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Information Literacy: Why It Matters More Than Ever

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  • Picture of Stéphane Goldstein FRSA
    Stéphane Goldstein FRSA
    Research consultant in information literacy: critical thinking in an information-saturated world
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How often do we think about our capabilities, as individuals and communities, to navigate the information maze, to be truly information-savvy?

To a large extent, society has not properly addressed, let alone answered looming questions about information literacy. In his recent article in RSA Journal (Issue 3, 2018), Matthew Taylor spoke about how schools should be about creating confident and ambitious learners, not just young people who know how to scrape through examinations. I would argue that this cannot happen without the foundation provided by the abilities that I mention above. So we can rightly ask whether our education system, from primary school onwards, truly equips us to acquire this savviness in confusing, disconcerting, rapidly-evolving and sometimes dangerous information environments.

It is timely to consider the relevance of information literacy, because a discerning approach to information can be an important contribution to sustaining democratic and inclusive societies. How we search for, discover, access, retrieve, sift, interpret, analyse, manage, create, communicate and preserve information are features of our everyday existence. Our ability (or lack of) to undertake to handle information in such ways influences how we learn, how we behave at work and develop our careers, how we ensure our wellbeing, how we entertain ourselves. And crucially, this ability is an integral part of how we think critically, and therefore in how we play our part as informed citizens in the wider world. And this, I suggest, is where the RSA comes in.

The RSA has long embodied the spirit of the Enlightenment. But what was once taken for granted in democratic societies – humanism, reason, evidence-based inquiry, trust in democratic institutions – is increasingly challenged by assertive counter-narratives characterised by aversion to facts, rejection of expertise, obscurantism and, at a political level, recourse to populism.

Arguably, some of the values of the Enlightenment are under threat, and the RSA has a role to play in encouraging a reaffirmation or even a renewal of these values. It also stands for curiosity, inquiry and sharing of innovative ideas, in the interest of addressing major social challenges. These are processes closely associated with critical thinking and an approach to information that is founded on judgement and evaluation, not emotion and gratification. For all these reasons, the RSA might consider how information literacy can contribute to the good society that it wishes to nurture.

I recognise that information literacy is not a widely-used term outside the realms of information science and librarianship. At times, it has received more widespread recognition, as was the case, ten years ago, with Barack Obama’s 2009 Presidential Proclamation on National Information Literacy Awareness Month. In the public policy arena, it tends to be subsumed in the closely-related and overlapping concepts of digital literacy and media literacy. Thus for instance the recent Commons Select Committee report on disinformation and fake news frames the issue as digital literacy, which it sees as a means of equipping children and adults with the necessary information and critical analysis to understand content on social media, to work out what is accurate and trustworthy, and what is not. In its own 2018 report on tackling disinformation, the European Commission recognises the importance of developing critical thinking and good personal practices for discourse online, and places that under the joint heading of media and information literacy (MIL) - reflecting UNESCO’s global approach that also tackles the question through the prism of MIL.

It doesn’t fundamentally matter whether the issue is seen in terms of information or digital or media or even political literacy. Far more important is the growing realisation that encouraging and enabling citizens to be discerning about information, and to the ways in which it is mediated, is a crucial priority for the health of society.

I hope it is clear too how this plays with the ethos of the RSA. In the aforementioned issue of RSA Journal, writing about ‘Democracy Endangered?’, Henry Tam states that “our young people should […] be familiar with how to debunk political rhetoric and gimmicks, and what questions to pose about contrasting options that have been put forward, in order to secure outcomes that will benefit their communities and the country at large”. That is a good illustration of how RSA values chime with discerning approaches to information.

The threats posed by disinformation are real and frightening, but at least awareness of them is helping to focus minds on possible solutions, be they educational, technological, regulatory or political. Fostering an information-literate citizenry is largely part of the educational solutions. It will not happen by magic, and requires a concerted, joined-up effort to help people of all ages to develop appropriate understanding, knowledge and confidence. This is an urgent challenge for policy-makers, but also teachers, educationalists, librarians, psychologists, civil society organisations… and I firmly believe that the RSA, through its its appeal to creativity and collective, intelligent thinking, can and should be part of the conversation.

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  • In 1995 I started teaching English in a secondary school. English departments also cover drama and media studies and I was asked to teach media to GCSE level. We examine texts critically in both subjects, looking at language resources (newspapers, advertising) as well as novels, plays and poetry. Crucially, what we are trying to teach is that everything has been composed by someone and audiences need to look at what the writer was trying to achieve - are they trying to sell you something, persuade you, influence your opinion, distort your views, etc. This is at the core of studying the written word and images. We don't need to develop something different; we just need to support the people who have always been aware of the power of language and image.  

  • In 1995 I started teaching English in a secondary school. English departments also cover drama and media studies and I was asked to teach media to GCSE level. We examine texts critically in both subjects, looking at language resources (newspapers, advertising) as well as novels, plays and poetry. Crucially, what we are trying to teach is that everything has been composed by someone and audiences need to look at what the writer was trying to achieve - are they trying to sell you something, persuade you, influence your opinion, distort your views, etc. This is at the core of studying the written word and images. We don't need to develop something different; we just need to support the people who have always been aware of the power of language and image.  

    • Thank you Tara, and I think we're essentially talking about the same thing, which is equipping young people (and actually, all people) with the ability to apply judgement and critical faculties to information that they encounter; and to think also of its provenance, how it is mediated and why. The problem is that the curriculum treats the teaching of these competencies very unevenly between different subjects, and the guidance offered to teachers isn't always clear. There isn't a sufficiently strong recognition, across the curriculum as a whole, of the importance of critical thinking skills. The recent Commons Select Committee report on disinformation and fake news recommended that digital literacy (which, in their terms, is pretty similar to information literacy) should be recognised as a fundamental pillar of the education process. Unfortunately, the Government rejected that recommendation.

  • You're right to focus on information literacy as a foundation for a broader digital literacy, but I think 'media literacy' is important too - it covers aspects of perception and cognition once thought of as the preserve of the 'arts' (Donis Dondis of MIT outlined an approach to 'visual literacy' in her 1973 A Primer of Visual Literacy. This subject used to be integral to secondary approaches to Art and to Music. But maybe all the aspects of a digital literacy (informational, algorithmic, aesthetic etc) should be part of an integrated approach? I've suggested/sketched a potential intermedia, inter-disciplinary approach in my mediainspiratorium - soon to be launched as a free iPad app...

  • Stéphane, I completely agree with you. What is important in today’s world is for everyone to have the necessary information and critical analysis to understand content on social media. Here’s an example of how a teenager questioned the online sources his mother turned to for information & how he eventually decided to look for information from credible sources. http://time.com/5544119/ethan-lindenberger-testimony/

    • Thanks Melvin! I'd heard of the case that you refer to, and it is indeed a very good illustration of the issues that I'm seeking to raise. Taking a step back and reflecting on information sources, as this young man has done, requires a bit of effort and patience - which is precisely the sort of attitude that information literacy aims to encourage. Happy to carry on the conversation if your're interested in these issues!

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