When 2.5 quintillion bytes of data get heaped daily on top of the gobs of material already in print and online, how can we possibly find the best information? And what defines the best information as the best?
Teaching and learning librarian Mark Lenker is helping UNLV faculty and students answer these questions, with a little help from philosopher Richard Kraut’s concept of developmentalism. Developmentalism defines the level of goodness associated with a particular thing — in this case, information — by its ability to help a person grow. Lenker’s research explores how information literacy instruction can most effectively help individuals seek out this “good” type of information that challenges their default thinking, thereby helping them grow in new ways.
“Evaluating information is important, especially now with all of the information we have access to on the web,” said Lenker, who also holds a doctorate in philosophy. “In a time when confirmation bias is such a big deal, it’s important to emphasize learning new information that challenges people’s preconceived ideas.”
Lenker’s conceptual study questions what it means for information to be good or valuable and draws out implications for teaching information literacy based on that premise. Other researchers have written about information’s value in terms of its trustworthiness or its usefulness in making an argument more compelling, but Lenker wanted to expand these considerations to include how information can disrupt existing patterns of thought and provide an occasion for considering familiar questions in a new light.
“We want our students to be information connoisseurs,” Lenker said. “The idea there is that they’ll go beyond thinking about how sources are constructed and examining indicators of credibility, which are common elements of information-literacy training, to also think about their own experiences with the source.”
Lenker’s article on the subject, “Developmentalism: Learning as the Basis for Evaluating Information,” advocates for information literacy instructors to push students to engage more fully with sources by deliberately postponing developing a thesis or argument until after they’ve explored ideas around a basic research question. The article, originally published in the journal portal: Libraries and the Academy, was honored with the publication’s Johns Hopkins Press Award for Best Article of 2017.
“It’s common for students to develop a statement about their research early on,” Lenker said. “I advocate for students to keep it as a question so they continue looking for new information rather than searching for research that confirms their research statement.”
Lenker also suggests that instructors expand the concept of annotated bibliographies by requiring students to answer specific questions. Asking “What information source surprised you the most and why?” or “What factors in your personal background or belief system contribute to your assessment of the source?” challenges students to think about their sources in relation to each other as well as the learners’ own experiences.
While information literacy tends to have an academic bent, Lenker said the thinking skills that students develop are highly applicable outside the classroom to everyday decision-making.
“I’m really excited about research at the general education level, this non-expert research,” Lenker said. “The goal is not to become an expert in a subject area but to learn enough about it to come up with a position and develop reasons for why you support that position. I think that’s the kind of learning that has to happen for full participation in our democracy.”
Whether it’s a position on gun control, health care, or myriad other political hot topics, Lenker said that people need to be able to gather quality information and have concrete reasons why they hold a particular position on an issue. These reasons may also change over time based on the information that people expose themselves to.
“If we are continually learning, we will be continually revising our beliefs and probably have different assessments of information over time than we have had previously,” Lenker said. “If we are learning from really rich information, that’s actually going to help us build a filter that will make us better, more discerning consumers of information for those quick evaluations of information that we need to make.”
Lenker plans to conduct a literature review on open-mindedness next so he can better help students reflect on what’s happening within them when faced with new information.
“My preliminary research shows there hasn’t been a whole lot of research on open-mindedness in information literacy, so it’s not well defined,” Lenker said. “There are opportunities to explore the impact that librarians can have in that area.”