Teaching Information Literacy in the 21st Century

What is Inquiry?


Alberta Learning created Focus on Inquiry in 2004. This document presents a process approach to research and “provides supports for implementing inquiry based learning activities in the classroom” (Alberta Learning, 2004, p. ix). The document defines inquiry as:
"A process where students are involved in their learning, formulate questions, investigate widely and then build new understandings, meanings and knowledge. That knowledge is new to the students and may be used to answer a question, to develop a solution or to support a position or point of view. The knowledge is usually presented to others and may result in some sort of action," (Alberta Learning, 2004, p. 1).

In the book, Guided Inquiry: Learning in the 21st Century, Kuhlthau et al. describe their model of inquiry. The authors define inquiry in this way:
"Inquiry is an approach to learning whereby students find and use a variety of sources of information and ideas to increase their understanding of a problem, topic or issue. It requires more of them than simply answering questions or getting the right answer. It espouses investigation, exploration, search, quest, research, pursuit and study," (Kuhlthau et al., 2007, p. 2).

The authors argue that this process is complex and is best learned by students being guided through each step of the process. According to Kuhlthau et al., “Guided Inquiry requires careful planning, close supervision, ongoing assessment, and targeted intervention by an instructional team of school librarians and teachers” (2007, p.3).

In Building Guided Inquiry Teams for 21st Century Learners, Kuhlthau and Maniotes describe the idea of a team approach to teaching guided inquiry. The authors’ explain that this approach is best “because the implementation of learning through inquiry is complex and multi-faceted, [thus] it takes a team to teach and assess” (Kuhlthau & Maniotes, 2010, p. 2). It is for this reason that Kuhlthau consistently recommends a three-member team comprised of a classroom teacher, a teacher-librarian and one other teacher who brings some other expertise to the inquiry experience (Kuhlthau, 2010; Kuhlthau & Maniotes, 2010, Kuhlthau et al., 2007).

Inherent in both inquiry-based learning and the guided inquiry model are constructivist ideals about how children learn (Alberta Learning, 2004; Kuhlthau et al., 2007; Kuhlthau, 2010) as well as metacognition skills (Alberta Learning, 2004). Kuhlthau et al. (2007) indicate that “a constructivist approach . . . [involves students] in an active process of constructing deep understanding. . . . [and] builds knowledge by engaging students in stimulating encounters with information and ideas” (p. 14). This allows students to construct knowledge from their inquiries rather than “approach the process as a simple collecting and presenting assignment that leads to copying and pasting with little real learning” (Kuhlthau, 2010, p. 4).

With regards to metacognition, the document Focus on Inquiry notes that “in the inquiry process, metacognition means becoming aware of one’s own thinking processes (thinking about thinking) and acknowledging and understanding the feelings associated with each of the phases” (Alberta Learning, 2004, p. 3). Teaching students metacognitive skills also allows for the identification of timely interventions by teachers with regards to skills and knowledge that students need along the way (Kuhlthau et al., 2007). Metacognitive skills also help students persevere through an inquiry process that can include strong feelings such as “enthusiasm, apprehension, frustration and excitement” (Alberta Learning, 2004, p. 8). This is why most models for inquiry-based learning include an affective domain as well as a cognitive domain. According to Focus on Inquiry, it is important for students to understand and be “taught that these feelings are a normal part of the inquiry process, experienced by all inquirers” (Alberta Learning, 2004, p. 8).

There are currently many models for inquiry in place in Canadian provinces (see Appendix D: Inquiry Models in Canada for a comparison of these models). Each of these models or frameworks is slightly different; however, they all include similar stages in the inquiry process. These frameworks also recognize that inquiry is not a linear or sequential process but in fact it is cyclical and at times messy. Interestingly, all the models also mention skills associated with 21st century learning.

Guided Inquiry, Information Literacy and 21st Century Skills


Using a systematic approach to teaching inquiry helps students gain the knowledge and skills they need for the 21st century (Alberta Learning, 2004; Kuhlthau et al., 2007; Kulthau, 2010). In fact, Kuhlthau argues that “inquiry is a way of learning new skills and knowledge for understanding and creating in the midst of rapid technological change. . . . [and that] guided inquiry is a way of learning that accomplishes the objectives of 21st century schools” (2010, pp. 2-3). “The ultimate goal [of guided inquiry] is to develop independent learners who know how to expand their knowledge and expertise through skilled use of a variety of information sources employed both inside and outside the school” (Kuhlthau et al., 2007, p. 3).

Carol Kuhlthau has been researching and writing about the Information Search Process for over 20 years (Kuhlthau, 2003) and is considered an expert in her field. In Guided Inquiry: Learning in the 21st Century, Kuhlthau and her co-authors Maniotes and Caspari (2007), dedicate an entire chapter to “Information Literacy through Guided Inquiry” (pp. 77-91). In this chapter the authors discuss the information literacy standards of the AASL and state that “guided inquiry takes [these standards] into account. . . . [and in fact] augments these in several important ways” (Kuhlthau et al., 2007, p. 79). The authors claim that “Guided Inquiry takes a concept approach to information literacy. . . .[and] that it integrates these information literacy concepts into inquiry units in the same way that curriculum standards are met through inquiry learning” (Kuhlthau et al. 2007, p. 79). The rest of the chapter is dedicated to detailing the various concepts of inquiry that relate to information literacy, specifically “concepts for locating, evaluating and using information” (Kuhlthau et al., 2007, pp. 79-90), finally concluding that “Guided Inquiry prepares students for living in the technological information society” (p. 91).

In Guided Inquiry: School Libraries in the 21st Century, Kuhlthau (2010) summarizes the reasons that Guided Inquiry is ideal for teaching information literacy and 21st century skills. She specifically notes “five kinds of learning [that] are accomplished through inquiry: information literacy, learning how to learn, curriculum content, literacy competence and social skills” (Kuhlthau, 2010, p. 6). In another article written in 2003, Kuhlthau notes that “inquiry underlies information literacy” (p. 3) and lists the abilities that students will need in order to be successful in the 21st century, which mirror those already identified above. Again she emphasizes that “these abilities are developed through engaging in inquiry as a way of learning” (Kuhlthau, 2003, p. 4). Guided inquiry offers a promising approach for teaching information literacy skills and for ensuring that essential skills are deeply embedded in learning for 21st century learners.