Tag Archives: #inquiry

Learning centred on the learner’s questioning and desire to explore the unknown.

What is research anyway?

It is frequently the experience of librarians that a request is made to engage with a class in the process of research, either for a specific inquiry or to learn about a new database, to explore a new searching skill or simply to gain some research tips and tricks. This is the perfect time to stop to consider what this idea of “research” is. Why would we bother teaching it when access to information seems to be easier now than it ever was? Is it a passing skill and are other priorities taking it’s place?

To understand what research is, why it is significant and how we can begin to build a deeper understanding of how to teach research, we need to consider how the idea of research fits into the broader framework of information literacy (IL). An article by Nancy M. Foasberg will help to frame this idea (paywall). Foasberg compares the the ACRL (the Association of College and Research Libraries) Information Literacy “Standards” with the newer “Framework” that recognises that information literacy is a social phenomenon and places students as participatory learners. This article exists behind a paywall although all the information about the ACRL Information Literacy Standards and Framework are available for comparison on their website. Foasberg takes a step back to examine the differences and overlaps between a positivist epistemology (p. 704) positioning research primarily as a process of information retrieval (ACRL IL Standards), toward a constructivist philosophy where “knowledge is constructed and reconstructed through social interactions” (p 702; ACRL IL Framework).

In essence, this is a shift from understanding information as something we “get” toward something we “share”.

Models familiar to us such as the Big 6 and the ACRL Information Literacy Standards position information as something that is external to the learner. Information literacy is therefore framed as the ability to seek out, possess and use information effectively. Research then becomes a list of skills in a sequence of tasks from determining an information need followed by access, evaluation, ethical use and finally, communication.

In contrast, a constructivist understanding positions “information literacy as a social practice” (p. 700). This does not diminish the importance of the skills outlined in the ACRL Standards but instead places them in a framework that acknowledges the complex information landscape that is the reality of the social world we participate in. Expanding our understanding of information literacy in this way positions research in a framework that “better recognizes the complexities of information and information behavior, and explicitly makes space for students as participants in the process of knowledge creation” (p. 700). As a participant, the learner has the agency to “critique the social and institutional hierarchies surrounding information production and distribution” (p. 703).

What is research?

Research is the facet of information literacy that is the iterative act of inquiry where students ask increasingly complex questions that lead to answers and more questions that generate expanding lines of inquiry (p. 701). Furthermore, research, only has meaning when it is understood in the context of a conceptual understanding of information literacy. As such, it cannot be separated from other skills such as critical thinking, communication skills, self-organisation, and social skills. The framework provides a broad context where learners explore concepts such as information authority, information value, creativity, scholarly discourse, and information formats & structures.

What can this look like in the classroom?

Fundamentally, as agents in their own learning, it is a process that looks different for every student as they become active participants in their individual information landscapes. Research is a social practice; a messy, dialogic practice (see a previous blog post from 2015).  We can describe research as taking action because it positions the learner as an active agent in constructing meaning while also understanding that these insights change over time with exposure to different communities. In 1970, Paulo Freire argued that non-dialogic education is a system of oppression that entrenches societal power imbalances. Research, then, is dialogue.

Research in the classroom is not simply about the “artifacts” of information – the databases, the sources, the formats, technical systems, the media, the library or the content. Focussing on the artifacts is a view that relegates information to be simply a commodity (p. 703). Emphasising the artifacts of information leads us to position the learner in a submissive role where they are only required “to interpret the knowledge that experts produce” in published texts (p. 704). However, the artifacts of information are not an endpoint for learners. Information is a flow that we step into, grapple with, participate in, act in and influence through our participation.

A student who understands that the authority of an information source is “constructed and contextual” is one who can then question, challenge and participate in the creation of understandings of authority. The learner then joins in the ongoing debate, respecting expertise but retaining a skeptical stance that sets the stage for an ongoing evolution of understanding and meaning. This is in stark contrast to presenting authoritative sources as a static understanding that is to be learnt and revered but not questioned.

The information literate student is not merely one who can display the skills of information retrieval, use and communication but one who is in the process of actively developing their level of expertise in participation. An information literate person holds knowledge loosely with the understanding that authority, value, research and strategy change over time and across different contexts. An information literate person is one who participates in the dialogue of communities contributing actively to the evolution of information.

