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).

Learning to Teach and Teaching to Learn

Greetings and happy Friday! I’m settling back in after a ton of summer travel and summer conferences. Well, if by settling back in I mean feeling overwhelmed and how is summer almost over and the first-years are coming, is that the Jaws theme song I hear?


Last week I attended a week-long teacher training workshop in Land of Maple Syrup and Ben & Jerry’s Vermont with a lot of fabulous academic librarians. I’m still processing all the new things I learned, but there have been a few takeaways in particular that have stayed with me this week.

At one point during the workshop we spent time (as teachers do) going over learning styles and learning theory. I know some people don’t think all that much of learning style tests and categories (I certainly don’t swear by them), but I feel that having some level of self-awareness about how you like to do things can never hurt. For my part, I made an interesting self-discovery during all of this – my teaching style is actually quite (and in some cases dramatically) different from some of my learning style preferences.

As a learner I favor time for writing and note taking; as a teacher I favor discussions and group activities. Someone mentioned to me at this training, that teaching, after a time, can diverge from, or even shift, a person’s learning preferences, which is something I hadn’t really thought much about before.

This got me thinking about how the act of teaching is itself a learning activity and how I could perhaps use teaching as a learning tool in the classroom.

I first started teaching in museum environments, which favor hands-on learning. And it was in museums that I rather quickly learned the value of activity-based learning and developed a style that is heavy on group interaction. Since the act of teaching was such an invaluable learning experience for me, I wonder if I can find ways to use it in the classroom now.

I posted a while back about the idea of letting students drive/take charge in the classroom to build confidence, give them a stake in their own learning, and help them approach material in a new way. Teaching something can definitely give you new insight into it. But I now wonder if mixing in activities where students are teaching each other, or me, can do more than give them added insight into the content we’re covering. I wonder if teaching can give students some insight into how they process, use, and share information. If my main goal is to teach my students information literacy and critical thinking skills, and if those skills are all about processing and using information, then perhaps the act of teaching itself can be a vehicle for building information literacy and critical thinking skills.
Aside from giving students time to demonstrate skills and teach one another, I also want to start being more transparent (and, dare I say, meta) and sharing my own teaching practices, learning outcomes, and overall thought processes with my students. Perhaps highlighting the ways I deal with and share information will spark some interesting conversations and will encourage my students to think about how they themselves handle information.

Credit Where Credit is Due: Teaching About Plagiarism and Online Culture

I regularly teach an Avoiding Plagiarism class at the library where I work – something a lot of academic librarians do (it’s one of those learning-about-research gaps we leapt to fill en masse, it seems). I do the usual spiel about how plagiarism is bad (trying to not sound like Mr. Mackey from South Park when doing so), why we cite sources, how you can cite sources properly, tips of paraphrasing, etc. But most of the content I cover is related to the omnipresent research paper. There can be serious consequences for plagiarizing in college and it’s a content area that many of my students aren’t really aware of when they arrive on campus.

I really like teaching my plagiarism classes – we play games like “cite it or not”, do group paraphrasing activities, and talk about real world examples (and I rather shamefully become quite gleeful when another notable person becomes embroiled in a plagiarism scandal – Rand Paul was a goldmine, let me tell you). It’s pretty fun.

But I always feel like there’s an elephant in the room, though I’m often the only person aware of it – what about plagiarism in online environments? And as much as I know my students are at an academic institution where they have to write old school research papers, I also feel quite strongly about teaching them about the wide world of the internet – copyright debates, online etiquette, proper use of hyperlinks, how to attribute sources on a blog, why people get mad on Tumblr when they aren’t credited for a GIF set. Some days I feel like internet culture is the most valuable thing I can teach them about (which might be more of a “me” issue than one of the profession, but I do often ask – what are educators, particularly librarians, teaching kids about technology and how can we do more?).

At any rate, places like Mozilla’s Web Literacy Map touch some upon issues of sharing, privacy, collaborating, etc. And the blog-sphere erupts periodically often with discussions about good attribution practices (see the 2012 curator’s code and the ensuing debate) and what constitutes plagiarism online. Places like Tech Dirt keep up a steady stream of, often infuriating, news about problems with copyright and patents and how problematic laws affect ordinary individuals online. Part of being an information literate individual means, in ACRL’s opinion (though those ACRL standards are currently being revised) as well as mine, being able to understand the ethics of information and how it’s shared and that entails, in my opinion, understanding the debates surrounding how we share and consume information online as well.

And this means, to me, that I can, and maybe even should, to do more to inform my students about information ethics in environments like Twitter rather than just the confines of the academic research paper. Information literacy doesn’t begin and end with the research paper, and neither should my instruction.

