Critical Literacy for Research – Sort of Peer-Reviewed Friday

Unexpectedly it’s Peer Reviewed Friday.  Well sort of.  Harvard Educational Review is a student-run journal, with an editorial board made up of graduate students deciding which articles get published.

I was teaching a class in our small classroom – where I never teach – so I went up early to make sure that I still knew how to work the tech.  It’s on the 5th floor, where the L’s are shelved, so I was flipping through the Fall 2009 issue while I waited for them to show up.  This article caught my eye — well worth reading, both for the content/ideas and because it is very enjoyably written.

Harouni, Houman (Fall 2009). High School Research and Critical Literacy: Social Studies with and Despite Wikipedia. Harvard Educational Review, 79:3. 473-493.

It’s a reflective, case-study type description of the author’s experiences reworking his research assignments in high school social studies classes. There’s a ton here to talk about – the specific exercises he developed and describes, the way the piece works as an example of critical reflective practice — but mainly I want to unpack this bit, which I think is the central theme of the work:

If students do not engage in the process of research inside the classroom, then it is natural for them to view the assignment in a results-oriented manner — the only manifestation of their work being their final paper and presentation.  It is not surprising then, that they are willing to quickly accept the most easily accessible and seemingly accurate information that satisfies the assignment and spares them the anxiety of questioning their data.  And when their final products did not meet my expectations, the students responded not by rethinking the research process itself but by simply attempting to adjust the product in light of what they perceived to be personal preferences. (476-77)

(emphasis mine)

Basically, the narrative he lays out says that his research projects had been unsuccessful for a while, but it wasn’t until he noticed his students’ heavy and consistent reliance on Wikipedia as a source that he started digging into why, what that meant, what he really wanted to teach, and what he really wanted students to learn.  And he changed stuff based on those reflections.

Harouni’s thinking about information literacy (which he calls “critical literacy for research”) was initially sparked by students who were not evaluating sources or showing any sign of curiosity as they researched, but it was further sparked when his first attempts at addressing student gaps didn’t work, sparked by students who were trying, and failing, to evaluate texts they weren’t yet ready to evaluate.

Along the way, he talks about the limitations of a checklist, or “algorithmic” approach to evaluation — limitation he discovered when he reflected on what his students actually did when he tried to use that approach in his classroom:

Two observations confirmed the shallowness of the learning experience created through the exercise: first, the students did not apply their learning unless I asked them to do so; second, they remained dependent on the list of rules and questions to guide their inquiry. (480)

In other words, they could do the thing he asked them to do (apply the checklist to information sources) but it didn’t affect their actual practice as researchers, nor did it change how they viewed the information they were getting from Wikipedia.

And also why it is important to help students understand the openness and dynamism of Wikipedia, but that that itself is not enough:  “knowledge of the uncertainties of a source does not automatically translate into an awareness of one’s relationship with the information (477).”

This piece is, I think, essential at getting at what I think is the real value of his insights and experience — many of our students want to find certainty in their research processes.  They want to know that a source is good or bad.  Wikipedia bans feed that.  Checklists feed that too, especially when they are not taught as an initial step in an evaluation process, but as the process itself.  What we really want students to be able to do when they research is to manage uncertainty — to say I know this is uncertain and I can figure out what it means for me as I try to answer my real, important, and complex question.

Harouni’s process his is an excellent reminder of how teachers want clarity too – and how they have to be willing to embrace uncertainty themselves if they are to guide students through a process of authentic inquiry:

In teaching critical literacy for research, I have had to separate research from its dry, academic context and consider it as an everyday practice of becoming informed about issues that have an impact on students’ lives.  I must value not answers but instead questions that represent the continued renewal of the search.  I must value uncertainty and admit complexity in the study of all things. (490)

In this, he knocks on the door of a question that I frequently have as an instruction librarian (one which I think many instruction librarians have — how much can I really accomplish as a teacher on my own).  If the classroom instructor – the person creates, assigns, explains, and evaluates the research assignment isn’t actively engaged with the students’ research process – are there limits to what I can do?  I do think there are.  I don’t think those limits means that I should do nothing, far from it – but I do think those limits affect what I think I should be trying to accomplish on my own and affect the other ways I should be thinking about furthering my goals for students, inquiry and learning.

