Propelling Information Literacy Through Public Policy

Contemporaneous debates over ChatGPT are only the latest volleys in our collective struggle to teach information literacy to a generation weaned on iPads. Information literacy is an essential civic skill, and it is imperative that federal and state policies prioritize its inclusion across the K–12 curriculum.

Information literacy involves building skills to effectively find, evaluate, and use information in its broadest sense, incorporating elements of more traditional academic literacies, digital literacy, and media literacy.

Too often, we conflate digital natives’ comfort with devices with their ability to sort good information from bad. Moreover, educators need pedagogical tools and trusted curricula to fill gaps in helping students a generation or two younger to develop 21st-century information literacy skills.

Sam Wineberg et al. of the Stanford History Education Group (SHEG) published “Educating for Misunderstanding”  in 2020, studying the information literacy skills of a sample of college sophomores, juniors, and seniors at a large East Coast state university. The authors concluded, “Students don’t merely lack the skills they need to thrive in a digital environment. It’s worse. They’ve been taught ineffective ones.”

Ineffective methods include equating .org in web addresses with trusted nonprofits, using a website’s “about page” or look and feel to assess an organization’s credibility, and using links on a website as a measure of validity.

Among the pedagogical principles underlying the Roadmap to Educating for American Democracy released in 2021 is “inquiry as the primary mode of learning.” This includes building student engagement with information literacy. For example, SHEG suggests teaching students “lateral reading,” assessing the credibility of a source by learning what other arbiters say.

SHEG worked with teachers in the Indian Prairie School District in Naperville (IL) to integrate information literacy horizontally across the 9th grade curriculum, from geography to biology. They also collaborated with Lincoln (NE) public schools on vertical integration in K–12 social studies.

Over the past decade, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) scaled civic learning throughout the K–12 curriculum with increased emphasis on integrating information literacy. Benjamin Bowyer and Joseph Kahne (2020) studied the impact of civic and digital learning opportunities on CPS high school students’ civic engagement, both offline (e.g., voting and volunteering) and online (e.g., sharing a political article on social media). Specific to information literacy, they found a positive relationship between digital learning opportunities and online civic engagement. However, they saw online engagement fall for students who were taught to be discerning digital consumers. This may represent a healthy skepticism of online content or deepened distrust of media that can be counterproductive.

We must therefore emphasize consumption and production of information online and offline, and scale information literacy instruction horizontally and vertically across schools, districts, and states through favorable state and federal policy reforms. To these ends, the CivXNow State Policy Menu embraces the information literacy recommendations of DemocracyReady NY in its 2021 “Developing Digital Citizens” report:

  • Embedding information literacy curricula across subject areas;
  • Maintaining up-to-date school facilities, most critically school libraries as they now serve as media resource centers;
  • Ensuring librarians have ongoing access to professional development opportunities focused on information literacy; and
  • Transparent monitoring and reporting of students’ access to information literacy opportunities.

CivXNow’s recent state policy scan found that 17 states include information literacy in their learning standards. Additionally, California, Utah, and Washington provide funding for information literacy teacher professional development and complementary classroom resources, and New Mexico offers an information literacy course as an elective. The CivXNow policy team is currently monitoring 21 bills in 11 states concerning information literacy, with hopes that several will get across the finish line this spring.

Finally, the $23 million appropriation secured in the Fiscal Year 2023 federal budget for National Civics Programs includes information literacy among the evidence-based practices it seeks to foster among students. We are hopeful that the Administration’s recommendation to triple federal funding for K–12 civics in FY24 will continue to seed innovation and equitable implementation of information literacy by institutions of higher education and eligible nonprofits, ultimately to the benefit of districts, schools, teachers and, most importantly, students.

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