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Information Literacy

A definition, & A technique 23rd, April, 2001  

Trevor Bond, ICT Adviser, School Support Services, University of Waikato


Literacy, and Numeracy are two concepts that have been present in Education for a long time. There is a growing plethora of literacies being defined and discussed in the educational environment. One of the newcomers is Information Literacy. Educationalists need to gain a comprehension of the concept, its context within learning and techniques that enhance the gaining of appropriate concepts and skills for our students. It is very important that the definition we hold to actually fits and matches with the learning context in which it is being used. On this basis I discuss and suggest both a definition and a context that fit together logically and go a step beyond most other definitions. To match this I suggest a technique that can be utilised in many learning environments to enhance the skills our students need to acquire to become independently information literate people.  

I believe that there is a need for schools to develop, or adopt, a definition of Information Literacy to clarify the subject.

Just imagine a rugby match without a defined playing area and the confusion that would result.

Schools addressing Information Literacy without a commonly held understanding of the overall concept will soon experience confusion with no defined field to the discussion.

The following definitions have been created by various groups and can be found on the web at http://www.ucalgary.ca/library/ILG/litdef.html .  


The information literate person is “able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use it effectively.”

Final Report of the American Library Association Presidential Committee on Information Literacy (Chicago, IL: American Library Association, 1989)  


"the ability to locate, evaluate, and use information to become independent life-long learners"

Commission on Colleges, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS). Criteria for Accreditation. 10th ed. Dec. 1996. http://www.sacs.org/pub/coc/cri70.htm


"the abilities to recognize when information is needed and to locate, evaluate, effectively use, and communicate information in its various formats"

State University of New York (SUNY) Council of Library Directors. Information Literacy Initiative. 30 Sept. 1997. http://olis.sysadm.suny.edu/ili/final.htm


... an “art that extends from knowing how to use computers and access information to critical reflection on the nature of information itself, its technical infrastructure, and its social, cultural and even philosophical context and impact"

Shapiro, Jeremy J. and Shelley K. Hughes. "Information Literacy as a Liberal Art". Educom Review. 3.2. Mar./Apr. 1996. http://www.educause.edu/pub/er/review/reviewarticles/31231.html


"the skills of information problem solving"

Wisconsin Educational Media Association (adopted by the National Forum for Information Literacy). Position Statement on Information Literacy. 1993. http://www.ala.org/aasl/positions/PS_infolit.html


The majority of definitions include the word ‘use’, but I believe that this word is often misused or misinterpreted in many situations. In some literature the word carries the interpretation of gaining meaning from the information, other publications interpret it within the context of communicating information gathered by the user and it can also be interpreted within the context of utilizing information as a tool for some higher purpose. The first two interpretations would seem to place information as being an end to itself whereas the third option places a much lower value on information within a wider context. I believe that information plays a role within a complex scenario and that we magnify its value when we treat information as the major focus within activities that fall within the domain of information literacy.

The focus should be on LITERACY not the information.



The following diagram is my adaptation of Ham’s Tree of Knowledge that I feel demonstrates the scenario or context within which information plays a part.


This Context leads us to a clearer definition because education that seeks the best for our pupils must target something much higher than the skills of information management and information retention. Surely we must be aiming to develop in our pupils the growth of knowledge and understanding at the very least and also be seeking opportunities to facilitate the development of wisdom.

Information literacy, if it is to have a value within this context, must move our pupils past knowledge with its layers of understanding into the realm of quality decision making and shared understanding, the realm where wisdom can be added to and increased.

In order to ensure this happens we need to remove any ambiguity in regards to the interpretation of the word ‘use’ or avoid that word and create a definition which clearly defines this higher goal. I feel that the following is a more definitive statement because it is structured to fit the context detailed above.


To be information literate is to be able to locate, access, acquire, comprehend, analyse and critique relevant information, then utilise it to make valid, informed decisions and also communicate those decisions appropriately with validation where necessary.

If this definition outlines what information literacy is really about we can then move on to identifying the competencies that we would seek to develop in our pupils. If we return to the original analogy we now have the field and rules defined and, as a coach would, can decide what skills will be needed for the team to perform at a reasonable standard. This then leads us to a technique for developing those skills. In terms of information literacy we can search the Internet and do some professional reading. However a logical starting point for New Zealand teachers is the 1997 publication by NEMP “Information Skills” which analyses a range of information skills and how our pupils perform at year 4 and 8. This analysis provides a very clear picture of the general needs of our pupils and a number of skills we should be fostering and developing as we integrate ICT and Information Literacy across the curriculum areas.

