Questioning the Answer
By Robert Schroeder
Remember when websites were not considered a valid research source? When teachers and professors harped on students that research meant more than using Google?
Those days are long gone.
Exponential information growth and access has not only changed the face of research but also the meaning of 21st century thinking. National Louis University's Gail Bush, Ph.D., professor in the National College of Education, charged in her 2009 article "Thinking Around the Corner" that teachers need to rethink their ingrained concepts of information literacy, or how knowledge is built. Today, Bush says the old methods don't need to be rethought—they need to be discarded entirely.
"If you were to coin the same phrase, it would now be information transliteracy," Bush said. "You really have to transcend the format of literacy.
"We used to say oh, you can use books but you can't use the Internet, or you can use an encyclopedia, but you can't use magazines; now you really have to transcend those formats because they have become literally irrelevant."
Bush says the task of knowledge gathering used to revolve around answering the question; today, the task is questioning the answer. With the influx of information accessibility on the web, students are growing increasingly skilled at finding information, sometimes more than their instructors. When a Google search returns hundreds of millions of hits, however, students often struggle to sift through the content quagmire.
Teachers trained in the 1980s and 1990s face a drastic shift in strategies to identify an appropriate source, says Bush. In late 20th century learning, a definitive authority such as a textbook author or a collection editor served as the final say; searching for knowledge was a journey for what Bush calls the "eternal nugget of information." In the second decade of the 21st century, the sheer number of sources means teachers and students may encounter two or three works that seem equally valid from their own perspectives. The quest is no longer to know the most but what is most important to know.
"We need to know how to think critically around information, how to maintain a critical stance, and how to employ [that stance]," Bush said. "We need to know how to stay open to new ideas and information and to be open to change our minds if we find evidence that is valid."
Bush acknowledges that there is tremendous lag time in today's classrooms with 20th century-educated teachers and 21st century students. She recommends a number of strategies for teachers to ride the wave of change. First, she says students should try to create a purely objective source, basically their own documentary. Bush says the task is an exercise for both teachers and students in learning just how subjective many objective sources truly are.
Second, Bush says teachers should adopt the skill sets valued in the school library field, a mindset focused on maintain a critical stance in seeking the validity of sources. Globalization of information means students can access information from international sources that may conflict with domestic sources; teachers need to lead students in understanding the concept of writer's voice.
This 21st century thinking style is all about maintaining openness, Bush reiterates. Teachers need to show comfort seeking out new information, changing their opinions and refocusing the subject of their learning. The ultimate goal is for students to model the learning habits of their instructors.
"It's not for the weak of heart," Bush said. "It's a great time to be an educator, but our educators need to be comfortable and nimble in their own inquiry and their own curiosity."