Monday, January 17, 2011

Info Lit and Critical Thinking-Introduction

So, I thought I’d spend some time discussing information literacy and critical thinking.  We didn’t spend a large amount of time discussing this in class, at least in a direct manner.  We spent time learning how to complete searches and work on reference interviews, and some of that can be used in teaching patrons how to access information.

I think it’s become obvious that Americans lack critical thinking skills, at least in some areas.  It’s like a selective skill set.  People will use info lit and critical thinking skills when it suits them but abandon those skills when they become more difficult.  I think Zipf’s principle of least effort comes into play here.  It’s easier to not use critical thinking skills.  We can see this in everyday life when it comes to gossip or commentary presented as news (it’s obvious that some commentators on CNN, Fox, and MSNBC have extreme bias). 

We may believe what our neighbor tells us about the reclusive guy in the house down the street with the odd hair.  Most of this doesn’t affect us in dangerous ways.  We may miss out on some interesting interactions or lose the opportunity to make a new friend based on gossip, but it won’t kill us.  However, what if our neighbor tells us the guy down the street is a sexual predator?  Do we believe our neighbor, shun the guy down the street, and keep our kids from playing outside even in broad daylight?  What if we find out five years down (when we’re steeped in paranoia and our kids are pale as vampires and have vitamin D deficiencies) the road that our neighbor was wrong about the guy down the street?  Wouldn’t it be better to just check the sex offender registry or ask our neighbor where he got his information than to spend years locked in by potentially false information?

This comes down to the fact that people have a built in reticence when it comes to “looking stuff up.”  Sometimes we believe the first thing we hear so we don’t have to put the effort in to research.  Sometimes we’ll even fill in the blanks with conjecture, which is often plainly false, or worse, made up.  This is how rumors and urban legends get going. 

News can also fall into this pattern.  News organizations rush to report stories, to get information on air before other networks.  This can often lead to false information and retractions, if the news organization is honest.  For example, the recent shooting of Congresswoman Giffords had news agencies reporting everything from documented facts to odd conjectures.  Several of the initial stories reported Giffords as dead, when in fact she is responding well to her current treatments.  The lack of facts and loads of misinformation get worse when we move from the news to the commentary.  Commentators are the bread and butter of many news stations anymore.  And viewers may see the commentators as experts on whatever they talk about.  Whether that’s because the commentator is on a news station or is television or is otherwise famous is anyone’s guess. 

I’ve been guilty of believing a news commentator if his or her views happen to match mine.  It’s human to do so.  However, I’ve also made it a point to look up their reported facts for myself.  I do this for several reasons: to practice research and critical thinking skills, to see the data for myself without commentary, to fact check, and to avoid embarrassment in public if I find myself in a discussion on the topic in question.   

So, we know that human beings usually try to take the path of least resistance to information, even if it may be wrong.  We’re also aware from library science research that people have to deal with information overload on a constant basis in this world of online access and 24 hour news cycles.  This can create anxiety and further reinforces taking the path of least resistance.  The fear of not knowing leads us to take quick measures to assuage our anxiety.  How do we overcome this?  How can human beings move beyond the fear of not knowing to better understanding?  Can we turn our information anxiety into curiosity without fear?

I don’t think it’ll ever be a hundred percent.  Humans have evolved too many instinctual and primitive reactions to completely remove the fear of the unknown and information anxiety.  We can, however, redirect these energies and tame that part of us that wants a quick answer regardless of the cost.  (For an interesting look at our inner beast and living with it, go to this video-but keep in mind that philhellenes is a commentator on YouTube)

Teaching information literacy and critical thinking skills throughout life (starting as early as possible) can help reinforce the notion that it’s ok to not know.  It’s perfectly fine to say “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.”  It won’t kill us to take more time to find a correct answer.  It may in fact save our lives and our sanity.  Beyond just encouraging curiosity and the desire for the correct information, it is also important to teach these skills on other levels.  Recently, test scores and performance in several subject areas, including math and science, have fallen compared to other nations.  We’ve also seen a reduction in science and education funding and attempts to promote woo in American classrooms.  This makes it difficult for us to compete on an international level and can eventually hurt our status as an innovative and inventive country, which in turn can hurt our economic standing even more.  The New York Times had a post on this topic in September of 2010.  It looks at government reports from 2005 and 2010 on the subjects of science, technology, and global economic competitiveness.

One of the best ways to introduce students to critical thinking and reinforce it in more experienced students is to force students to look at how they seek information.  What patterns do they follow?  What are their strengths?  Weaknesses?  Are they applying critical thinking to some subjects but not others?  Or do they not apply critical thinking to any subject?  One way I have found is to introduce this topic with a research assignment-to combine information literacy and critical thinking.  When I taught at a local community college, I would ask students to research a topic (for example, plagiarism).  In the first assignment I had students use a search engine they’re familiar with, like Google or yahoo, and research the topic.  They had to provide citations and summarize what they found in at least three sources.  In the second assignment I had them do the search again but use scholarly databases in the college library.  Again, they had to provide citations and summaries for at least three sources.  For the third assignment, the students had to write a short paper comparing and contrasting the search methods, what they found, and how they searched.  They also had to tell me which method was better for college research and why.  The fourth assignment in this series was a discussion.  And, yes, I’m one of those silly teachers that like the desks in a circle.  It puts everyone on equal terms in a physical sense.  During the discussion, I used Socratic questioning and grilled them on every little thing.  I liked playing “devil’s advocate” during these conversations.  It forced them into self reflection and also forced them to verbalize their thoughts in a public forum.  You’d be amazed how fast students progress when this is done on a weekly, or even bi-weekly, basis. 

OK.  I’ve droned on long enough for one posting.  I’ll be back in a few days to discuss more about critical thinking and information literacy.  Hopefully, I’ll be a little more focused.  I tend to feel like I’m rambling when I blog.      

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