How Should We Teach Information Literacy in Schools?

chalkboard-lessonQ: When the majority of information moves from print to digital form, we need a new set of critical skills in order to find what we need and use if properly. Many students get to college without having learned much in the way of information literacy, although professors often expect it was already taught. How should schools teach kids about finding good materials for research? About plagiarism? About finding authoritative sources online?

Growing up, I attended six different schools before high school, thanks to my father’s occupation.  In four different countries and three different states in the Midwest, I was exposed to a larger than average number of subjects, teachers, and learning styles.

Despite these differences, I felt that I received a well-rounded education.  Although certain aspects of the learning process changed from school to school, one thing remained constant: my information literacy education.

Every year my classmates and I were drilled on various aspects of good research, including not only a review of the technical aspects of citation, but also the identification of trusted sources and the avoidance of untrustworthy ones for our projects.  By the time I entered college, I was more than ready to tackle the requirements and challenges of writing an original piece of research.

As positive as my own experiences were, it seems that teaching information literacy varies significantly among schools, and is alarmingly lacking in many.

Perhaps it is due to the large range of topics that are covered under the umbrella of “information literacy,” a lack of the understanding of its importance, or simply a lack of resources.

In light of such obstacles, information literacy as a subject should be considered just as essential to students as English or mathematics.  So then, what should students learn, and how should it be taught in schools?

The only real world example I have been exposed to, other than my own education, has been at the high needs ESL magnet school I taught at for the last three years.  As part of their electives course, middle school students are required to take a Library Skills class for a trimester each year.

This skills class is basically what its title implies–skills necessary to navigate the library and the computer skills required to research and find the right information for various projects.  Students participate in various activities, including a scavenger hunt through the library to find different items, as well as a worksheet geared towards internet research.

The class is a helpful introduction to the world of information literacy, especially for students who have not had much exposure to these ideas; however, the responsibility of such a vast and interdisciplinary topic should not simply be limited to the librarian. Such courses should be reviewed consistently in any subject that requires research—which in fact, is every subject in school.  Teachers should be able to take time to teach the subject without the pressures of other topics in their curriculum—information literacy is after all, a life skill.

Undoubtedly, teaching such a vast subject is a challenging task in itself.  Given its crucial importance, what should be a priority to those new to the topic?  I believe the two most important themes that teachers must strive to teach their pupils is to create original material without plagiarizing, and identify reliable and unreliable sources on the internet.

As a teacher, my frustrations with plagiarism at the middle school level are constant and widespread.  In a school where English is the second language and where most students come from refugee backgrounds, plagiarism is not only a complicated sounding word but a difficult concept to understand without thorough explanation. Therefore, copying word-for-word from texts is an extremely commonplace mistake that students make, without thinking about or comprehending the legal and ethical implications.

Thankfully, teachers at my school are extremely proactive about combating this problem by taking time out of class to address plagiarism.  Though the teachers at my school are commendable in their efforts, a more concrete solution should exist: a built-in curriculum should address such issues, working as a safety net before students have a chance to make these mistakes.

Similarly, educating students on internet resources is one of the most important parts of information literacy education.  Where the internet is so dominant in the lives of the students, the belief that “the internet is always right” is extremely widespread among younger students, as I have learned in several conversations with my own students.

Although combing through internet sources and determining which ones are dependable is up to the discretion of the student, teachers can aid in this process by informing students of specific indicators that may suggest the legitimacy of sites, as well as red flags that might discount others.  No student is too young to begin honing these skills, and the more students are exposed to these aspects of information literacy, the better academic and life skills they will gain as they progress into their older years.

While it is difficult to prescribe one style of educating students on information literacy, what is certain is that it needs to be taught in an interdisciplinary setting.  Without such knowledge, students will make serious mistakes down the road, where plagiarism or inability to cite sources can lead to suspensions, expulsions, and other serious consequences.  Although teachers have done a great job introducing and upholding its values, a more consistent approach should be implemented nationwide, so that no student is denied the chance to learn such a valuable and essential life skill.

young-eun-parkYoung-Eun Park is a middle school ESL teacher at a high needs school in Denver. She is interested in exploring various issues relating to education and technology.

Photo: hisks

 

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