What Students Should be Able to Do: Seven Steps to Solving Information Problems

Active learning requires students to ask the right questions-then to find, evaluate, and use information from a flood of newly accessible resources. Coaching in those skills lies at the heart of a thoughtful and rigorous curriculum, and gives the school library an important new role.

THE MOMENT OF TRUTH for one New Hampshire student came with “moose hunting,” when he tried using his school library’s electronic resources to dig out material for a biology paper on symbiosis. His search strategy just hadn’t been working, he told Souhegan High School’s information specialist Kim Carter. He wasn’t interested in articles about and for sports hunters, but using the key word “moose” triggered an onslaught of such pieces-and using “moose” combined with “symbiosis” got him exactly nowhere.

“But then he realized that he could instruct the computer to search ‘moose not hunting’ and a light went on in his head,” Carter says. The logical methods of a Boolean search began to shape this student’s inquiry process as he watched his once unmanageable list of sources reduced to a size he could deal with.

Like it or not, we are teaching and learning in the midst of a total information revolution, and no one feels it more keenly than the Essential school librarian. Where once Carter’s student might have searched an encyclopedia, a textbook, and his library’s backlog of science magazines, now every moose in the media universe, it seems, can show up on his reference list. In the inquiry-based curriculum that characterizes a good Essential school, this poses problems both practical and philosophical.

Not only do students and their teachers need steady coaching in how and where to grasp all this stuff, which is so often obscured by electronic codes. They also need, more than ever, the critical skills of sorting, evaluating, and using the unprecedented amount of information that confronts them.

Moreover, because schools are designed to conserve and pass on a culture rather than to break away from it, this transformation plunges many into a crisis of anxiety. It took centuries for reading and writing to displace the Homeric oral tradition in the earliest comparable shift, and for Gutenberg’s invention of movable type to shift people’s everyday patterns and habits of sharing information. In contrast, our lurch into the electronic millennium is happening so fast that we have barely time to reflect on its implications, much less to adjust how we school our children accordingly.

Today as the old print culture inescapably erodes, how can schools keep students reading, writing, and listening well? Can we use information-age technology as a powerful tool in the development of thoughtfulness and reflection, or must these qualities, once nurtured by the slow, linear accretions of the printed page, vanish into the instantaneous present of electronic networking circuitry?

Such questions arrive, ironically, just at the point when Essential Schools are confronting the hard work of deepening, not broadening, the curriculum. “Less is more,” as Ted Sizer asserts, but a fearsome avalanche of “more” is thundering toward schools that must distill it into a meaningful “less.”

As teachers strive to make connections among the disciplines, to involve students more actively in their own learning, and to focus and frame the curriculum using “essential questions,” library media specialists often find themselves with not only the new title of “information specialist” but also a new role and a new set of challenges.

At worst, they are marginalized and excluded, treated as expensive luxuries in a utilitarian climate with no time for the messy processes of thinking things through. At best, they become the true generalists at the heart of reform. They can continue to nurture and advocate the contemplative, private act of reading literature, which is a crucial step in becoming a thoughtful adult. And they can coach both faculty and students in the new “information literacy,” an inquiry process that combines old-fashioned rigor with the slickest resources ever.

Framing the Questions

The first and most important step to this ideal, information specialists in Essential schools agree, involves working with teachers as they plan the curriculum, and helping frame questions that lend themselves to meaningful inquiry.

“A member of our media staff attends every possible department, grade level, team, and faculty meeting,” says Sarah Sanford, one of two media specialists for the 1,400 students at Salem High School in Conyers, Georgia. “We want to avoid the situation of a teacher coming in having already made the assignment, and finding out too late that the library’s resources either don’t support it well or could have shifted the task in a different direction.”

Both from a practical standpoint and an intellectual one, a good assignment will generate enough avenues of inquiry that every student is not pursuing the same few sources on, say, the speeches of Andrew Jackson. “I had students looking up everything from fleas on dogs to microscopic organisms,” says Kim Carter, praising the project on symbiosis.

And it will prompt students to browse through a variety of library materials along the way. “Lots of teachers ask students to write about their heroes,” says Gail Ellsted, the librarian at Piner High School in Santa Rosa, California. “But many students haven’t had enough experience even to know who their heroes might be, aside from sports or media stars.” Before students get wrapped up in the project, Ellsted suggests, they should get to know key biographical reference sources that categorize and describe everyone from artists to scientists by time period or area of endeavor.

