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Will we now take information literacy skills seriously?

I keep having to bite my tongue a lot late from muttering, "People are idiots." I am sure many are doing the same when they look at me. But there you are. 

The recent brouhaha over the term "alternate facts" makes it seem like everything people have been reading in the media and online has been true up until Trump was elected president.

Librarians have always known better. We've been advocating for information literacy for at least 20 years - tha all people need to be critical users of information and ideas. The snippet below is from an article I had published in 2001. Check out skill #3 "Learn to tell the good berries from the bad berries."

Any many folks like Mike Eisenberg and Kathy Shrock were way ahead of me in this advocacy.

If you'd prefer, read the same message from someone a lot smarter and younger than I am (Jennifer LaGarde) that was just published yesterday. Seriously, click the link and read it!



Survival Skills for the Information Jungle: Information Problem-Solving Activities Are More Important Than Ever Creative Classroom August 2001 - Doug Johnson

Information jungle survival tips
Most jungles  can be confusing and even dangerous to the inexperienced traveler. The sheer abundance of resources and multitude of paths to them demand the explorer have special skills if they are to be used in constructive ways. Find below six Information Jungle Survival Tips for teachers and students.

Information jungle survival skill 1: Know where you are going and make sure the trip’s worthwhile.
How do your research questions stack up? Helping students prepare good questions to answer or problems to solve using information is more important than ever for a number of reasons:

  1. The vast amount of information available makes research that tries to be exhaustive impossible for nearly every topic. Even in the Information Desert days students would often take a subject like World War II as their research topic. I would then show them the volumes already written on the subject and ask if they really wanted to rewrite all of that information. A clever way of helping students narrow the focus of their research is by helping them find a question, preferably of personal interest, about the broader topic. For the student who wants World War II as a topic, the teacher or librarian might ask, “What other interests do you have?” A student who expresses an interest in horses might then try to answer the question. “Did horses play a part in the battles of World War II?”
  2. Plagiarism can only be avoided by having the learner ask genuine questions that require original higher-level thinking. Plagiarism has come of age on the Internet. Now when Mr. Fogy assigns a paper on the Olympics of Ancient Greece, the savvy student heads for a site like <> where a variety of papers are available for downloading on that topic. The copy, paste, find, and replace commands used with an electronic encyclopedia and word processing program make quick work of a topic that does not ask for any original thought on the part of the writer. However change Mr. Fogy’s assignment to read, “How would your favorite athlete of today have done in the Olympics of Ancient Greece?” The student now not only needs factual information but must apply the higher level thinking skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation – and those cannot be downloaded.
  3. In order for all students to master information literacy skills, the problem or question must be of interest to the individual. Teachers who recognize the core knowledge to be gained through a problem-solving process understand that students can still make topic choices. If the purpose of an activity is to help students understand how the geography of a state affects its economy, it shouldn’t make much difference to the teacher if the student looks at Florida, Nebraska, or Oregon. But it may make a big difference to the student who has a favorite state. Personal choice leads to intrinsic motivation.

Information jungle survival skill 2: Learn to stay on the main trail to avoid the quicksand of irrelevant information.
Searching for information on the Internet is a pretty simple affair. Find a search engine like Google or Excite or Lycos, type a term in the search box, and find hundreds, if not thousands, of possible sources. Students need three different skills to help them improve the results of such searches:

  1. Start with the best search engine: Google <> sorts results by interpreting the number of links to a page as an indicator of that pages value. It seems to work. Ask Jeeves <> allows users to ask natural language questions. Students and adults should get to know one or two search engines well.
  2. Use advanced search operators in constructing a search. The more descriptive the term searched, the better the results. A search on “twins” will provide links to both siblings and the baseball team. Using the Boolean operator NOT (twins not baseball), will cut down on the number of hits returned.
  3. Discriminate relevant hits from irrelevant. A child using a search engine to find information about “cougars” is as likely to find pages on sports teams and automobiles as big cats. Most search engines return some descriptors that indicate the general topic of the page. Students need to read these and determine those relevant to their needs. This is especially true in districts without Internet filters when students search on topics that might have sexual connotations.

By the way, another overlooked “skill” that needs to be reinforced is that the Internet is not always the best place to look for information. A 45 minute Internet search for the population of Bolivia can be done instead with a 3 minute search in library’s current World Almanac.

Information jungle survival skill 3: Learn to tell the good berries from the bad berries.
Joey Rogers, Executive Director of the Urban Library Council, observes that libraries should have two large signs in them. The first hanging over the stacks that reads “Carefully selected by trained professionals” and the other hanging over the Internet terminals that reads “Whatever.”

Even very young students can and should be learning to tell the bad information berries from the good ones. Since junior high students often make websites that often look better than those of college professors, we teach students to look:

  • For the same information from multiple sources.
  • At the age of the page.
  • At the credentials of the author.
  • For unstated bias by the page author or sponsor.

Kathy Schrock has a wonderful, comprehensive webpage on website evaluation at <>

As students use research to solve problems about controversial social and ethical issues, the ability to evaluate and defend one’s choice of information source becomes very important. See side bar 5 below.

Information jungle survival skill 4: Don’t just gather sticks. Make something with them.
Traditional research assignments asked students to gather factual information and present it in an organized fashion. But if problem-solving activities are to help students master critical thinking skills, they must also require that learners:

  • Organize information to help determine importance and spot trends
  • Determine the importance of discrete pieces of data
  • Anticipate critics of the findings or solutions and be able to defend one’s choices
  • Offer conclusions and solutions that show insight and creativity
  • Advocate an action or actions that can be taken by the audience of the research findings

This is how information problem skills will be used throughout students’ lives. Whether using information to select a community in which to live, political candidate for whom to vote, or camera to purchase, we gather sticks of information for the purpose of determining a course of action.

Information jungle survival skill 5: Learn to play the jungle drums (and remember, others are listening)
One of technology’s very best attributes is how much it can help us improve the communication process. Most technology curricula include how to use a word processor, desktop publishing software, spreadsheets, databases, presentation programs and video cameras. Increasingly, students are learning how to create webpages and do digital editing. Learning such technologies simply for the sake of learning them leads to what consultant Jamison McKenzie <> calls “PowerPointlessness.” Glitzy webpages, noisy hypermedia presentations or colorful brochures that are very short on content are too often the result of “computer classes” that disregard content area learning.

Using technology to communicate the findings of a problem-based activity keeps this from happening. The emphasis is not on the use of the technology, but the effectiveness of the information problem-solving process that includes communicating one’s findings.

Technology has also made it possible for students to have a much wider audience looking at and reacting to the results of their projects. For example, findings reported on webpages can be shared with students around the world as well as with family and community members. Broad audiences create students who are more conscientious about their work. 

Information jungle survival skill 6: Prepare for the next journey by learning from the last.
Information problem-solving skills are sufficiently complex that complete mastery of them is probably not possible. Assessment tools that help students continue to improve their information searching, evaluating and communicating skills are necessary rather than simple evaluative tools. Checklists and rubrics that describe specific criteria for both content and technology mastery give students direction for continued improvement. 

Sidebar 5: A Range of Sources.
Your students have been researching current diseases and they come into the classroom with information from these sources. Could you help them determine which could be considered the most reliable? Might you as a teacher have a different opinion than some parents about the validity of information from some sources?

  • Center for Disease Control
  • Newsweek
  • The bestseller The Hot Zone
  • Flyers from an insurance company or HMO
  • Personal webpage
  • Chat room conversation
  • Rush Limbaugh’s radio talk show
  • National Public Radio’s “Science Friday”

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