At the end of the day, one of Harouni’s basic assumptions is that it is part of his job as a social studies teacher to foster inquiry and curiosity in his students, “[f]or two semesters, research projects remained a part of my curriculum — not because they were wonderful learning experiences, but because I could not justify, to myself, a social studies class that did not work to improve the way students navigated the ocean of available information (474-5).”  In other words, he believes that teaching information literacy is an essential part of what he does.   And that is key.  You can’t have that perspective and also value coverage – of content information – above all else.  It’s one or the other.  (is it?  Yeah, I think it is).

Every faculty member isn’t going to have that idea of what their job is.  And every librarian isn’t either – but I think maybe for instruction librarian it should be.  It is true that rules and clarity make coverage easier.  There was a question on ILI-L yesterday from someone (responding to an ongoing discussion about teaching web evaluation)  asking “how do you even have time to talk about web evaluation when you have to cover all this other stuff.”

Rules make it easier to “cover” web evaluation.  Faculty want us to “cover” lots of different tools.  WE want to “cover” lots of different tools.

(N.B. I am not suggesting that everyone who engaged in the “web evaluation” discussion just “covers” it and doesn’t teach it.  Nor am I suggesting that the people who worry about covering what the faculty want them to cover are only interested in coverage.  I do think though that the pressure to “cover” is as true for us as it is for people in the disciplines and these discussions spark reminders of that)

But if we want students to think about research as a process, if we want research to BE a learning process, then we have to engage in teaching the process.  And that’s extra hard for us – we can’t do that in the one-shot by ourselves.  And we can’t do it if we’re worried about coverage — about covering everything the library has to offer.  And I’m not just saying that about “we can’t teach everything about the library in a one-shot” — I think we all know that.  I think I am saying that it can’t be about that at all – that the point has to be about the process, about authenticity, about this -

I now understand that whatever research strategies students use in their day-to-day lives, which no doubt will vary depending on who the learners are, must be investigated and taken into account by their teacher.  Neither this goal nor the goal of improving these strategies can be attained unless students have time to engage in research while they are in the classroom.  And inviting students to the computer lab and remaining attentive to their interaction with online sources is as important as accompanying students to the library. (490)

And maybe this means not worrying about teaching research as a recursive learning process in the one-shot.  Maybe this means rethinking what and where we teach and maybe it’s work with faculty that gets at that overarching goal.  I don’t know.  I do know, though, that I have some great ideas for rethinking my credit class next term.

Classroom activities to promote critical literacy for research:

1. A (relatively innocuous) vandalism example demonstrated in class.  He didn’t change the content of pages, just the accompanying photo to illustrate the process of editing.

2. Students work in pairs to evaluate a Wikipedia article on a topic they know a lot about (for example, one student used the article about her former high school). Through this exercise he was able to teach about:  skepticism & its place in the research process, identifying controversial claims in a text, citations and footnotes, and verifying claims by checking outside sources.

3. Judging a book by its first sentence. He brought in 5 history textbooks, showed the covers and provided the first sentence.  Then he asked students to describe what they could figure out about the book from that first sentence.  With this exercise he was able to teach: authorial bias or point of view; finding the author’s voice.

4. Research beyond the first sentence.  When they tried to apply these critical skills to the texts they found in their research projects, though, they still had trouble because they didn’t know enough about the stuff they were researching.  So he looked for a way through this problem. Enter Wikipedia.  He provided a list of pages identified by Wikipedia editors as biased or lacking a neutral point of view, and asked the students to choose an article on a somewhat familiar topic and write a brief essay, with specific references to the text, with suggestions for improving the piece to meet the Wikipedia’s neutrality standard.

5. Contributing as an author.  Similar to other projects like this, it was one option for his students as a final project.  Interesting in that he collaboratively developed the assignment and rubric with interested students.

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