What materials students will have access to is only part of the scenario, Sanford notes. “I talk with teachers about why they are doing the particular task, what they want kids to learn, what kind of background lessons students may need in order to do this investigation. We refine the question, exploring all the topics that might be touched on. And we think through where kids will look for the information, how they will record and evaluate what they find, and how to assess what they have done with it.”

As they explore these questions, teachers and information specialists are laying a crucial foundation for deeper student learning, according to the research of Judy M. Pitts (see: Weaving the Library Program into the Curriculum). Thoughtful inquiry, she observed, depends on identifying what kids already think they know, then confronting and challenging that mental model by offering an overview of new perspectives and information.

The teacher-coach can then prompt students to think out loud about the knotty problems that emerge from the contrast between their previous ideas and the new ideas. These conversations will spark compelling research topics, not tiresome “reports” that merely reprocess old material.

Teachers and librarians can next coach students to frame a good question and identify the key words that would help locate information on a topic. They can answer students’ questions not with answers but with other questions, prompting them to search for and discover the answers on their own. And they can model through brainstorming and discussion how a question undergoes revision as new information surfaces in the research process.

The Thoughtful Search

Finally, they can coach the student through the search process in both an evaluative and a technical way. What sources-whether they be people, print, non-print media, directly observable phenomena, or electronic databases-might shed light on the question, and how might they be found? Which information technologies-CD-ROM, laser disks, online databases, online public access catalogs, satellite, telephone-will help supply useful information?

Once data is in hand, matters of judgment take center stage. Which sources are relevant to the inquiry, which reliable and credible? Does new information change the focus of the inquiry topic? Establishing checkpoints in the research process for students to reflect on their findings is a critical and often overlooked step, librarians observe.

Teachers can encourage this process by asking students to organize a “research log”-in which they not only record, paraphrase, and attribute what they come up with, but also make notes on how it connects with or challenges what they already know. Talking through their progress with peers or teachers at some midpoint also helps clarify their thinking. So does making a visual model (like a concept map, a web, or a timeline) of where the research is going, and what new questions or conclusions it suggests.

On a more technical level, students need coaching in the practices of ethical research methods. Which sources require permission to use, and who should be credited? Is it best to paraphrase a particular finding, or to quote it directly?

So important are all these skills, librarians assert, that they should be included among the assessed outcomes in which every student must demonstrate proficiency. Souhegan teacher Dan Bisaccio’s symbiosis project, for example, called for a multimedia presentation that would give students practice in the skills needed for their upcoming graduation exhibition. Among the specific objectives of the task were not only to define and identify examples of symbiosis but to apply search strategies to locate information, to take and attribute notes in “point form,” to use CD-ROM materials to track information down, and to communicate information using the most appropriate electronic means.

Scientific topics, Gail Ellsted observes, provide particularly good practice in generating key words and in analyzing the point of view and reliability of sources. “Health class is a great way to teach younger students research skills,” she says. “In looking up something like ‘chicken pox,’ they will encounter a lot of very accessible tools and different ways to approach a topic.”

On the most fundamental level, students also need practice in reading and interpreting bibliographic citations, taking notes from sources, and organizing and reflecting on their notes so that they lead to new conclusions.

The American Association of School Librarians (AASL), a branch of the American Library Association, considers such outcomes important enough that in 1989 they issued formal guidelines describing their standards. (See: What Students Should be Able to Do: Seven Steps to Solving Information Problems) And one can hear echoes of them throughout the curriculum standards published in recent years by national groups in areas ranging from science and mathematics to social studies.

Access, Training, Attitude

Many teachers, however, neither understand the new information technologies nor have practice in using them. Though most schools these days have computer equipment, the field is changing so quickly that much of their hardware and wiring is obsolete and inadequate. Rare is the school where every classroom has an Internet connection, for example, or where every teacher is comfortable in CD-ROM search strategies. If we are to expect students to master the tools of the new era, supplying access and training for teachers must come first.

The cost of making schools data-friendly has prohibited many from embracing new technologies, but people’s attitudes toward them pose at least as great a problem. The first decade of widespread data searching has been marked by daunting protocols of complex access codes, incompatible computer “platforms,” and other technical difficulties that can make information transfer seem more trouble than it’s worth.

Even school librarians themselves often resist moving from the comfortable traditions of the print era into the demanding new realities of the information age. Rather than trying to keep up with the field’s lightning advances, they argue, schools should emphasize fundamental habits of mind like reading, writing, and textual analysis.