Even though this is a valuable resource we must examine the framework within which the testing is carried out. There are two areas of concern when this is viewed in the context of the definition of information literacy proposed above and the concepts covered in the Data to Wisdom context.

1:  The NEMP framework (1997, p11) outlines the strategies, skills and processes involved as being ‘clarifying information needs’, ‘finding and gathering information’ and ‘analysing and using information’. The closest this comes to portraying any decision making or problem solving is within the 2 categories of “relating the information to the purpose” and “linking information to respond to the task”. It is here that we should see this aspect of using the information as a tool to meet needs, solve problems, formulate opinions and make decisions. This is where the higher thinking should occur. When this concern is followed further, by examining the various tasks and activities that evaluate our pupils’ skills in these areas, a number of issues are raised.


Firstly there is a major emphasis on the much lower activity of locating specific bits of information and communicating that snippet back. The ability of re-communicating information already created by another is one that is largely devoid of higher level thinking and one in which there is minimal opportunity for real learning beyond the development of the specific skills of location and accessing.

Examination of the test items for year 8 pupils reveals 9 activities that focus primarily on the location of information and then communicating that answer to another person. There is only one activity (p36) that sets a problem based scenario for the pupils, which is relevant to them, and requires that specific information be found and then used to make a recommendation to solve the problem. This activity then asks the learners to validate by oral explanation their reason/s for the solution they provided. We must also be aware that the very nature of the NEMP testing and analysis structure requires that the aspects tested must be of a measurable nature. The result is that some important aspects perhaps are not tested and reported on because of the difficulty in creating measurable testing procedures. However in this case with the presence of one test item that examines this major aspect of information skills and literacy it is unfortunate that there is such a misbalance in the test items.


There are two separate but indirectly linked issues here and they combine to create a question that, when answered, may validate even further the viewpoint that relevant problem solving is probably one of the most effective methods of facilitating the development of information literacy skills in our pupils.

Issue 1:   Attitudinal responses of the pupils.

Crooks & Floxton detail (p47) information gathered from year 4 and 8 pupils with 5 questions that survey their attitudes and feelings towards information based activities.

Firstly the year 8 students indicated that they are often required to locate and record information. They also indicated a more negative attitude to this type of task. This leads to the logical supposition “that many of the information finding projects which year 8 students were asked to attempt were not viewed as really interesting” (Crooks & Floxton, 1997. p47).

So we have definite evidence of increasingly negative attitudes exhibited in our pupils towards information gathering and recording activities.

Issue 2: Success levels of pupils in the two different types of activity.

Concentrating on the results for the year 8 students in each of the 2 types of activity utilised for testing the “Finding and Using” category some interesting conclusions can be drawn, when  averaged, the results for the loctate/report types of activity gave:


P30      69%                 P31      68%                             P32      56%                            

P33      76%                 P35      60%                             P39      77%                

P40      47%                 P41      76%


The overall average success rate for this type of activity was 66%.

Contrast this with the results of the one activity (P36) where learners were placed in a problem-solving situation that was relevant to them and required a solution. The success rate was 83%.

It appears that the problem solving type of activity generates a higher level of success because there is now relevance, engagement and purpose involved.  In fact this seems fairly obvious. Who really cares, at year four or eight,  “when Winston Churchill was born” (P29, question 5)????

I realize that his conclusion is fairly tenuous because a single test was used to compare against an average of 8 tests. At the very least there is enough of an issue raised here to warrant some further research into the benefits of relevant problem solving tasks as a major tool for developing information literacy skills. It is likely that this evidence gives a clear indication of a technique or method that is more appropriate for the development of Information Literacy then the traditional gather and present methodology.

Issue 3: Differential between correct decision and ability to validate the decision.

In the “Garden Patch” test item (P36) the year 8 pupils were given a two stage activity.

Firstly they were required to make their decision about the most suitable plant for the garden conditions. This was an activity that generated one of the highest levels of success (88%) for the pupils in locating the correct answer. I believe because of its problem solving nature and relevance.

Secondly they were required to explain the reasons that governed their decisions. Obviously 88% had made the correct decision yet only 44% could clearly link their decision to the three criteria that would have governed their decision. This highlights one of the major weaknesses present in the generation of children in our schools now. Generally they find it very difficult to explain elaborate and validate decisions, actions, understandings and viewpoints. This may arise from a variety of causes such as passive listening and viewing of media, lack of deeper level discussions and limited opportunities for debate and constructive controversy. I don’t aim here to explore deeply the causative reasons but rather highlight the presence of the problem and its implication within the Data to Wisdom context.  How can we expect our pupils to be able to justify their thinking, explore its flaws, elaborate on ideas and gain mutual value from shared understanding unless we ensure that they are consistently and frequently placed in the situation where they are required to participate in such activities. The easiest way of doing this in the classroom  is through collaborative learning and problem solving situations. 


