21 February 2012

Life's Little Mysteries

In science education, we talk about student misconceptions frequently. We probe, reteach, and generally obsess about them. But the science classroom doesn't have a monopoly on how students make sense of the world around them. Earlier this year, I heard interesting stories from first graders about how the process of publishing a book. And while working with a group of librarians, I heard some other interesting tales. This time, however, they were about the Internet. For example, one student asked if the library had a printed version of Google. At first blush, this seems like a preposterous question. But if the library has a printed version of the Encyclopedia Britannica on its shelves...and a digital version available on the network, why not a dead tree version of Google?

But beyond that, kids struggle with selecting "good" information from the Internet. One librarian mentioned an interaction with a student who wanted to know if the web page he was looking at was good. She prompted him in the usual ways---check the domain...the sources. She ran through the litany with the student answering each one. And at the end, the kid asked, "But is this any good?"

This is not a post bemoaning the lack of information literacy in our students and how the world is going to hell in a handbasket as a result. Because that's very little of the story. It's what's happening behind the scenes that is far more intriguing.

Here is a graphic showing how information literacy plays out across grade levels and subject areas in Washington state. EdTech is on the left, which is where the concepts (un)officially sit...other standards on the right which have similar concepts.

The takeaway here is simply that nearly every subject area (except math, arts, and world languages) and every grade provides an opportunity for students to build and practice information literacy skills. As a state, what I see here is that we think these are very important. Perhaps more important than anything else we do, considering the formidable presence these critical thinking skills have in our standards.

But what we see in practice is a very different thing. We can blame the (over)emphasis of class time on reading and math...or RTI models...or a host of other things. Time is always the enemy in schools, but we have a choice about how we spend it. And what I hear most often, when it comes to students doing research, is that we do it for them. As teachers, we pre-load a page with web sites we think are the best options for a project. We choose which databases kids should access. We make the critical choices involved...and then wonder why kids don't know if a web page is any good when asked to decide for themselves.

I have been as guilty of this as anyone. In doing so, I've robbed students of the opportunity to struggle with research. The same struggle I had to go through, albeit before the age of the Internet. But I would never have built my base of skills had my teachers pulled books and magazines for me to specifically access...if I hadn't been given the time to practice and dig for myself.

I often remind people that we don't have to grade students on their critical thinking skills---but I do think we should assess them (even just informally) and provide feedback. If we say we value these kinds of skills, then the adults in the classroom have to put their time budgets where their mouths are. We can solve these little mysteries. And more importantly, we can help students solve their own.

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