But the new skills do not elbow out the old, say librarians in the vanguard of the new era. “We must not let information displace wisdom,” declares Mark Gordon, who heads the library at Oceana High School in Pacifica, California and whose 1993 monograph The Essential Library is available thro ugh the Coalition’s publications office. “If you approach information without good habits of mind you only become its victim.” To balk at a tool that has become the currency of our time is shortsighted, he contends.

“Thirty years ago, an educated person needed to become familiar with the resources available at that time,” he says. “Today’s students need the power to negotiate the world in which they will live, to be comfortable making connections in ways that were unheard of then.”

Information age technology is not just an adjunct to teaching, Gordon argues, but a powerful force that shapes everything we do. “We may rue it or hate it,” he says, “but we still stick our bank cards into the automatic teller machine. If schools are in fundamental disharmony with the culture, we can expect kids to begin to ignore us, and to educate themselves in ways that do reflect the culture. This is a human dilemma in any transitional period.”

A key role of the school library media specialist, Gordon and other Essential school leaders in the field say, is that of coach and consultant to both staff and students in the new technologies. Gordon himself teaches a “computer links” course in Internet research, in which Oceana student learn to search, retrieve, and evaluate information on a typical school research topic.

Pressed for money, some schools combine the positions of technology coordinator and librarian. Unless the technology coordinator has a solid grasp of the way students learn and of the habits of mind they need in order to make effective use of the information they retrieve, this choice may fail to help students and teachers achieve the fundamental goals of information literacy. Instead, schools might encourage librarians to upgrade their skills in the new technologies, or encourage master teachers to become librarians. When hiring for new positions, graduate library programs that emphasize information services or educational technology, such as that at New York’s Syracuse University, are a good place to look.

A Rudder in the Deluge

Across the disciplines, then, library media specialists serve a critical support role in the Essential school. “I consider supporting faculty and students to be my most important task,” says Sanford. But an even larger job is typically theirs alone: to keep up with the ever-increasing information resources available to schools, and to review and select from them based on a thorough understanding of the faculty’s teaching needs.

This means navigating a complicated network of shared resources that may range from the Library of Congress to state and local government archives and state university collections. No-cost services such as the American Bar Association’s Web site (offering a rich field of primary-source information on court decisions) can vastly improve on the typical school library’s resources. Full-text versions of classic works in the public domain, from Chaucer to Shakespeare, can be had through the Gutenberg Project. The National Gallery in Washington lets students access images directly through the Internet. Swarthmore College’s Geometry Forum allows kids to query some of the country’s top mathematicians on problems and projects. Students can play a role in collecting data for scholarly projects studying everything from global warming to archaeology, or they can enter into e-mail correspondence with peers in other countries and languages.

At the same time, school information specialists must be familiar with copyright and “fair use” issues that confuse even experts in this emerging legal area. Can student multimedia projects be shared over the district’s education channel, for example, even though they contain copyrighted materials? (Yes, but only within the district and for school use, and only with student permission.) Do students need permission from copyright holders to compile a multimedia presentation? (They do; look for “stock” images in the public domain instead.)

And they must coach students to distinguish between academically useful sources and an endless array of chat groups, news groups, and list-serves that can flood students with overwhelming amounts of ill-founded or trivial information without a way to evaluate its validity.

Most teachers at reform-minded schools are far too overburdened to keep up with these demands, or to evaluate the onslaught of “educational” offerings that besiege the lucrative school market. But forward-looking state and national associations of library media specialists have forged important links with each other so that guidance and consultation is readily available.

The American Association of School Librarians, for example, runs a technology initiative that provides training in Internet use to librarians and teachers. Beginning in 1996 it will also offer help to students via the Internet, in a question-and-answer service staffed by library media professional ready to coach them through the search process. *

Around the time of Socrates, as the oral tradition faded and the new technology of reading and writing took over, ordinary people lost the tremendous capacity for memorization that had until then sustained their cultures. As the electronic millennium dawns, a similarly profound dislocation is already well under way.

Whether we will lose our sense of history to the flattened perspec-tives of the hyperstack, lose the richness of the language to the memorandic casualness of electronic messaging, lose our ability to analyze facts and evaluate opinions in the overload of media stimulants may in large part depend on how schools choose to teach in the information age. If the new literacy is “information literacy,” its tasks must include not only navigating the new flood of content but also situating the “old literacies” of reading, writing, and thoughtful investigation at the heart of classroom practice, and in the library at the heart of the Essential School.