I feel that these issues are indicators of a principle that has a high level of importance in terms of the kinds of activities we give our pupils to develop their information skills. The technique is one that we have been able to read about in educational literature for some time.

Harriet Tyson focuses also on the issue of communicating understandings and the ability to argue convincingly.  Looking back over my own schooling and education I can recall very few situations where I was encouraged and helped to express views, analyse my thinking, form an opinion, elaborate on and defend my opinion. To take this reflection further I have to admit that, in the same manner, there were limited opportunities provided for my pupils to do the same. When I try and locate the reasons for this I find a number of actual or perceived reasons that became limiting factors.

  • Time constraints  (Brandt has something very interesting to say on this.)
  • Fear of loss of control in the classroom.
  • Impact of behavioural issues.
  • Expectations of other teachers, Principals and parents of what a “good classroom” looks like.
  • Lack of energy in terms being creative.
  • Demands in terms of paperwork, planning, recording and assessment which becomes increasingly problematic when the dynamics of a learning experience lead of into unexpected dimensions.

I am not defending or criticizing these forces rather identifying their reality within my own teaching experiences.

On discussion with my daughter, aged 15, she added another dimension to this from her viewpoint, “a lot of teachers don’t care”…..”they don’t look like they want to be there, they don’t look like they enjoy it”.  What a sad indictment from a young learner who constantly strives to improve herself in everything she does (says the proud father). Sadly I think that her perception is accurate for some teachers.

Reflecting positively, I also realize that some of the most wonderful and exciting learning events in my classroom have been those when the children and I were fired up, discussion was rife, differing opinions were being expressed, understanding was being sought and solutions were being actively searched for, trialed and evaluated. Often these situations felt chaotic and certainly they were impossible to predict and difficult to document. They didn’t fit well into timetables or expected and required monitoring and evaluation systems that were in place. However learning and teaching were fun.

The more I read, reflect and hear from other teachers the more I realize that Information Literacy, problem solving, collaborative learning, ICT and curriculum integration can all come together in a viable and effective technique for enhancing our pupils learning. This has led me to devise a problem-solving and research process called SAUCE.  A process I developed out of an increasing conviction that the domains of problem solving, information literacy and collaborative learning are not separate theories and concepts but all spring from the factors that are commonly found when good teachers create effective learning experiences for their pupils. The criteria that I now look for when evaluating or planning a learning experience are:


1 or more of the Essential Learning Areas

(content, skills knowledge, understanding, AOs,  Learning Outcomes)

1 or more of the Essential Skills

Engages the learner in a manner that is Relevant and interesting in terms of:

Prior knowledge

Culture                             (child centered, pupil orientated)



Caters for different learning styles          (individual differences)

Quality reinforcement and feedback       (teacher and peers and external audience)    *Hattie

Involves 1 or more of the higher thinking skills, 

preferably  in co-operative problem solving environments           (context)









* Hattie (1999) states “the most powerful single moderator that enhances achievement is feedback;” 

Sergiovanni (1995, p191) deserves the last say with his comment on types of knowledge. He states “Knowledge is limited or generative. Limited knowledge leads nowhere. It is simply accumulated stored and recalled. Generative knowledge leads to more learning, new learning, more expansive learning and the transfer of learning.”

It seems to me that creating learning experiences that move further away from the retention of information and deeper into the sharing of knowledge and understanding is what we should be aiming for in our classrooms. We should not allow a limited view of information literacy to rob us and our students of the opportunities for quality teaching and learning.



Brandt, Ron. 1993. “On Teaching for Understanding: A conversation with Howard Gardner,” Educational leadership 50(7), 4-7.

Brophy, Gere. 1992. ‘Probing the Subtleties of Subject-Matter-Teaching,” Educational Leadership 49(7), 4-8

Crooks, T. & Flockton L.,  Information Skills : Assessment Results 1997. National Education Monitoring Report 7.Educational Assessment Research Unit: University of Otago, New Zealand

Hattie, J. 1999. “Influences On StudentLlearning”. Inaugural Lecture: Professor of Education.University of Auckland. August 2, 1999.


Sergiovanni, T.J., (1995). The Principalship:  Reflective Practice Perspective (3rd ed.). Boston: Allyn and Bacon

Tyson, Harriet. March 1990. Reforming Science Education/Restructuring The Public Schools: roles for the Scientific Community, (22, 24). Prepared as a background paper for the New York Academy of Sciences and the institute for Educational Leadership Forum on restructuring K-12 education. New York; Academy of Sciences.

For More Information Email: tbond@clear.net.nz