In a recent opinion piece for Education Central (https://educationcentral.co.nz/opinion-peter-lyons-the-dilemma-of-traditional-media-in-the-information-age/ ), Peter Lyons comments on the decline of traditional media and argues that, with the advent of alternative media, “we are living in the age of fake news, [w]here information and disinformation is bombarding our young people”. We could go further. We could point to the filter bubbles and echo chambers that have emerged from search engine algorithms which make it difficult for our young people to encounter balanced perspectives. We could put a spotlight on the wilful use of dog whistling political rhetoric aimed at reinvigorating established biases and creating social anxiety. Without sophisticated digital information skills, our young people are vulnerable to the reductive simplicity of interest groups whose motives are a threat to the values of our society.
It is said that we are living in an information age, but it could equally be argued that we are in the midst of an information crisis – a crisis that genuinely threatens a society based on the principles of tolerance and diversity. The events following the Christchurch massacres provide a grim illustration of the seriousness of this problem: the gunman’s ‘manifesto’ and video of the attacks, intended to inspire other such attacks, spread like wildfire (see https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/christchurch-shooting/111605530/how-youtube-spreads-extremist-ideas-that-inspire-events-like-the-christchurch-mosque-shootings),.
I would also agree with Peter Lyons that education is an essential weapon in combatting this threat. That it is here, in our schools, that we need to equip students with critically informed skills to search for information beyond Google’s filter bubbles, to grapple with and evaluate conflicting information, and to understand what it means to use information ethically. And I agree that teachers are uniquely positioned to equip our students with these skills.
But are teachers equipped with the skills and the environment in which to do this important work? Research in other countries shows that secondary school students’ capacity to engage critically with digital sources is, in the words of one researcher, “bleak” (Stanford History Education Group, 2016, p. 4). And in our own country, our recent study of students starting a first year university business course showed that 42% of students reported that they never or rarely question who wrote a piece of information; 33% of students rarely question whether something they read is true and accurate; and almost 40% describe themselves as having limited capacity to judge whether information is good quality or not.
If teachers have the capacity to equip students with the information literacy skills they need, shouldn’t those results be better than this? Indeed, after five years of researching information literacy in the senior secondary school, I’m not sure that the majority of teachers have, in some respects, any more capacity to navigate our complex digital information world than the average literate adult – or, indeed, their charges seated in front of them. Our teachers are fully equipped to engage with and teach the cognitive tasks associated with critically analysing information, but many may not be familiar, technologically, with alternative or complex search strategies, ways to circumvent the power of algorithms, or even how to access the databases available to them through their school.
Let me be very clear: this is not a reflection on our teachers. We value all that they do and recognise the competing – surely, at times, overwhelming – demands of a modern-day classroom. And most teachers were trained before the true extent of “fake news” and digital misinformation was fully understood; for those trained more recently, there is insufficient space within initial teacher education to fully grapple with these issues.
Part of the problem may also lie in the positioning of information literacy within the New Zealand Curriculum (2007), which makes no specific reference in its ‘front half’ to Information Literacy Skills per se, but interprets these skills more globally as those that underpin lifelong learning, effective citizenship and core Competencies. The representation of ILS in the ‘back half’ of the NZC as skills specific to the demands of disciplinary (or subject content) learning means that, without explicitly articulated goals for information literacy within and across the curriculum’s disciplines, information literacy skills may, in some disciplines, become invisible to teachers and learners alike, with the consequence that explicit instruction in information literacy skills may be minimised or overlooked entirely.
Furthermore, the key school resource, who is ideally equipped to help teachers understand information literacy skills in their teaching context and support them with the delivery of these skills in the curriculum – the school librarian – is generally marginalised and de-professionalised, seen as little more than the collector and curator of the school’s book collection. Again, our research shows (Emerson et al., 2018) that many teachers are not fully aware of professional expertise offered by the library services in their school or the librarians’ capacity to support the information literacy skills of their senior students. It is surely telling that that school libraries are not mentioned in the recent Tomorrow’s Schools Independent Task Force report (2018) – even though other professional adjunct staff such as itinerant music teachers are mentioned. As Ken Kilpin argues, we might hope that “the absence of specific school library/librarian references is merely an accident of omission. But I can’t help but think that this reflects and continues a tradition of invisibility, of libraries and school librarians being there in schools under-recognised, under-valued and under-paid” (Kilpin, 2019).
So where do we go from here? We can start by recognising the importance of the problem. Peter Lyons is entirely right: our students urgently need the skills to navigate a world of fake news, echo chambers, dog whistlers, and information saturation. And our schools are the right place to begin this work. What do we do next? I have several suggestions:
- We position information literacy intentionally and explicitly within the curriculum and we start to use the language of information literacy to inform our disciplinary practice in the classroom.
- We make the inclusion of information literacy skills instruction a compulsory and obvious feature in secondary teacher training programmes, within and across the qualification’s professional and disciplinary courses.
- We roll out information literacy professional learning development into schools across the country to equip our teachers with the knowledge they need to teach these essential skills to our citizens of tomorrow.
- We reposition library services in our schools, reconceptualising the librarian as a professional information literacy expert and bringing them into our classrooms to work with students.
- We develop systemic change that encourages schools to recognise the place of collaborative practice between teachers and librarians to deliver a superior level of consistency in ILS across subject disciplines and levels to ALL students.
This can be done. In our research, we have been doing exactly this with six schools and the results have been outstanding, for our teachers and for our students.
Peter Lyons makes the comment that for all the information we have access to “we seem to be regressing to more fractured polarised societies”. We know why this is happening. We know how to make a change. Let’s make these changes happen now.
Emerson, L., et al (2018). Under-recognised, underused, and undervalued: School libraries and librarians in New Zealand secondary school curriculum planning and delivery. Curriculum Matters 14: 48-86
Kilpin, K. (2019) Is presence by inference good enough? Retrieved from: https://informationliteracyspaces.wordpress.com/2019/04/05/is-presence-by-inference-good-enough/
Stanford History Education Group. 2016. Evaluation information: The cornerstone of civic online reasoning. Retrieved from: https://sheg.stanford.edu/upload/V3LessonPlans/Executive%20Summary%2011.21.16.pdf
Tomorrow’s schools independent taskforce (2018). Our schooling futures: better together. Te Whiria Nga Kura Tuatinitini. Ministry of Education.
Lisa Emerson is Director of Teaching and Learning for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Massey University, and the co-PI for a three year TLRI-funded project Transforming information literacy space(s) to support student learning (see https://informationliteracyspaces.wordpress.com/ to follow the project blog). The research team for this project includes teachers and librarians from the secondary and tertiary sectors: Ken Kilpin, Senga White, Heather Lamond, Catherine Doughty, Angela Feekery, Anne Macaskill, Anna Greenhow, Rose O’Connor, and Peter Rawlins. As well as acknowledging the outstanding work of her team, Dr Emerson would also like to acknowledge the wise mentoring of Rose Hipkins from the TLRI, and the passion and perseverance of the teachers and librarians who have been partners in this research.