Teaching All the Literacies

I am a huge fan of Parks and Rec and my favorite episode might very well be Indianapolis, where, among other happenings, Ron Swanson is devastated to learn that his favorite restaurant has closed. In despair, he goes to a diner and orders all the eggs and bacon they have. All. Of. Them.

As someone who teaches students about technology and information literacy (more on that term shortly), I often feel like I’m caught in a vortex of all the things. I want to teach my students about all the highly interconnected and complex things (from how the internet works to copyright basics to evaluating sources to using digital media) in an often short period of time. On the flip side, I’m often asked to teach my students all the things by admins, professors, and various outside parties and all of those things don’t always line up with all of mine.

nearly-as-bad-as-soy-baconIt would be as if I thought I was getting all the bacon and eggs and someone else ordered turkey bacon on my behalf.

Aside from having high and sometime (often) divergent expectations as to what is and should be going on in classroom settings, I think a large part of the issue with all the things syndrome stems from how we define (or don’t) information literacy itself. I’ll be talking about managing expectations in the classroom another day; but, for now, I’d like to look at how information literacy turned into all the things and how you can run the risk of not having all the things delivered when you ask for a lot (here’s hoping Ron got all of his bacon and eggs though).

If you’re in the library world, you probably just “know” what information literacy means. But there are a lot of overlapping definitions floating around, from ALA’s official ones, which is currently two paragraphs and six bullet points long, to The Big 6 Information and Technology Skills for Student Success, which are shortened version of ALA’s outcomes in some respects. But are these definitions clear to people outside of library land? Or are they even agreed upon by everyone in library land?

I first read Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices last year back when I was in library school and a chapter that I found of particular interest was “Defining Digital Literacies” by David Buckingham. (Check here for a download of the book – http://librariesandtransliteracy.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/two-free-books-on-digital-literacies/)

Buckingham notes that literacy has become an “overburdened” term and I’ve certainly felt the pain of that in my own work – information literacy, digital literacy, computer literacy, technological literacy. These things are all so mutable and overlapping that it becomes difficult to describe what we, as educators, are doing. I see the connections, and I feel like most people in library land simply “know” how all of this fits together and what we mean when we toss out terms like information literacy (which is itself overburdened on top of the already weighed down idea of literacy more generally). But does this make sense to everyone else? Are official definitions of information literacy, like ALA’s, transferable and clear?

The library world, like a lot of other cultural and educational groups, sometimes have problems with marketing. When it comes to overburdened terms like literacy, and information literacy in particular, I think we need to be able to describe it clearly, and with a minimum of synonymous terms, in order to help people understand the value of what we are doing.

An article I read this summer, Bruce’s 7 Faces of Information Literacy rather underscored the overburdened nature of the term information literacy. Bruce outlines seven possible definitions for what information literacy is all about, ranging from the idea that information literacy is about using technology to information literacy is about using information to benefit society. If there are seven (!) possible views you could take on information literacy, no wonder Buckingham describes literacy as overburdened. It’s like a bad word program about how many possible combinations of things you can come up with (the answer is too many).

Maria reacts with horror to the idea of seven children, er, information literacy definitions

Maria reacts with horror to the idea of seven children, er, information literacy definitions

Bruce came to the rescue though with a follow-up article on informed learning (Supporting informed learners in the 21st century, citation below), which, in a nutshell looks at how we use information to learn. The idea here is to have people be aware of the learning process and the role information plays in learning. Here’s some thoughts from Bruce and co.

Information literacy education programs have tended to focus on standards and skills-based instruction, not always extending attention to helping students engage with content through their information use processes. (Bruce et al 523)

In other words, information using skills are building blocks for informed learning, rather than the end purpose (Bruce et al 525)

I like emphasizing information literacy as building block skills, and I think that this perspective can help some with all the things syndrome. I don’t have the time and resources and support needed for my students to learn all about the nuances of copyright and search skills and creating digital content and online security and all the other things I’d like to teach them. I’d have to enroll all of them in an information school or library school program.

But what I can do is focus on building-block skills that let my students learn how to use information; in other words, to help my students become information literate by developing strong critical thinking skills. Emphasizing information literacy as a foundational skill set, highlighting the action-oriented parts of information literacy (the use of information), and tying all of this together with critical thinking can not only help market library instruction programming, but it can also help to get all the things syndrome under control. Instead of cramming everything I, and everyone else, can think of into information literacy instruction, which can result in people learning nothing at all, I can focus on building up ways of thinking about and using information that are both transferable and foundational.



Bruce, Christine. “Seven Faces of Information Literacy in Higher Education”, http://www.christinebruce.com.au/informed-learning/seven-faces-of-information-literacy-in-higher-education/

Bruce, Christine S., Hughes, Hilary E., & Somerville, Mary M. (2012) Supporting informed learners in the 21st century. Library Trends, 60(3).

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