Thumbs Up

I am in the fortunate position of having a foot in pre-service or initial teacher education (ITE), and in-service teacher PLD that mainly focuses on disciplinary literacy.  In both cases, I work in lecture theatres, on-line environments, classrooms, and staffrooms, and have opportunities to observe the extent to which secondary school teaching and learning reflects our ideal of delivering information literate and connected lifelong learners.

Should you focus solely on noting the impact of NCEA on teacher practice, you might conclude that many subjects seem to be locked into cycles of rehearsed examination responses, and teacher presentations of pre-processed packages of content information – information commodities if you will. The preoccupation with outcomes (expressed as NCEA league tables), a competitive schooling marketplace, and the emphasis of successive governments on credential attainment (82% attaining NCEA L2 annually) seem to have positioned teachers do much of the information processing, knowledge building and communication for their students.  Consequently, students are missing out on learning and applying information literacy (IL) skills in order to learn and know ‘stuff’.  However, reversing that situation, where teachers actively teach  IL skills and gradually release the responsibility to students to learn knowledge, and how to communicate it, carries unacceptable risks of underachievement and failure. Better then, in the circumstances to teach prudentially.  That is, let’s insure against student failure by doing it all for them, commodify what they have to know and do, and then teach lessons as risk averse test rehearsals in order to maximise achievement outcomes.

But of course, it doesn’t have to be like this.  I work with in-service colleagues, and when we talk about test-based teaching, there emerges a heartening frustration and exasperation about the dominance of NCEA attainment outcomes on their practice, and for some desire to try things differently – far from being naïve puppets, teachers I have met are keenly aware of what forces shape their practice and the levels of compliancy required of them.

A few weeks ago I led a day’s PLD at a conservative boy’s secondary school on writing.  I made clear to them that NCEA exam response writing was off the agenda.  Rather I would couple subject content reading to writing-to-process information, and talk of how reading and writing for and about information lies at the centre of teaching students to be literate thinkers in NCEA courses. Into the course, I introduced exactly the skills and dispositions that distribute themselves throughout Angela Feekery’s Information Literacy Self Assessment Rubric. (more about this in the next blog post)

My argument was simple: these were the skills that underpinned their own advanced disciplinary academic achievement, they knew what they were and how to use them, so there was nothing new in this information literacy ‘stuff’. Except that their teaching, with its focus on processed subject content and exam outcomes, effectively hid these skills from view – they remained invisible to their students.  They had, I argued, an ethical responsibility to make the invisible visible – to show their students how information literacy works for learning and achievement in their subjects.  These skills were obviously good enough for the teachers so they are certainly good enough for their students. That message – of prior and familiar knowledge, a subject content context, and the implication that this approach required students to work actively to learn – struck a chord.  Added to which, I insisted that information skills relied upon students actively reading and writing every day in lots of ways, even if they complained that reading and writing suck!

In another setting, I lecture Initial Teacher Education (ITE) using face-to-face and distance platforms. I work with adults who have successfully navigated their way through academic education to gain advanced degrees in a range of disciplines and are beginning their secondary teacher training year.  A first question I ask them is: how many went through secondary school in the top academic streams or bands.  Most had!  I then ask how many completed their degrees with few if any course failures.  Again, most had. The inference is clear.  These teacher trainees are unlike the majority of students they will likely teach in their first and subsequent years, because most students, especially in Year 9 – 11 are NOT in the top classes or bands. They are in ‘other’ classes, yet they are all expected to learn and are tested on the same content information and are likely taught (mistakenly) in ways and with assumptions that reproduce how these teachers, as ‘top’ students’, were themselves taught.

Shaking handsIn their courses, I argue that teaching information literacy skills with which to learn content information can offer a strategic approach to bridge that prior experience/assumptions gap.  I ask these enthusiastic beginners to describe what information skills they were good at and what they did to use them. Or put another way, I challenged them to objectify these as strategic skills for learning,  to take them from that implicit, common-sense, take for granted space into one where they become strategic acts of instruction to help kids unlike them to learn the same content information they obviously value  – in effect to remove the cloak of invisibility from skills many students fail to pick along the way and make them visible, teachable and do-able learning skills for all their kids. Further, the fact that they have successfully entered teacher training suggests that they already have those skills under their belt. And this last point strikes a chord again. “It worked for me, I know they are valuable skills, and these kids need them to achieve, if not actually like me, then in terms of their own aims and ambitions.”

And this is where the two separate groups found common ground.  On the negative side of the ledger, both clearly understand the achieve imperative (less I suspect as a philosophy but more as meeting results percentages), and of the reductive effect this has on approaches to learning and teaching.  Content area writing is NOT popular and reading content is boring, and group discussion that may or may not end with a widely understood conclusion seems to dominate.  Perhaps it’s safer just to tell the students what they need to know – to follow ‘a pedagogy of telling’. In the end, it seems learning to find, select, retrieve and use information is forgotten as lessons become discrete parcels for distributing content information, processed and presented by the teacher – commodified, prudentialised teaching.

Cooperate ConnectOn the positive side (and there is one!):  despite their different situations, these two groups read the messages: that information literacy is not a new ‘other’ nor an additional imposition; as academically successful individuals they already know much already; how they learnt is as important to teach as what they learnt; and that re-balancing product and process is essential to this process. Teaching and learning through an information skills instructional approach has the potential to reorient teacher practice so that kids to do more cognitive heavy lifting, with weight training and gear provided by the teacher.  In so doing we can nurture our students to be lifelong information literate critical thinkers, AND get results.

Ken Kilpin is a facilitator at Massey University, has extensive work experience in secondary and tertiary education and co-leads our Information Literacy Project research.