The Strength of Weak Ties

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Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Grim Reality

I’ve read with interest the latest posts from David Warlick, Will Richardson, and Jon Pederson on information literacy.

Let me begin by stating that I think the skills embedded in what it means to be information literate are the most important skills not taught in schools today. Very few school districts have dedicated information literacy programs in place (Mankato, Minnesota is an exception). Efforts are haphazard at best, and confined to the classrooms of the most perceptive and effective teachers.

In a great percentage of classrooms (I’m talking high school here) the classroom teacher is still seen as the content expert, certainly a very traditional role and one honored and defended at all costs by most teachers. In one of David’s recent posts on information and authority, he wrote:

In the information environment that most of us grew up in, there were gatekeepers for the information. They were publishers, librarians, teachers, preachers, etc.

I’m wondering if the teacher, preacher thing was accidental (I’m sure it was, David!) and I don’t mean to take the quote out of context. But the notion of preaching content is something that is not accidental-it happens every day in every high school and leads to disinterest, a lack of motivation in students, and a disconnect between what we really need to do with kids and what is being done. Now I am not saying a teacher shouldn’t know his or her content-they should. When I taught biology, I needed to tell kids how homeostasis was maintained in the human body-this subject required me to stand in front of kids and lecture from the standpoint of the content expert. That was the best way, because it required the skills of a professional educator to explain it because it is an extremely difficult concept for kids.

But kids should have a chance to be the content experts when they can! For instance, kids are fully capable of understanding cell division on their own-so, turn them loose with an activity like this (a VisualQuest, called CancerQuest) where they are placed in an authentic setting, given an essential question, (How does a cell go from one cell to two? Interestingly, this could also be a social studies question-how does a country go from one to two?), given resources (all present visual information about the topic because being visually literate is part of being information literate), and ask them to negotiate meaning in collaborative groups. Activities like this certainly do not teach every component of information literacy, but it is a beginning and being able to interpret visual information is an absolute critical part of today’s information environment.

Teachers need to step aside and allow students to be builders of knowledge when it is appropriate and approachable for kids. Pick and choose the times and watch learning come alive.

I believe that one way to teach the skills of an information literate person is to teach through inquiry. There is a very direct relationship between information literacy and inquiry (see the relationship here)-the savvy administrator or teacher will realize that through inquiry, students can learn the skills of information literacy. Perhaps we should tackle this problem not through a dedicated information literacy program, but through a change in pedagogical practice. Just a thought….

Like Will, I also worry about the current state of understanding among adults, including educators. At a recent program on information literacy that I did, a teacher indicated that the most the most important outcome of the event was that she had realized that she was obsolete. I’m wondering what the teacher will do to change that self-perception.? Will the person make the effort to understand the current reality? Will the teacher be willing to rethink her classroom role, and make the necessary adjustments?

I get very frustrated when I talk with teachers and they refuse to see that education needs to change, that instruction needs to change and their role needs to change. I’ve seen much resistance from this from teachers, to the point of being challenged that such change will ultimately be counterproductive. But I believe these challenges from teachers arise because they see the education world changing, slowly but still changing, and realize that their methodology of practice is outdated and limited in effectiveness as measured against the needs of today’s student.