Thursday, July 8, 2010

How do we teach students not to put tomatoes in fruit salad?

Now that I’ve been home for a week, and ALA has been over for even longer, I suppose it’s about time that I finally write about everything I saw there. I’m going to try to break it into multiple posts covering different sessions, both in order to pace myself and to avoid a post the size of a book.

Saturday morning I went to a session on sequencing instruction from kindergarten through college, which seems like a pretty difficult task. Even if you manage to keep students in one school district for K-12, ensuring they go through a complete information literacy curriculum, it seems that the channels of communication to post-secondary schools are not always great, never mind the different expectations different colleges have (or the disagreements between—or within—different departments at the same school).

While I am working to prepare my students for college (and try to stay familiar with general info lit trends at the schools my students frequently attend), students arrive at my school from all sorts of different backgrounds. Some have had excellent research instruction; some have had almost none. Which is one of the challenges in writing and implementing curriculum; there’s no one I can coordinate with on K-8 instruction.

Rather than attempt a cohesive narrative (my brain’s half on vacation), I’m going to bullet point ideas that resonated with me, and explain why.

Dr. David Loertscher started the session with an overview of what we’re trying to do.

  • Information literacy instruction used to just be about the research process; now, it’s more about critical thinking and content creation

Students need to be doing more than simply trying to absorb a lot of information; it’s getting to be a trite observation by now, but the ability to memorize and recall facts is simply not as useful or impressive a skill in the Google age. The skills students need are different—can you locate the information, can you assess it, can you make sense of it, can you integrate it into what you already know, can you build upon that knowledge and share it? It’s way more complicated than remembering a set of tasks in sequence

  • “You only learn 21st century skills in order to deepen your content understanding.”

I wrote “YES!” next to this when I was taking notes in the session. Too often I see people talking about “21st century skills” (by which they usually mean the latest technology) as an end in and of itself. Sorry, but learning how to build a wiki, or record a podcast, or write a blog or use an e-reader are not ends in and of themselves. Unless they are coupled with real content, they’re just toys. Technology divorced from content (i.e. context) is just as meaningless as try to teach content without context.

  • Understanding how Wikipedia happened will help us solve the dropout problem

Okay, I left out a few steps in his logic, but for me that was the basic point. We need to center our work around engaging with real problems and involving students in knowledge creation. Students who have a voice and an audience and see the real-world context and application for what they’re learning are students who stay engaged in what they’re learning. And engaged students stay in school.

  • Knowing how to research does not mean you know how to think


So how do we change research so students have to know how to think in order to be successful? And how on earth do you teach someone to think?

  • Once students find information, it’s now up to teachers to show them how to do something with it; we need to put ourselves back in that process.

This goes to the root of the whole “research is not thinking” issue; we need to be working with teachers on the WHOLE process, not just send them back to the classroom once they’ve gathered information.

  • K-12 schools and colleges/universities need to work together; better trained teachers create better undergraduate students.

If nothing else, naked self-interest means that librarians in K-12 schools need to communicate with colleges about what new teachers (many of whom are not information literate themselves) need to know.

  • You are no longer amazing just because you taught a kid how to use a database

Students can find information. That part of the process keeps getting easier, frankly. What they do with the information? That part will never be easy.

I also really liked several of the points Valerie Diggs of Chelmsford High School presented.

  • It is very difficult to move teachers away from “information regurgitation” projects

So, so difficult. Part of that is because that’s how they’ve always done things, and part of it is, I think, because teachers think students need to master “the basics” before they can do more “advanced” research. Except a) students are bored to death by these projects, and so b) they don’t learn anything either basic or advanced. So we do another “information regurgitation” project. . .

  • We need to focus less on finding and evaluating sources, more on how they use the information they find

This was reassuring to hear, and I think ties into the point Dr. Loertscher made about teaching kids to use a database. Finding an evaluating sources is important, but it can’t be the core of what we do.

The final presenter was Ellysa Stern Cahoy, a librarian at Penn State.

  • We’re teaching skills students think they already know

Anybody who has ever tried to teach anybody anything can relate to this idea. No matter how little they actually know, students are convinced they know everything about the research process (and sometimes everything about the topic they’re researching). The challenge of over-confidence is particularly tricky, as researching requires resiliency, and you need some confidence in order to be resilient enough to make it through the research process—never mind sharing what you’ve learning with a larger audience.

  • How does the research make it into the final product? Students find good information, but they don’t integrate it

I cannot tell you how many times a student has told me that it doesn’t really matter if the information is correct on the five other sources on their Works Cited, ‘cause they got all the information from one source. In order to get students to integrate information , we need to rethink the entire research process; right now each step is not clearly tied to what comes next in a causal way. It’s find your sources and then evaluate them and then take notes and then etc. In a way we need to take students to the final project and then show them how to scaffold back to where they need to start; they need to see how each part ties into every other part, rather than viewing each step as discrete and disjointed.

  • How do you keep the fun of technology from interfering with the critical thinking process?

I’ve seen students spend more time selecting images for the cover page of a report (a cover page that is rarely if ever required) than doing the research for that report. I’ve seen them spend more time on backgrounds and text effects for a PowerPoint than creating actual content for the slides. Add in the possibility of video clips or sound effects and critical thinking goes right out the window.

The title of this post is a reference to a quote I recently discovered (and have been unable to find authoritative attribution for): "Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad." This, as I see it, is the big shift in information literacy instruction at every level of schooling. Finding out that a tomato is a fruit is no longer the point; knowing what to do (and what not to do) with the tomato is the point.


  1. Your blogs seem slightly more educational and intellectual than mine. And I really like the tomato quote that brought it all together. So true. Well done!

  2. Thanks! I've been reading your blog too--so glad you decided to start one. Mine's not always all intellectual--see, for example, my swag tally.

    Also, I thought my user pic was the dorkiest one possible, but you may have outdone me. You are, at the very least, a close second.