For next semester, I hope to revamp my plagiarism classes to include more about internet culture. Is anyone doing this type of education in their classroom? Share below!

The House Hunters Decision-Making Model

Ennui cat expresses ennui

Sartre famously commented on how awful free will and choice can be (“I am condemned to be free” – so melodramatic, dude).

But it’s really true – having all the options open to you can be paralyzing, just as having none can be frustrating. And this is why I think something like House Hunter’s (the HGTV show where people select a house from three options) is kind of genius, and definitely appealing.  The show is rigged. But, frankly, I think that’s part of the charm. The people on that show (which I often watch in order to mock – seriously, people, you can change paint. It’s not a deal breaker.) only have three choices. Only three! And while they do the requisite agonizing over which to pick at the end, while dramatic countdown music plays, and one member of the couple sagely notes “we, like, have to make a decision,” it’s only between three things (and not even that given that the show is rigged).

Can you imagine going through life and only having to pick among three options instead of like, the 800 cars on the Carfax website, or the 10 pairs of ambiguously named jeans at the Gap, or the innumerable life decisions that are rarely divided neatly into three distinct options?

House Hunters is like a baby pool of decision-making. And I think that’s something that can actually be highly beneficial to students learning a new skill, like researching. Educators who do things like teach essay writing to younger students have figured this one out – it’s why we give the kids templates and outlines to use. We provide baby steps along the way to writing a full-fledged essay. We limit the number of decisions for students to make as they start writing. For some reason, college students are often expected to leap right in to research, from picking their own topic to finding their own sources. What I’d like to do is promote everything but the research paper assignments (see the example from the UT Libraries) or at least closed circuit activities, so to speak.

For instance, in introductory research classes, I often give students articles on a contemporary topic (I used the Keystone Pipeline debate recently) to use in an evaluation activity. The articles I select all cover distinct political views and, like the houses on House Hunters which are always neatly categorized as “fixer upper” or “great kitchen”, the articles I pre-select fit a variety of distinct needs and provide an opportunity to test out evaluation and decision-making skills without overwhelming my students with options.

As much as I like students to think and discover and experiment for themselves, I think that sometimes you need to take more of a House Hunters approach, particularly with things like early research skills, and set up scenarios for students to work within before unleashing them into the wide world of unlimited choice.

The Problem Solving Snail

The wonder that is the problem solving snail was introduced to me as a joke a few years ago. I was working at a grant-funded museum tech outreach program and the lead teacher designed a brief survey for the students (5th grade girls) to take for assessment purposes. A lot of the questions asked the girls about STEM ideas, their attitudes towards science, etc. And one question showed the students an image of a the engineering design process, kind of like this great one (albeit sans labels) from The Works Museum:


The girls had to identify this image as an engineering design process –  something we’d discussed in class the previous week, when we’d talked about how engineers work and the steps we go through to solve problems. One of the ridiculous choices the lead teacher came up with for this survey question was the “problem solving snail” and the term stuck. The other teachers in the class and I ran with the term and it became a running joke.

But I think the problem solving snail might be more profound than we originally thought. I teach research skills now more than engineering lessons (I must say I’m sad about that on occasion!). And the research process really has a lot in common with this problem solving or design process used by engineers.

In fact, this research cycle image I made for a first-year research guide was largely inspired by problem solving and design process cycles I’d seen in my museum educator days.


Whether it’s science, engineering, inventing, humanities research, or whatever, the process of identifying and solving a problem is pretty similar. For me, there are two major lessons to take away from an engineering approach to problem solving. The first is the term problem solving itself. I really think that research, at the academic level especially but also for younger students, would do well to be explicitly cast as a way to solve problems. College students, in my experience, can often experience a disconnect between their assignments and the real world (insert academia joke of your choice here). Research, to students, can feel tedious (it often is) and difficult (yep). Casting it in terms of solving a problem can help ground the more abstract ideas of research in practicalities and “real” world concerns.

The other major takeaway I have from an engineering approach to problem solving is actually my friend, the problem solving snail. A snail is, of course, slow. It makes incremental process. You might worry it’s never going to get anywhere. And problem solving (and research) is exactly like this. Research is slow, it’s iterative, it might seem stagnant. But it can really get important things done, even though the process itself can feel cumbersome.

I think the problem solving snail might become my mascot for future lessons, whether I’m teaching younger kids about STEM or older kids about academic research. If you want to learn more about the problem solving and the design process, check out this great site from the PBS Kids Design Squad, where they walk you through each step of the design process and provide resources and activity ideas.