This does complicate the teaching of research skills and information literacy but, as I have argued previously (#complexsystems), individually we are complex systems that exist within a wide range of complex social systems. To approach complex systems from a reductionist perspective significantly limits the deep learning that can occur and contradicts the realities of our existence (find a more detailed read about the complex situatedness of information here). All “information is embedded in a social context and cannot be understood outside of that context” (p. 713). This is not a standard that can be measured, but a framework, a disposition. This does not stop corporations from advertising that it can be tested with one standard assessment but the irony of corporatisation in this field is another discussion.

The outcome of this for students is that they become participants who can change the communities that they participate in and are positioned to reimagine new futures. This is research as action, research as inquiry and research as conversation.

Here are a few examples for the classroom

Example 1: “No school tomorrow”

A quick conversation starter with a class is to present the statement: there is “No school tomorrow”. It certainly gets attention and very quickly leads to a discussion about where I heard this information, who I heard it from, why that person said it, when I heard this information and in what form that information came in. It becomes quite clear that if I overheard a group of young students talking about it, then it is quite a different proposition than if I heard it from the head of school. Alternatively, if I tell them that I saw it on a poster last year on the last day before summer holidays or even last Friday, then it holds a very different meaning and significance. While it quickly becomes clear to students that there are no plans to cancel school tomorrow, it does generate a class discussion that in many ways should be the kind of discussion we have about any information. Such a discussion emphasises that dialogue should be central to how we discover and handle information. Such dialogue should also then inform how we communicate that information emphasising the need to accurately cite (formally or informally) our sources.

Example 2: Facebook, Google and Amazon

Why does research and information literacy matter? Three words – Amazon, Google, and Facebook. In an article titled, “The web began dying in 2014: Here’s how”, André Staltz says that what “has changed over the last 4 years is market share of traffic on the Web. It looks like nothing has changed, but GOOG and FB now have direct influence over 70%+ of internet traffic”. Furthermore, Google, Facebook and Amazon are all seeking to bypass the web to connect us via the internet and mediated by AI. Whether we believe this to be to our advantage or a threat to our freedom, there is no doubt that this should be a topic of discussion in the classroom. Who has the authority over information flows in our own lives? Is it our own research, critical analysis and dialogue or are we handing these decisions about the information we interact with over to corporations who buy and sell our data with minimal consideration for the ethics governing that market place? FB pulls billions of dollars based on the social construction of information, and it does this by providing a free service no-less. This socially constructed information has a monetary value of billions of dollars and wields unrivalled power and influence. Therefore, the dialogic nature of information is of profound significance challenging us to question how we are providing students with the opportunities to wrestle with these challenges now.

Example 3. Challenging Copyright

On page 712 of this article, Foasberg uses the example “that students may choose to question the highly restrictive, pro-corporate copyright laws that currently predominate most of the world”. While the ACRL Framework may stop short of  “critiquing copyright or calling for open access to scholarly materials, it does open up the possibility that both copyright and scholarly publishing can be challenged and perhaps changed. It hints that both the copyright system and the scholarly publication system are imperfect and temporary, encouraging students to make “deliberate and informed choices” about compliance or resistance to them. After all, students may one day be in a position to advocate for change to these systems”.

Further reading

#critlib on Twitter

HybridPedagogy is also a favourite hangout of mine for opinions and discussions about critical digital pedagogy.

Threshold Concepts & Information Literacy

Foasberg, N. M. “From Standards to Frameworks for IL: How the ACRL Framework Addresses Critiques of the Standards.” portal: Libraries and the Academy, vol. 15 no. 4, 2015, pp. 699-717. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/595062.

The embodied library : learning to read

(1800 words)

Everything the school library does is in the service of student learning. Learning is change. For the most part, we are not consciously aware of all the changes that occur in our brain and body when we are learning. We can often describe observable aspects of learning such as an improvements in our accuracy in kicking a ball through the goal posts, the ability to solve a challenging math problem, a new way to fold the worlds best ever paper plane, or a new historical insight but the neurological and physiological changes in our bodies are hidden. These new skills or new knowledge may indicate that learning has occurred however they are far from providing a complete understanding of the change that has taken place. This is where understanding the embodied mind can lead us to a more holistic view of learning. Learning that we can directly observe, test or that we are conscious of is only the very tip of the iceberg. Learning is a process that involves the entire body in a complex system of interdependent subsystems. The brain is a dominant arbiter in the learning process however the brain only functions within the context of the body – as Guy Claxton explains, the “brain and the body function as a single unit” (Claxton, 2015 p 89). Continue reading The embodied library : learning to read

There is no Information Literacy if there is no Dialogue 

(2200 words)

Information literacy is dehumanising if it is not dialogic. In the same way that a fluency in a language is gauged through dialogue, information literacy has meaning when it is participatory, connected, responsive and dynamic. Fluency with information is demonstrated through participation in civic dialogue where individuals connect and knowledge is shared, refined and remoulded into new meaning for each participant. This is not merely an expansion of the term information literacy by definition but it is an expansion through action.

