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Today teachers and their students have lots of uses for information. Some examples are pursuits such as projects and assignments, professional development, and personal betterment.
However, from an instructional standpoint, the information learners obtain and use for their purposes in the classroom needs to be relevant, accurate, and useful, and it generally needs to be sourced quite quickly from this massive ocean of digital knowledge we have today. This requires higher-order research skills geared toward proper acquisition and analytical techniques, the kind we teach through the application of Information Fluency.
Information Fluency is one of the many valuable skills our students must possess today, and that’s why it is one of the Essential Fluencies of modern learning which we presented in our book Mindful Assessment. The importance of having this set of information location and management abilities in any digital-age survival kit applies equally to students, teachers, and everyday people.
Research and the Power of Information Fluency
Information Fluency, as we define it, is having the ability to unconsciously and intuitively interpret information in all forms and formats for the aim of extracting the essential knowledge, perceiving its meaning and significance, and using it to complete real-world tasks. It’s about being able to extract meaningful information from what is available and then using it constructively. There are five distinct stages to the Information Fluency process which we call the 5As:
- Ask meaningful and purposeful questions to obtain the most relevant and useful data possible. Asking involves fully understanding the problem being solved, identifying key words forming questions around them, brainstorming, thinking laterally, listening deeply, viewing wisely, speaking critically, filtering information white noise, and sharing personal knowledge and experience.
- Acquire a sufficient amount of information on the background of the focus of research from plenty of traditional and digital sources. This involves determining where that information is and what skills are needed to find it; prioritizing search strategies; skimming, scanning, and scouring all sources for pertinent data; filtering; taking smart notes; and continuing to apply the Ask stage to the data search.
- Analyze the content for relevancy and credibility, authenticate it, and arrange it all appropriately for the most efficient application possible. This stage is about organizing, triangulating, and summarizing the collected data; checking data for relevance and distinguishing between legitimate and untrustworthy sources; differentiating fact from opinion; assessing the currency of all information; and examining it for underlying meaning, opinion, and bias.
- Apply the knowledge to our use within the context of our original purpose for conducting the research. For our learners, this usually involves created some kind of a product, which could mean an essay, a report, a presentation, an experiment, or a multimedia project. It could also be applied by simply participating in a debate or even just creating an argument against another point of view.
- Assess the effectiveness of the knowledge application and determine if the purpose for doing the research was actually fulfilled. This is the all-important debrief stage of the research process. Here we ask questions about the processes and the information we gathered and reflect critically on both. We assess what was learned and how it was learned, what worked, what didn’t work, and how the process and the product could be made better the next time around. Assessing would also include making a definitive plan for acting on these reflections, internalizing new learning, and potentially transferring our experiences to other situations and circumstances.
Although it’s entirely possible and acceptable, the 5As don’t need to be followed as a linear pathway to sourcing and using information. When engaging in the research component of any lesson, learners can use each stage of Information Fluency in a cyclical process, revisiting previous stages as they gain new insights. What they create is a common language between teachers and learners, and a continuum from early learning to senility.
The questions we ask must be designed to get us to certain points of discovery and realization, and that means knowing what we are looking for and why it’s important to our search.
As young learners utilise Information Fluency over a period of months or years, their capacity compounds. I have been fortunate to see this growth with learners over a period of years with many of my clients with whom I have worked for several years. Below are an introduction to the 5As of Information Fluency. A more in-depth discussion of Information Fluency along with the framework for assessing this skill can be found in Mindful Assessment.
What am I looking for, and how best might I structure questions that lead to it?
This involves compiling a list of critical questions about what knowledge or data is being sought. The key here is to ask questions that have focus and purpose, because that’s how you get the most useful answers. Asking well-considered exploratory questions trains our minds to think critically and search for the relevant and useful data. It also helps us unearth the most valuable information sources in any personal knowledge quest. If the learner has a full awareness of what is being researched and has specific questions about that subject matter, then that will start them off on the right path.
