Learning Information Literacy Skills

When I returned to university at the age of 23, I had no idea how to do research. I struggled through the first year of my Education degree focusing on my major in History. When doing research in the library I was baffled by the databases, unable to locate the microfiches I needed and instead of searching the catalogue I spent hours trolling the stacks of the bound journals looking for articles that pertained to my topics. I remember feeling frustrated, angry, upset and stressed. I remember many tears shed and many angry mutterings.

Thankfully I was the type of student who always did well in school and so I had many of the necessary skills to help me figure out what I needed to learn, and then to learn it. I also had the wherewithal to ask for help. Through trial and error, and with the help of some excellent university library staff, I eventually learned how to search the library databases to find pertinent articles. I figured out where the microfiches were stored, how to access them and how to use the microfiche viewers. I handed in assignments that got me a solid B+ GPA. I learned information literacy skills through a trial by fire. However, I never used the Internet as a source for research and I often wonder if I would have been able to wade through the sea of the Internet to find what I needed, given my skill level at the time.

Research with Students

My first teaching assignment was Grade 7 Math and English Language Arts and so I spent my first five years of teaching focusing on numeracy and literacy. Although I came to be interested in content area literacy and text structures, I left the research projects to my teaching partner who taught Social Studies and Science. I remember her commenting in frustration that research took students too long and the quality of their assignments afterwards was subpar.

It wasn’t until my teaching assignment changed to Grade 8 Science and Social Studies that I realized what my teaching partner had been talking about. For one of my first research assignments I scheduled more than sufficient time in the computer lab, given the assignment. However, the task took my students far longer and the result was many assignments of the “copy and paste” variety. I also had a general feeling that although many students found the “right” answers they still lacked a deep understanding of the topic. Also, not a single student cited their references because I hadn’t made it a requirement of the assignment. I was frustrated with my own lack of detailed instruction and disappointed in my students’ quality of work. After that experience I tried to be more detailed in my own instructions for the assignments; I required my students to cite their references, by simply giving the URL of the website they had used, and I stressed the importance of paraphrasing. This is how I continued to assign research projects and although the quality improved, I was still frustrated with the whole process. I found myself avoiding assigning research projects. I remember having many conversations with colleagues about how to improve the process, to no avail.

It was not until I entered the University of Alberta and took EDES 501 Exploration of Web 2.0 and its companion course EDES 545 Information Technology for Learning that I realized what I was missing in my teaching. I assumed students knew how to find information on the Internet. I assumed they knew how to do a good Internet search, how to evaluate a source and how to synthesize and paraphrase the information they found. I assumed that students could tell if information was relevant or pertinent to their topic. I made the same mistake that many adults often make; I assumed that just because my students looked comfortable online, that they could use the Internet for academic purposes and that they had the critical thinking skills needed to evaluate the information they found. My University of Alberta courses helped me recognize that students needed to be explicitly taught these skills; however, I also recognized that I didn’t know how to do these things either and I came to understand that neither did my teaching colleagues.

Becoming a Teacher-Librarian

After completing my first year in the Teacher-Librarianship by Distance Learning Program at the University of Alberta I was offered a full time teacher-librarian position at a large junior high school in my school division. This school had recently undergone a renovation that affected the school library, resulting in a new, larger library space. I felt lucky and privileged to be the new teacher-librarian at a school with a new library space and access to three full computer labs, one located inside the library and two located directly off the library. The teachers were welcoming and the principal was supportive of my role in the school, both financially and pedagogically; it was a dream come true.

I quickly understood, however, that it was not the ideal situation. Although the computer labs were well used, I came to understand that the teachers at my new school were struggling with the same issues with regards to research that I had struggled with. Students didn’t know how to do research and the teachers didn’t know how to teach them to do it. I endeavored to define my role as one of information literacy teacher and many teachers were willing and happy to have my help. Throughout this first year I reflected many times on how grateful I was for my training from the University of Alberta. I realized that I could never have done my job as a teacher-librarian effectively had I not had additional training in the specific areas related to teacher-librarianship, specifically information literacy and inquiry-based learning. I also found myself falling back on my years of experience as a classroom teacher, both for teaching strategies and classroom management strategies.

