Information skills for an information
The first version of this paper was delivered as a keynote at a Teachers Refresher Course held at North Shore Teachers College, Auckland, January 1986. A later, expanded version was published in Unicorn 12 (2), 87-93, 1986.
This paper suggests that, as the 'basic' skills of reading, writing,
talking, listening and viewing all involve the assimilation and
reinterpretation of information, information skills are therefore
the most basic skills. However, the tendency in schools is to
enumerate skills related to 'doing' projects, and to assume, firstly,
that doing 'projects' teaches all the 'information skills' needed
and, secondly, that the same skills will be applicable to the
problem-solving and decision making situations of 'real life'.
An understanding of what we mean by information in 'real life'
as well as in formal educational contexts must underlie any attempt
to determine which skills and technologies can be exploited to
make efficient and effective use of information.
What are information skills?
... the electronic revolution is transforming us into an information society. The problem is not merely to understand the technology that is producing this change, but to understand how to manage ourselves so that we shape our future.
As educators, we know that the computer and its related electronic technology will be to the human mind what the industrial revolution was to the human muscle. Just as the industrial revolution created the need for a work force that had specific types of skills, so the electronic revolution will create the need for a work force with new skills (Fuchs, 1985, 33-36).
It would be easy to agree with this comment by Victor Fuchs, and to suggest that the new skills needed are obviously information skills. The first step would be to claim that as the 'basic' skills - reading, writing, talking, listening and viewing - are all processes involving the assimilation and reinterpretation of information, information under-pins all these 'basic' skills and are, therefore, the most basic survival skills for all students, and, in fact, everyone in our print-dominated society. What we have to do is specify precisely what these information skills are, and find ways of helping students to obtain confidence and competence in using them to access, store, process and produce information in situations relevant to them. Obviously this will involve changes in curriculum and teaching methods, but it is easy to crystal-gaze into an information literate future where the taxpayers of tomorrow confidently search library catalogues or an overseas database using their home modems, while their parents still prefer to bend an obsequious knee before a real librarian than get into eyeball to eyeball contact with a microfiche catalogue or VDU.
But first we have to define information skills. In 1984 (Gawith and Irving, 1984) I wrote in an introduction to a package of information skills teaching workshops published by the British Microelectronics Education Programme:
If information Skills could be defined simply as the skills needed to make efficient and effective use of information, there would be few teachers why would query the need to teach these skills to every student at every age and in every area of the curriculum. It is when one comes to define the precise nature of these skills so that they can be translated into teachable concepts and techniques that a simple definition like this raises more questions than it answers.
Starting with the definition of information skills as the skills needed to make efficient and effective use of information, the list includes critical reading skills, viewing and listening skills, notemaking skills, plus the ability to synthesize, reinterpret and evaluate information, for example:
• being able to scan any source for facts.
• being able to skim for information relevant to an information purpose.
• being able to analyze and interpret information in visual, aural and textual formats (and combinations of these), assessing the effect of the medium ( or interaction of various media) on the meaning.
• being able to synthesize and reconstruct data into an original text, representing knowledge, in any medium or format appropriate to the information purpose.
• being able to evaluate the knowledge outcome and the information process.
But the steps of the information process, for example Marland's 9-stage process (1981) or my 1984 6-stage version (1984, 1986) do not necessarily transfer directly into everyday problems. For example, my ball is stuck up a tree and I have to decide whether to climb it. I'll use the Schools Council questions (Marland,1981, 50).
Projects 'real' life problem
1. What do I need
to do? Climb the tree
2. Where could I go?
How do I get the information? My
experience of climbing, knowledge
4. Which resources
shall I use?
5. How shall I use
6. What should I make
a record of?
Have I got the information I need? The
tree itself is the deciding factor.
8. How shall I present
What have I achieved? The decision
to climb/ not to climb
The question steps that are for the purposes of this problem largely irrelevant, are precisely those that are crucial to the successful completion of a project, assignment topic or research enquiry. Try out any other 'real life' problem-solving or decision-making situations. My suspicion is that the 'missing links' are those that we emphasise in the 'projects' which we set at all levels to give practice in what we perceive as the key information skills equipping the student for independent lifelong learning?
