment specifically focused on information skills, with special emphasis on skills which would be covered only lightly or unsystematically in other reports. These skills included developing appropriate questions, finding suitable sources of information, searching those sources for specific information needed, and interpreting, collating and reporting that information (NEMP 1998: 10).

The NEMP Framework (page 12) is set out into 3 blocks representing strategies, skills and processes needed for:

- Clarifying information needs

- Finding and gathering information

- Analysing and using information

The NEMP tasks were an interesting, thorough and well-researched way of evaluating the separate areas that comprise 'the information process'.

The most important message emerging from the framework is that students possessing well developed information skills can perform three main tasks effectively: clarifying information needs and formulating good questions, finding and gathering information that is relevant to the questions, and then analysing and using that information to answer the questions. A substantial proportion of the intellectual demands occur during the first and third of these tasks: finding information is clearly important, but its value is greatly dependent on the extent to which it can be validly interpreted and used to answer important questions (NEMP 1998a: 12).

The results were unambiguous. At both years 4 and 8 students had more success locating information than they did with the first and third areas - clarifying information needs, formulating good questions, and analysing and using the information they located to answer the questions. In other words the bits that require location of information are substantially healthier than the bits that require higher order thinking skills of selection, rejection, analysis, synthesis and interpretation of information. This was true of both information skills and social studies. This should not have been unexpected given student performance in 1996 on the NEMP reading and speaking assessment tasks:

Year 8 students performed substantially better than year 4 students on tasks involving reading comprehension, but few students were able to give full answers to questions that required them to construct and write their own answers rather than select from multiple choice options. Many students were also challenged when required to adjust their reading technique to suit a particular purpose, such as skimming quickly to find key information (NEMP 1997: 4).

The 1997 Social Studies Report reflects findings that reinforce these concerns about students' difficulty in using whatever you like to call them - higher order thinking , critical thinking, analytical, interpretation, inferential, information processing skills:

...but many students at both levels had difficulty identifying and interpreting important messages that lay behind the surface of the situations they were asked to consider. Many also struggled to identify key features of different social and cultural environments, and their implications for life in those environments. A high proportion of students had difficulty identifying the merits of both sides of a debate and then forming fair, balanced conclusions (NEMP 1998b: 4).

When students have done project after project, it is also a concern to realise the paucity of their general knowledge, even about their own country:

However, a substantial proportion even of year 8 students displayed major gaps in their knowledge of key information about New Zealand and the world. For instance, Mount Cook, Waitangi and Cape Reinga were placed in the wrong island by over 20% of year 8 students (NEMP 1998b: 5).

Gael Wood's question hit to the heart of the dilemma. "If projects are to get children to develop knowledge, why do they appear to have so little knowledge?" Good question. I tried to explain to Gael that projects have been acknowledged as an excellent way for students to develop knowledge through guided enquiry since the 1800's. Used well they are STILL the best way, given certain preconditions and prerequisites. "Such as?" Such as:

students needing sufficient background knowledge and enthusiasm to find out more about the topic...

students needing to be guided to develop their own questions (even year 1's need more than one question)...

students needing to recognise simple 'fact' questions and more challenging 'thinking' questions and ask the factual questions first to gather a foundation of factual information before asking thinking questions...

students needing to be helped to ask questions flexibly, and to see that answers don't 'pop' out and hit you in the eyeball, but need to be built from what you read and saw and heard...

students needing to be helped to recognise the relevance of what they saw, heard and read and to select and compare what they retrieved and decide what the key ideas were and THINK about them and discuss them...

students needing help to recognise that information only becomes knowledge when it is processed through the MIND - thought about, gutted, stripped, analysed, discussed...

"Yes", she said, speaking from firsthand knowledge, "I see. But, if so, why are so many parents still doing their kids' projects?" We laughed about parents who meet in the library to discuss what they'd got for 'their' latest project, and to get material for the next one. The explanation below might be simplistic, but I think it's worth considering in the light of the NEMP monitoring, bearing in mind that this is not anecdotal evidence, but a true picture of what children can and can't do, their strengths and weaknesses, on tasks that are both fair and relevant.

I think that the major problem with 'projects' is that few ever go beyond the information gathering and pasting up stages that result when students (or their parents) head off with one or two questions to 'find information'. Even when information related to the questions is pasted up, manually or electronically as paper-based or multimedia projects, this information has seldom been compared, analysed, thought about or discussed to the point that it has truly become knowledge.

Computers have, if anything, exacerbated the problem. A's for slabs of pasted up Encarta that look good? Plagiarised slabs of Internet are now the order of the day at Secondary and University. Everyone laughs when you remind them of the 'project syndrome' - children painstakingly lettering the project title, and drawing a pretty border before pasting up some pictures and slabs of text - what is known as 'information pastiche' or 'collectomania'. But the project syndrome is alive and well. Computers have added a bewildering variety of fonts, and unartistic children are much happier, I suspect, with a world of clipart and downloading potential at their fingertips. But has having the world of information at their fingertips actually improved the way they process - select, reject, analyse and interpret - the information in order to transform it into knowledge? The NEMP findings indicate the opposite.

There is evidence of what I call cognitive bypass learning - where facts come through the keyboard or pages and land on the screen or a bit of paper without being processed through the mind. If all you ever do is paste up, manually or electronically, information that you find, if you never need to think about it, wrestle mentally with the concepts, compare, contrast, select, reject, collate and make inferences from it, you might be computer literate but you are certainly NOT INFORMATION LITERATE.

The problem is not the project method, but what we're doing with it. My 1984 Action Learning model suggests six main iterative stages which learners use by toggling backwards and forwards:

1. Deciding what you need to know, formulating questions.

2. Finding information from a variety of sources and media.

3. Skimming and scanning to get the gist and select relevant information.

4. Recording only what you need to answer your questions in the most economic form.

5. Presenting the key messages using a variety of media.

6. Evaluating each stage - the process and the product - as you go.

Clearly, the NEMP study shows that Stage 2 is reasonably well done at both years 4 and 8, but that Stages 1, 3 and 4 need more work.

The heart of a project is being able to get the gist of a subject, and to work out the key ideas or arguments, and to find evidence to support these ideas and arguments. In order to do this the learner must be able to scan and skim, sort , sift, select and reject information, analyse it, think about it, compare it, relate it, examine it, etc etc etc. Students who can do this have no problem with secondary essays or research and will transfer these analytical skills easily to a tertiary learning context. If students are not developing these skills, the problem is not with the project method but with what we're doing with it.

10% of New Zealand primary and secondary teachers have done the 175 hour Infolink course. This is a world first. Clearly our students are performing reasonably well on finding and gathering information - possibly better than students in other countries. If we were to pay more attention to the questions students ask, and how we guide students to process the information they retrieve through their heads, we could be doing better. These skills are infinitely teachable. Yes, it takes time, but if time is not invested little-by-little year-by-year, by the time they get to secondary and tertiary, even more time needs to be invested in remedial work.

The Getting a handle on information literacy booklet which is free to Good Teacher subscribers tackles these processes of clarifying information needs and analysing and processing information. The NEMP study is a timely reminder that the information age will require students with more sophisticated information literacy skills, and that we, as teachers need to see this as a key area for our own professional development.


NEMP (1998a) Information skills: Assessment results: 1997. Dunedin: EARU.

NEMP (1998b) Social studies: Assessment results: 1997. Dunedin: EARU.

NEMP (1997) Reading and speaking: Assessment results : 1996 Dunedin: EARU.