23 May 2022 Share
Dr Andrew Shenton explores ways to exploit our own memories of successful activities we experienced as students when teaching information literacy.
A Neglected Opportunity?
In presenting a classic model of information-seeking behaviour, James Krikelas points out that what is available to the individual who is intent on satisfying an information need may include their own memory and personal observation. He highlights how these possibilities may, however, be overlooked by experts who equate information with “the literature”. Since so many information professionals deal largely with published material, there is a danger that we, too, underrate the value of our own memories and underuse them when, for example, we plan courses on information literacy. Many models for teaching the inquiry process exist nowadays and a significant number are supported by extensive collections of resources for use in the classroom or school library. In the face of their ready availability, how many of us draw purposefully on our own experiences as students when devising an information literacy programme?
Doing so offers attractive advantages. It switches our perspective from instructor to learner, thereby reminding us of what it is like to be a recipient, rather than a dispenser, and rendering our standpoint more person-centred. Through empathising with our younger self, we can assess activities we tackled and advice issued to us, so as to determine what worked and how it could be improved. We must, though, exercise caution. For those of us educated as long ago as the 1970s and 1980s, much has changed. Obviously, at that time, there was no Internet in schools and independent learning tended to be restricted to the consultation of teacher-provided texts, the contents of departmental collections and library books.
When taking A-level Ancient History, I was fortunate to study under a teacher who was a truly outstanding practitioner. Even today, much of my information literacy instruction is based on the principles she encouraged us to adopt and how, I believe, they are best realised. Specifically, when writing essays, she instructed us to:
read widely in order to uncover differences of opinion among commentators, thereby ensuring we do not accept as fact matters that are open to debate;
It is not difficult to feature these principles as key messages in an information literacy teaching programme. They amount to timeless tenets of good essay writing practice and comparable priorities can be identified in other aspects of the inquiry process – fundamentals regarding sound time management, the effective exploitation of the book collection in a library and the need to adopt particular strategies when reading for different purposes all spring to mind. In addition to recalling invaluable teaching points from our youth, we may well be able to remember and then replicate today specific activities or ways in which skills and outcomes were successfully modelled.
Deriving New Knowledge
The perpetuation of existing good practice irrespective of the era is perhaps one of the information professional’s most straightforward duties in their function as educator. We may also, though, superimpose an analytical dimension on our own experiences as students. Many youngsters struggle to formulate worthwhile research questions when required to do so. I recently returned to my own A-level Ancient History exercise books in order to scrutinise the essay titles that my teacher had set the group. My examination of them immediately yielded two benefits – I could demonstrate to my charges the linguistic and structural characteristics of a sound research question and I was able to isolate the higher level thinking skills such a question should demand.
Readers may find it helpful to see how, in abstract terms, I have used ideas and material that I have acquired from the teachers whom I knew as a youngster. I have been able to detect six forms.
The above processes are arranged here in an ascending hierarchy and their ordering reflects the degree of novelty inherent in what was done. The first three types are concerned almost exclusively with my repeating the work of my teacher; the last three involve an increasing degree of original thinking on my part.
This article may seem to have had something of a reactionary flavour in that our use of knowledge and insights made available to us orally in our own school days perhaps evokes a time when information was passed on via word of mouth. Yet, in addition to simply reciting what was taught to us, we can add value by exploiting it in creative ways through, for example, submitting it to our own analysis and constructing new sense from it. Most of us will recall from our youth favourite teachers from whom we learnt much and, if progress is truly to be made by “standing on the shoulders of giants”, a lot can be gained by exploiting these insights and ideas. There can surely be no greater tribute to the best teachers than to ensure that their wisdom lives on and, either directly or indirectly, informs the work of today’s learners.
Dr Andrew K Shenton is an independent researcher and writer who is particularly interested in how people find and use information. A former lecturer at Northumbria University, he funds his research via a part-time position at Monkseaton High School working in curriculum and resource support where he has worked for 17 years.