What I’ve learned about information literacy from teaching it

Image by Wilhan José Gomes wjgomes from Pixabay

Recently, someone paraphrased a famous quote to me that the best way to learn about a subject is to try to teach it to someone else. Partly this is due to the inherent challenge of having to learn something well enough to be able to explain it to another person but it also gets at how your understanding of a topic can grow and change through the act of teaching it.

I don’t know who the quote was originally from (my friend didn’t either) but the idea stuck with me. It got me thinking about what I’ve learned about information literacy as a subject in the time that I’ve been teaching it.

What I came up with was this:

Information literacy is more than library skills

When I first started in the department I work in now, I was a graduate student and the name of the department was “User Education.” I didn’t really know what that meant going in but I got a clue pretty quickly when I was asked to do a tour of the library on my second day of work.(1) Based on that and some of the other tasks I was given, which included updating handouts that helped users understand things like call numbers, I understood that my job was basically to help people figure out how to use the library (hence: user education). And when I taught my first Standards-based information literacy class? Well, that was also essentially about helping students learn how to use the library.

Eventually, the name of the department was changed to “Information Literacy” but for a while its focus remained on user education because that was what users and colleagues had come to expect from those of us who worked there. I continued to teach my IL class as a “how to use the library” class.

I don’t know when exactly I realized that information literacy was about more than teaching students about library skills. I mean, I was always interested in teaching information literacy concepts as well as skills. In fact, my favorite part of the courses I taught in the first few years of my professional life was at the end when I taught students about copyright and ownership of information. But mostly I taught library skills because that was how I’d seen it done and I thought that that was what was expected of me.

Somewhere along the way, though, I realized that teaching these skills was not meaningful to students. Teaching students a library database might help them locate scholarly sources for a research paper but it didn’t make them better researchers in a larger sense. It didn’t change how they thought about information or how they thought of themselves as users and creators of information. If I wanted my instruction to have more of an impact, I needed to stop teaching information literacy as a set of library research skills.

Luckily, the Framework came along just in time to give me justification for doing this. And I started a job in a department where I was given a lot of freedom to decide how I wanted to shape my course. So while library-based research skills are still an element of what I teach (or, in the case of one-shot sessions, the main focus), my goal has shifted. For me, information literacy isn’t about library skills anymore. It’s about better understanding ourselves as users and creators of information.

Speaking of which.

 

It’s about creating and sharing information, not just using it

When I first started teaching, a popular method for helping students learn about the importance of evaluating information was to give them a hoax website and ask them to assess what they found, only revealing after their evaluation that the information on the site was fake.(2) This was meant to show them that bad information is not always obvious at first glance.

I imagine that lessons on fake news and confirmation bias have largely replaced the ones on hoax websites these days. I also discuss these things in my own teaching, albeit in limited ways. Which is to say, I think it’s important to make students aware that confirmation bias exists and the ways in which it can affect their searches for information, but I don’t actually believe that teaching students how to properly evaluate sources is an effective way of addressing the issue. Confirmation bias is just too deeply ingrained in all of us for that to be the case.

Besides which, I’ve come to believe that teaching students how to be responsible consumers of information only goes so far if you don’t also teach them how to be responsible creators (and sharers) of information.

This involves first convincing students that they are, in fact, creators of information, which is a lot more challenging than it sounds. Until recently, I would start my IL course by asking students to contribute to a discussion by describing the type of information they create and who they generally share it with. A large percentage of students would respond to the discussion by saying, “I don’t really create information, but…” And then go on to describe a perfectly reasonable example of the information that they do, in fact, create.

They didn’t realize that what they create “counts” or that it matters because often they are only creating it for themselves or sharing it with small audiences. Maybe some friends who follow their private Instagram account. I have to help them realize that this information does, in fact, count. That it has an impact. Sometimes that impact is intended. Sometimes it’s not.

So now I have a whole unit in my course devoted to teaching students that they’re creators of information and why that matters because I’ve come to believe that getting them to think critically about the information they’re putting out into the world is just as important as getting them to apply the CRAAP test to a website they found through a Google search before citing that website as a source for their research.

 

The real challenge is in application

Students’ annotated bibliographies drive me crazy. This was especially true when I was using the annotated bibliographies as the culminating project in my course. I had taught them so much about finding and evaluating information, or so I thought. And yet they were still choosing sources based on convenience and whether or not the source agreed with their thesis. They would pick a source that was twenty years out of date just because it came up first in their search and “seemed relevant.”

My students know better because I’ve taught them better. They know that prioritizing convenience over currency is a choice that comes with certain risks but they’re still making that choice anyway. They’re essentially choosing not to apply what they have learned.

In some respects, this is a “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink” type of scenario.

But really, this is just how our interactions with information generally work—at least, that’s what studies of confirmation bias seem to suggest. Even I do it. I’m thinking of a Google search I did a while back to try to find out if a grain-free diet was actually healthy for my cat. Before I even started, I had an idea of what I wanted to find and when I found a source that seemed reasonably credible and contained information that I was comfortable believing, I didn’t look further. I didn’t seek out multiple viewpoints and weigh each one carefully. I didn’t dig deeper to find other sources that would confirm the information in the one I’d already found. I just decided to settle for what I had. I mean, who has time for those other steps?(3)

I know better because this is what I teach. What I study. But human nature is what it is, which is why the real battle with information literacy isn’t so much in teaching the concepts and skills but actually getting people to put them into practice in everyday life. Because you can teach yourself and your students how to recognize misinformation in all its evolving guises until the cow comes home but it doesn’t mean anything unless we actually apply what we’ve learned.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. In some ways, this is a lesson I’m still learning.

 

Either way, information literacy has taught me a lot in the years that I’ve been teaching it and I look forward to learning more.

*

(1) Incidentally, this was also my second day in the library. Ever. And it’s not a small library. To give the tour, I basically memorized an online tutorial I found highlighting the different sections and services in the library. Apparently I did an okay job. Ten years later, this same library gave me tenure.

(2) The Tree Octopus was my go-to for this particular lesson, but there were others, including a website that appeared to be about Martin Luther King Jr. but was actually run by a white nationalist group. I can’t even imagine using an example like that in a classroom today.

(3) To be clear, I’m much more thorough when, for example, conducting a literature review for a paper I hope to publish.

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