Literacy is not enough: Why we need to teach information literacy

Some weeks are just like hitting the jackpot in terms of the news and media world shouting out “yes, this is necessary” – although of course they don’t phrase it that way, and they certainly wouldn’t invoke libraries, librarians and information literacy in their communal hand wringing. But they should.

The first was the retraction of an article in Science. (Retraction watch – who knew that it even existed? And now I know it’s going to be on my reading list from time to time! They’re on twitter @RetractionWatch so that makes it easier – makes me think of “This idea must die” which is also on my reading list after hearing this talk).

Jesse Singal has written an excellent article – “The Case of the Amazing Gay-Marriage Data” – it really is worth reading the whole thing because it covers so many aspects of the world of academic publishing, how it can go badly wrong, and just how unlikely it is that it is found out and even if it’s found out, how hard it is to be a whistleblower.

The second, was about chocolate, and how unfortunately it doesn’t help in weight loss and in fact we’d all just been had as it was a bunch of science writers playing with journalists and our gullibility and lack of information literacy.  Here is John Bohannon, the culprit (?) ‘fessing up: “I Fooled Millions Into Thinking Chocolate Helps Weight Loss. Here’s How” and Rachel Ehrenberg’s indignant retort on behalf of journalists “Attempt to shame journalists with chocolate study is shameful
Obviously (one hopes) this is going to have repercussions in tertiary education and in journalism. But what can we learn from it in the K-12 environment?
Well a good place to start would probably be to introduce students to the concept of cognitive bias (and to do it WAY before they’re doing TOK at IB level).  Here is a great little article by George Dvorsky on the twelve most common cognitive biases. Let’s get everyone thinking – a little assignment for my readers – post in the comments what cognitive biases were present in each case! Just as we teach our G4’s about marketing tricks of the trade, I’m sure this can be presented in a way that is accessible and easy to understand and relate to their own lives. 
I’m also thinking about how we could expand the math curriculum to replace a fear of numbers and statistics with a healthy dose of scepticism and what questions to ask and how to dig behind the “headline” numbers. I sometimes wonder why it is that we don’t challenge our students more about their own data.  Thinking back to the exhibition presentations of our Grade 5’s – yes they did a great job, and it was amazing what they pulled together and the confidence with which they could present. But who was looking at the data? Each group had a mentor, who could (should?) challenge when things don’t add up, when what they’re saying and what they can back it up with doesn’t match. When things just don’t make common logical sense.   Now this is a tricky thing. A very tricky thing. We don’t like confrontation, and we’re not really good at it either.  Now look back at the first article.  If the co-author had applied a little common sense and said “hey, if you’ve sampled 100,000 people, how did you get the $1m budget? (simple multiplication / extrapolation)” 
… how about Brookman? Things don’t make sense to him, and what’s everyone saying? “don’t rock the boat”  And our students. Yes we want to created a safe learning environment where mistakes can be made.  BUT and this is a big BUT, we also want to be able to call them on their mistakes, give them a chance to correct them and build the resilience of being able to cope appropriately with (constructive) criticism AND the idea that this research thing is serious, and can and will be up to challenge, AND make them think more critically about how they interpret and use other’s research.  I was not a part of the whole process and I know our digital literacy coaches and librarian were involved, I’m wondering if the math coach was also involved or not?  And in a school without a math coach – who would be doing this?  How many teachers at any level feel comfortable and confident enough around numbers and the “math” side of research to assume this role?  I’d argue all should be, and if not that’s some PD that needs to be done as a priority. Because in the future and in the now, numbers are being used all around us, and the big big thing is “big data” and if we don’t know how to look at numbers and to ask the right kinds of questions we are going to be manipulated into making the wrong assumptions, making the wrong choices. This stuff is important. (See my favourite math blogger Mathbabe on this).
All of us are literate in the sense of reading and writing. And some of us are critical readers of literature, we can analyse and comment and dissect. And then we get into the realm of being information literate, on the basic level, the whole model thing of finding a question, finding information, interpreting and using it, reflecting etc.  And then only can we get to the point of understanding who is writing something and why and then really understanding the socio-cultural / political and meta-cognitive things that are going on behind information. And if we don’t start with the basics and make sure it’s embedded in everything we do, how will we ever get there?

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