I was new to teacher-librarianship and spent much of the year simply being thankful that teachers were letting me teach their classes information literacy skills. As a result of my inexperience, I taught information literacy out of context of the classroom experience, but tried to include topics being covered in class to make the instruction more relevant. I developed lessons on how to do a good Internet search, how to evaluate websites, how to avoid plagiarism with note-taking strategies and about bias, copyright, citation and creative commons. I also taught some technology skills needed for synthesizing, analyzing and presenting the information students had found.

Although I knew what students needed, I found my first year as a teacher-librarian difficult for several reasons. Firstly, teachers didn’t understand my role and I failed to clearly define that role for them. In fact, I failed to clearly define my role for myself and as a result I became the teacher-librarian who taught technology skills. Secondly, I thought there were no guidelines in place in my province or school division for information literacy instruction and so I struggled to create my own program of instruction using bits and pieces from documents I was familiar with from my University of Alberta studies. Finally, it was not just students who needed to be taught information literacy skills and I struggled with how to approach the teachers about their own lack of abilities in this area.

The Literacy with ICT Continuum

In 2006, Manitoba Education Citizenship and Youth (MECY) published the Literacy with ICT (information and communication technology) Continuum. The document defines literacy with ICT as “choosing and using ICT, responsibly and ethically, to support critical and creative thinking about information and about communication across the curriculum,” (MECY, 2006b, p. 8). After attending an in-service on the Literacy with ICT Continuum (MECY, 2006b), I finally realized the link between this document and the inquiry process that I was learning about in my EDES 542: Inquiry Based Instruction course. The role of the teacher-librarian in Manitoba suddenly became clear to me. The Literacy with ICT Continuum (MECY, 2006b) with its organization based on the inquiry process and its content based on information literacy skills was obviously the document that could provide those guidelines I was so desperately in need of. I was surprised none of my teacher-librarian colleagues had pointed this out to me.

Unfortunately, the Literacy with ICT (MECY, 2006b) document defines information literacy in terms of technology use only, and in fact does not use the term ‘information literacy’ at all. I realized there was much confusion in my school division regarding the multiple definitions of information literacy in the 21st century and uncertainty about the role of the 21st century teacher-librarian. This resulted in a perception that caused teachers, administrators and other divisional staff to interpret the Literacy with ICT (MECY, 2006b) document as something to be addressed by the “technology department” only, leaving a glaring gap in the ability of teacher-librarians to address the information literacy needs of students.

Through further investigations and involvement in local and provincial professional associations, I came to realize that it isn’t just the teachers in my school and division that struggle with the role of the teacher-librarian; it is our entire provincial education system. Teacher-librarianship in Manitoba was in a state of confusion.

With a government mandated continuum comes funding. As a result of the impetus to infuse technology throughout the curriculum through the use of the Literacy with ICT Continuum (MECY, 2006b), school divisions have spent a lot of monies on technology. There exists a perception that the technology department of my school division has been quite well funded at the expense of libraries which have suffered cost cutting measures such as reduced staffing. Regrettably this opinion and its implications have caused much uncertainty about who should be helping teachers to implement and integrate the Literacy with ICT Continuum (MECY, 2006b).

Teacher-librarians have been left in the cold with regards to information literacy programming in Manitoba, yet hope exists for our renewed role in schools. The inquiry and information literacy structures that exist within the Literacy with ICT Continuum (MECY, 2006b) can allow teacher-librarians in Manitoba to re-establish their expertise with information literacy and clarify their roles as both teachers and leaders in our schools.

What is our Role?

For teacher-librarians to clarify the essential nature of their position in Manitoba schools, it is first important for the role of the 21st century teacher-librarian to be well defined. A clear definition of our role in information literacy instruction and our expertise with inquiry based learning will lead to an understanding of how our role coincides with the Literacy with ICT Continuum (MECY, 2006b). To that end this paper will examine the question How can the role of the 21st century teacher-librarian be clarified and defined within the context of the already existing curriculum structure in Manitoba?
To help me answer this question I will investigate pertinent professional and academic literature to answer the following questions:
  • How is information literacy defined in the 21st Century?
  • What is unique about 21st century learners and the essential skills necessary in the 21st century?
  • What role does inquiry-based learning play in information literacy programming and instruction?
  • What is the role of the 21st century teacher-librarian?
After reviewing the literature I will reflect on how teacher-librarians can define their role within the context of the already existing curriculum structure in Manitoba. Additionally I will include implications of the literature review for various stakeholders in Manitoba.