Bringing virtues to information literacy


Ever since I became interested in information literacy, I’ve felt that there needs to be more to it than merely teaching students the skills to be able to locate and access information.

This is borne out by pedagogical developments in education toward constructivist approaches to teaching and learning, which accomodate the idea that the student brings their own experience, mental structures and beliefs (i.e. their own context) to the process of constructing knowledge.   Utilising this approach to design and conduct information literacy instruction, however, is far from easy.

I discovered a different slant to this issue in Lane Wilkinson’s latest post on Sense and Reference, Information literacy: Standards, skills, and virtues, where he explores  some ideas around the philosophical notion of “virtue epistemology” to argue that the basis of information literacy instruction should be teaching “information virtues” as much as “information skills”.

Here are six of  his main points:

1. The current ACRL Standards for Information Literacy , which have not been changed since 2000, are based entirely on the notion of information literacy skills, ie to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.”

2. Yes, we need skills. They are valuable, relatively straightforward to teach, easily measured and assessed, and easy to categorise.  The problem with this approach, however, is that we teach a capacity to act, not a disposition to act.  We teach information literacy skills, but we don’t teach students how to employ those skills.

3. We should also teach “intellectual virtues”, which play a key role in how we acquire knowledge.    “Basically, what we know and learn is a function of our intellectual virtues over and above our intellectual skills.”  Examples of intellectual virtues include sensitivity to detail, intellectual humility, being open minded, adaptability, intellectual fairness, social justice etc (Linda Zagzebski, 1996)

4.  Teaching “information virtues” would mean focusing less on discrete skills and more on fostering dispositions.  It would mean teaching students to engage with information in a different way, so that they care about it.

5. This would mean helping students to value different information sources, identify with investigative methods, and to be inclined to synthesize and internalize what they read.

6. While the current standards do touch on these things, they are not an explicit or consistent focus.  Motivating students to value the skills we teach has been of secondary importance.

 Instead of focusing on cognitive skills, we should focus our information literacy efforts on cultivating the dispositions to value critical inquiry, to use information ethically, to be intellectually humble and honest and fair; the particular skills involved should, like merit badges, be of secondary importance.

I really enjoyed reading this post.  It has stimulated my desire, not only to learn more about philosophical approaches to information literacy, but to discover ways in which these ideas can translate from the abstract to the concrete – from the vision splendid to tangible methods that work on the ground.

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