Information process models guide students and teachers through the information process as it is represented in 'projects' and research assignments. They are NOT archetypal problem-solving models. There is no evidence that 'doing' projects develops information literate learners with high levels of problem-solving or critical thinking. We need to use these processes but not let them limit or definition of information skills or information literacy.
If we find the project/ study strategies information model too restrictive for lifelong learning, what model of information underlies the skills we need for lifelong learning and everyday problem solving? It seems to me that we have a lot to answer for by dividing the world into fiction and non-fiction and the implicit equation of information with factual knowledge and fiction with so-called 'recreational' reading. Information, when all is said and done, is no more or less than the way individuals add to their store of experience by consciously or unconsciously converting experience into personal currency. This experience may be the experience of others, stored in and mediated by various media. In the continuous learning flux of life what you need to know in terms of factual information is often quite limited. What be more important is to know how to handle the situation in terms of the human dimension - relationships and emotional and social consequences.
We are living in an information society. The way we present information skills often ignores this and implies that we are living in information which has no social dimension. As Barbara Hardy (1975) demonstrated, we think in narrative, learn in narrative, live through narrative. it is by translating facts or data into our store of experience, or life story, that facts become knowledge, and, possibly, the key to wisdom.
We translate data into our personal-computers-in-the-head, which are programmed through imagination in a language called personal narrative. Information is a conscious need, a personal commitment to turning data into one's own usable knowledge store. Ultimately what one needs is the imagination to see the uses of the information Should we stop talking about training in information skills and start looking at how we could educate the imagination? You only really need skills when you have the imagination to visualise what you could do with the information.
If people do not know that information exists or what it can do for them, and what they can do with it, it is largely superfluous to start by introducing information extraction and manipulation skills. It is superfluous to design checklists of information skills based on isolated performance outcomes, 'By J 3 will be able to...' And, how can I say this without treading on multiple toes... it is superfluous to tell students to look at a page and identify key words and 'interesting' ideas or facts.
Our challenge is to set up educational contexts in which students can explore the dimensions of information, not just technology, in ways that are relevant to real-life as well as curriculum-driven 'project'-based learning.It could be claimed that this is what good teachers have always done. This may be so, but how do we explain the universal finding evidenced in the work collected and edited by Lubans (1975), Malley (1977, 1979, 1982, 1983), Winkworth (1978), Fox (1980) and Irving and Snape (1979) and others of a lack of 'information awareness' in secondary and tertiary students and the business and professional community at large.
Neil Speirs (1983), talking about the ideal automated information society in Australia says:
There are many databases already available, but it seems to me there is a step to be taken even more basic than improving and extending databases and teaching people to use them. This first step consists of causing people to realise that databases exist and can be consulted. As an example, many of my friends are journalists, authors and publishers who have never heard of Ausinet or Orbit or Dialog or even Apais, and these people are professional information users and producers.
Constraints and challenges
Lack of technology, lack of technologically literate teachers, inadequate numbers of dually-qualified teacher-librarians, lack of appreciation of their potential contribution and role in the school, shrinking resource funds... the list of excuses is endless. My contention is that the greatest lack of all is teachers with educated imaginations who can see the excitement and learning potential in a wide variety of creative information situations. As long as teachers teach with the unquestioning assumption that what they teach students will learn, we will limp along hoping that the newest technology will achieve the needed breakthrough in terms of student motivation and desire to learn information skills.
Wonderful, bizarre, crazy, funny, poignant experiences which engage the sense of self, sense of imagination, of humour, of beauty of humanity, and a sense of what it is to learn to live in the word - are uneasy bedfellows with structured information skill lessons dominated by learning objectives and the evaluation of outcomes. Teachers who are imaginatively poverty stricken use information in imaginatively poverty stricken ways, introduce information technologies in imaginative poverty stricken ways, and exclaim when the result is an imaginatively poverty stricken population who appear to have few information needs.
Starting by teaching the skills will seldom create the need. if Fuchs (1985) is correct in claiming that the problem 'is not merely to understand the technology' but 'to understand how to manage ourselves so that we shape our future,' we are going to have to tackle to problem of educating people to be able to imagine how information can help to shape the future of the society we have made - the information society.
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