In 2020, we are surrounded by information. It is everywhere, at our fingertips, and we even carry, in our pockets, phones that give us access to a wealth of information that no one could have imagined only a decades ago. Tom Stevenson tells us that We Are Living In The Age of Information Overload and urges us to be selective: less is more, right?
But what exactly is information? Merriam-Webster’s specifies three different meanings: “(1) Knowledge obtained from investigation, study or instruction (2) News (3) Facts / Data”, while knowledge is “the fact or condition of knowing something with familiarity gained through experience or association”. Comparing both terms show us that a process is needed to access knowledge.
This is what research is. And to have a safe journey through it involves learning to navigate through that sea of information.
As educators, our role is not anymore to feed students with pre-defined content: slowly but surely the ex-cathedra teaching model has become outdated. Nowadays learning to learn holds more validity than being able to recite facts. In 2016, Erika Andersen explained in a Harvard Business Review article that the concept of “Learning to Learn” is probably the new challenge for businesses wanting to remain competitive.
I enjoyed watching Diana Laufenberg TEDx Talk: How to learn? From mistakes. I could indeed relate to her personal experience as a younger student who, unlike her parents and grandparents, had access to printed encyclopedias at home: for the first time information, and therefore knowledge, was not only delivered at school by teachers who were the main keepers of knowledge. In my bedroom, I would often flick through a volume and read a couple of articles (and over the years I must have read most of them, if not all, in those thirty-something volumes!), and when I reached High School, I would look up for some background information before writing essays -my Belgian school didn’t have a library (!).
For Laufenberg, it is clear that as kids don’t have to come to school anymore to get information, the teacher’s new role – more of a mentor’s I would say – is to ask students what they can do with it, and accompany them through the process.
For teenagers, being “connected” is very natural as it has become part of their life. Parents and teachers often think that “hanging out’ with friends, and using new media is a waste of time, as the findings of the Digital Youth Project shows (Living with New Media, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation), but to teens, it is an essential part of everyday communication and part of their identity construction. Being engaged in new media practices in such a way is expanding their technology literacy.
This happens when they are “messing around’, which in this context means experimentation and exploration by looking around, searching for information online, play with gaming and/or digital media production. It requires interest-driven orientation, and usually take place within a social context that will allow sharing. At this stage, it is interesting to note that one of the goals of this three-year-long ethnographic study was to find out how practices are changing “the dynamics of youth-adult negotiations over literacy, learning and authoritative knowledge”. How should educators, in the broader meaning (parents, caregivers, teachers) adapt their teaching of the young?
Digital technology, and social media, are part of our lives now, for better and, sometimes, for worse. These unlimited opportunities for communication, although asynchronous – allowing to think twice about what you are texting or posting, can sometimes slip: some children or teenagers can be confronted to harmful loss of privacy, bullying, child sexual abuse as the UNICEF report “Children in a Digital World” points out. Young people between 15 and 24 years-old represent the most connected age group with 71% worldwide being online vs. only 48% total population if all ages are included. One in three under 18 years-old are internet users, and children access the internet at an increasingly younger age.
This is the reason why teachers need to help students take ownership of their digital lives. Last year, Merve Lapus from Common Sense Media spent a few days at our school, The International School of Brussel meeting its administration, its students, parents, and faculty, and working closely with key actors, like librarians and technology integrators, to model Digital Citizenship lessons. ISB then started to pilot the Common Sense Media DC Curriculum during the 2019-20 School Year and will continue to integrate such lessons in order to help students to make smart choices online.
Another recent “hot” topic in the new media is Fake News, and we can, right now, observe an increase of false information during the COVID-19 pandemic, which “is putting [more] lives at risk” claims UN News. Internet users need to learn how to distinguish such fabricated news from legitimate ones. To help our Middle School students understand the many ways this term can be used and how to search for truth in an era of too many Fake News, last January, our school invited the Belgian journalist Tim Verheyden for a lecture on the topic followed by an interesting discussion with students.
Leading students to develop a critical mind when it comes to research is indeed a crucial mission for all educators, including teacher-librarians of course! While it is very easy to do a Google search, finding reliable and academic-level information and use it ethically needs guidance and practice.