Dialogue encompasses many forms of connection and interaction between individuals and groups for the creation of meaning.

Continue reading There is no Information Literacy if there is no Dialogue 

Complex Systems Pedagogy & the school library

(3500 words)

How can a complex systems pedagogy enhance student learning?

How is a complex systems pedagogy relevant to the classroom and school library?

This article will explore the theoretical ideas that underpin an understanding of complex systems.

We will inquire into the relevance of an understanding of complex systems in education.

We will apply these new understandings to examine the impact of a complex systems on the library, teaching and learning.

I owe a great debt to the book edited by Mason, Mark, “Complexity Theory and the Philosophy of Education”. While I have explored complex systems in many fields over the years this book was a great help in applying these concepts in the education setting. I have included further reading at the end of this post.


I am going to begin with a sceptical note. Complex systems theory has experienced an increasingly rapid rise in popularity in the social sciences and by extension is also gaining significant traction in education. In the milieu of fads and trends in education there are a plethora of claims made for the effectiveness of a particular approach that can yield the learning outcomes we are all in education to achieve. I am always cautious of a new programme packaged by the large learning corporations or promoted by individuals whose income depends on the adoption of a particular approach so in presenting complex systems in education I ask that you employ the greatest level of critical analysis and sceptical inquiry. This presentation is designed to challenge assumptions, open our minds and give us a more holistic view of our classroom and library practices. The value I see in a complex systems approach is that implicit within the theoretical framework is an open and holistic view of students and the educational context we are part of creating for them. Any theoretical framework that seems to lead to an unbalanced focus on single elements or purports to be a panacea is highly suspect because education is not simple. There is an undeniable complexity to the task we have as educators. When you consider the diversity of students within a single class, the thought that a single approach will meet all their individual needs instantly appears ridiculous. Herein lies the strength of a complex systems approach because at it’s very core is the embracing of the complex, the dynamic, the unpredictable, the intangibles and the challenges of working with children who bring a vast array of prior experiences, expertise and characteristics that come together to make them a collection of unique individuals.

What is a complex system?

Continue reading Complex Systems Pedagogy & the school library

The subversion of serendipity, discovery and learning in the library

(1560 Words)

When it comes down to it, while I entirely support & endorse the careful planning of the curriculum & all the work we do to ensure our students learn & understand what is important in today’s world, the most powerful learning  are  often unpredicted moments of discovery. The moments of serendipity that come about within rich, stimulating, safe & nurturing environments within but often outside school. For example, in all our attempts to craft the ultimate guide to mastery in literacy, it is most likely the discovery of an author that is able to unlock the power of narrative for a student. Similarly, while we seek to scaffold the ultimate research environment, it is most likely to be a quiet moment of discovery that a child experiences in reading their favourite shark book that brings an enlightenment that triggers a life long pursuit.
I can’t remember when it was but I think I was in grade 1 or 2 when a police brass band came to visit our small country school in Australia. They performed a few fun tunes then each instrument was introduced in turn, they played some more tunes, then left. Nothing too spectacular however for one young wide eyed student, me, when the saxophonist stood up to play a few notes, I was enraptured. He could have been the worst saxophonist in the world for all I knew but for this young student, from that moment on I desperately wanted to hold that cool looking contraption & make that magical sound. That event taught me nothing about playing the saxophone, no theory & no technique but when I heard that saxophone, I loved it. The school, at that moment, taught me nothing but it provided the context, the setting, the access, the inspiration that was the beginning of a lifelong pursuit that continues to be an inspiration & source of great fun for me now.

Discovery in the library

The place of the library is to provide a stage for a wide range of human expression, both popular & dissenting, challenging & comforting, confronting & reassuring, unpleasant & attractive, to provide the most rich environment possible where those moments of serendipity, of personal and collaborative discovery can emerge. Continue reading The subversion of serendipity, discovery and learning in the library