Teaching critical information literacy

When I was about 18 or 19, I attended a journalism conference as a student journalist. I remember correcting a professional journalist on a small but significant point, and he responded by telling me I had a bright career ahead of me as a fact-checker (derogatory). I guess he wasn’t wrong – fact-checking is a big part of my job as a librarian after all – but to this day, I still am not entirely sure why he thought that was an insult. 

The latest and greatest idea in the Fighting Misinformation* conversation is lateral reading. This is not a new idea among professional fact-checkers, but I suppose the rest of us information workers are still catching up. 

I think this is a good thing. Lateral reading is a slow and iterative process, which likely will make it unpopular in a world where we’re encouraged to make snap judgements and nobody has time to research anything. 

But it is more effective than older approaches to media literacy (Can we please stop teaching CRAAP?), and I do hope that if educators and information workers add it as an important tool in their box of tools, we will more successfully guide students to be competent outsiders when they consume information. 

One of humans’ – and thus also educators – fatal flaws is that we really love checklists and heuristics. We want a simple, straightforward process that we can hand to students and that they can apply to every type of information they run across, and everything will work out great. And I wish that was the case! College students today have so much on their plate – I spent a good chunk of my 20s taking 12-18 credits while trying to juggle at least two part-time jobs, often more. Research takes so much time and mental energy. If only there was a shortcut. 

We’re also really uncomfortable with uncertainty; most things in life do not have simple, straightforward answers, and that is really frustrating! Our education system is also not set up to embrace ambiguity. 

One of my favorite frames from the ACRL’s Framework for Information Literacy to discuss with students is Authority is Constructed and Contextual. We talk about the importance of understanding information’s context and its author’s positionality. 

What often comes up is how many conflicting viewpoints there are in a given field, and the difficulty of assessing which ones to listen to. Evaluating sources takes knowledge, not skills. You need understanding of the accepted knowledge in a field and the mental models used in order to really discern whether something is reliable or not.

I also try to always explicitly acknowledge bias, both in the construction of an author’s authority, and our own internal biases that affect how we approach and interpret sources. You could easily take that in a political direction, and many do, but I see bias coming from people on every side of an issue**. Which will make a great segue into another fatal flaw I frequently see.

There’s this idea that often goes unspoken, that if everyone is well-informed and got a gold star in critical thinking, everyone would think like us. (Would they?)

First, I think we overestimate how critical our own thinking is. None of us are nearly as rational or unemotional as we want to think we are.

Second, just because people have the skills to think critically doesn’t mean they’ll use them to come to the same conclusions you do. And, I have to ask, do you want them to? Do you really?

I believe pretty strongly that without being challenged by people who disagree with you, your thinking stagnates, and you cease to grow and learn as a human being***. Also I think that only being around people who agree with me would get pretty boring, like being around people who only ever wanted to eat buttered noodles, so you never had the chance to try more exciting cuisine.  

In her excellent book Teaching Critical Thinking, bell hooks talks about her students asking her what she wants them to become. Her answer is that her intent is not to make them become “little bell hooks”:

“They need not think as I do. My hope is that by learning to think critically they will be self-actualizing and self-determining.” 

Of course, this is a lot harder to do than teaching a simple checklist for evaluating sources, and demands a lot more effort from educators. I don’t have any clear-cut answers to how to go about this – I’m much more interested in asking good questions. And really, that is what I think education should be all about – fostering curiosity, and learning how to ask questions. 

Thanks for reading.

*Every time I see military language in relation to my profession – usually in the context of people saying librarians are fighting misinformation/censorship/ignorance/etc. – I get a bad taste in my mouth. As a pacifist, I find it pretty rude for anyone to claim I’m waging war on anything (particularly an abstract concept such as censorship). It reminds me of an excellent blog post by Ursula K. Le Guin on American politics and aggression: 

My song for many years was “We Shall Overcome.” I will always love that song, what it says and the people who have sung it, with whom I marched singing. But I can’t march now, and I can’t sing it any longer.

My song is “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More.”

**Too often (particularly in the last 2-3 years) I see leftists and progressives pushing the idea that science is an immutable truth in which we must put unquestioning faith. This is just as wrong as the view that scientific authority is inherently untrustworthy. It would be much more productive if we thought of science as the collective effort of stumbling towards understanding. But that idea isn’t nearly as fun as more inflammatory ones. 

***I have further thoughts on this, which I plan to come back to in a future post. What I will say for now is that I often think that when we get fed up with associating with people who disagree with us, I don’t think we’re actually fed up with people who disagree: we’re fed up with bad-faith actors.

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