The questions we ask must be designed to get us to certain points of discovery and realization, and that means knowing what we are looking for and why it’s important to our search. If learners are unclear about their intended destination, they could potentially end up wasting an enormous amount of the time they’ve devoted to researching their content. They could be leafing through books or surfing the Web and getting nowhere, or worse, they could head down the wrong “information alley” and get irretrievably distracted from their initial purpose.
Where should I look, and how and to whom should I ask these questions?
Accessing information is no longer as easy as going to a card catalog and getting a book or other paper-based resource. The information learners seek won't always be in one location. In addition to one viable source, they must be sure to utilize as many others as possible; this includes sources that are both digital and non-digital in nature. The Internet, ebooks, articles, libraries, videos, and people in the chosen area of knowledge will provide them with many different avenues for finding information.
In this acquisition stage it isn’t necessary to have really read content in depth quite yet. The goal is to amass a solid and diverse database of knowledge that can then be purposefully filtered and edited in the following stages. As one suggestion, the student could take a quick cursory glance for relevancy, and gather all the search findings into lists for later scrutiny. Our learners will also be working to optimize their search behaviours in order to obtain the best results. Learning and using advanced search techniques will help immensely with the speed of their research.
How do I know the information I find is useful, valid, and authentic?
With all the raw data collected, the next step is to navigate through the information to authenticate, organize, and arrange it all. This stage also involves ascertaining whether information is true or not, distinguishing the good from the bad and fact from opinion, and attempting to detect where there is clear evidence of slant or bias. When it comes to online content, a percentage of that free information can be quite meaningless. All collected data will require scrutiny and organization. The learner could look at this stage as performing background checks on the data they collect.
Accessing information is no longer as easy as going to a card catalog and getting a book or other paper-based resource. The information learners seek won't always be in one location.
For example, many search results will display similar threads that point to repeated experience, and commonalities that appear across a broad range of sources. Some sources will share more threads than others, and the less often-seen "facts" will suddenly start to take a back seat. This isn't foolproof, but it's just one of the many ways the facts about what we seek can begin to reveal themselves. Students should strive to examine any collected data and the resources used to source it up close. They should listen and watch all videos using an awareness of Media Fluency skills, and not just skim them; they should take plenty of time to internalize what that article or webpage is trying to say, who wrote it, and why. Do they disagree or agree? Lead them towards working to get a sense of how this awareness fits into their research scheme.
This might be the area of Information Fluency that your learners will spend most of their time in. Depending on the scope of the project or task, they can spend a lot of time moving between the Acquiring and Analyzing stages, and that’s a good thing. Information Fluency, like all the other Essential Fluencies, is meant to be a cyclical process.
How will I use what I’ve learned?
Once data is collected and verified and a solution is created, the knowledge must then be practically applied within the context of the original purpose for the information quest. After all that hard work asking, acquiring, and analyzing, your learners have got to make that knowledge work. This is done by applying it to the original problem or challenge.
If their question isn’t answered or their challenge isn’t conquered in the final phase, it’s time for them to back up a few steps. They shouldn't be alarmed because this isn't failure—it’s a process that sometimes has to be revisited.
How can I be sure I’ve accomplished my research goals and how best can I improve this process?
The final stage is about thoroughly and critically revisiting both the product and the process. This involves open and lively discussions about how their research journey could have been made more efficient, and how the solution created could be applied to challenges of a similar nature. This is a reflective stage in the journey. Here the learner looks back at the steps they took to find what they were looking for. They’ll also be considering what the proper application of their knowledge has produced. Reflective questions for this stage can include things like:
- Is our problem solved?
- Is our question answered?
- Is our challenge met?
- What did we learn?
- Was the information we found ultimately useful? Why or why not?
- What could we have done differently?
- How could we have streamlined our process and made it more efficient?
- How can we use what we’ve learned in other situations?
Editor's note: This post was originally published in 2019 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.
Originally published Mar 19, 2019, updated Dec 17, 2021