Framing Information Literacy: Searching as Strategic Exploration

In February of this year, ACRL filed the new Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education (hereafter, the Framework). Consisting of six frames, the document discusses the core concepts of information literacy, and reformats them from the previously used, Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education (hereafter, Standards). No longer a detailed, prescriptive list of outcomes, we now have more guiding theoretical principles, and a larger focus on life-long learning. It is less skill-based and more value-based.

I have struggled with wrapping my head around the Framework for a while, not because I dislike it, but rather because the concepts of frames, threshholds concepts, knowledge practices, and dispositions were all completely foreign to me prior to encountering the Framework. I have had formal and informal discussions with colleagues that seem to lead to breakthroughs in one moment, and then confuse again in the next. Perhaps one of the benefits and frustrations of ditching standards for frames is that there are not necessarily hard-and-fast rules for measuring information literacy, and the Framework recognizes how context-specific information searching, finding, analyzing, and sharing is.

The code is more what you'd call guidelines than actual rules.

-Captain Barbosa, explaining the Framework.

Next month, however, I will be doing a short lightning talk about teaching discovery systems within the context of the new Framework, so I figure I had better start digging in and getting my hands dirty. I am going to start with the frame I have chosen to structure my talk: Searching as Strategic Exploration. Within the Framework, it is explained as follows: “Searching for information is often nonlinear and iterative, requiring the evaluation of a range of information sources and the mental flexibility to pursue alternate avenues as new understanding develops.”

What I like about this frame is the characterization of searching as “nonlinear” and “iterative.” When I teach, I often teach students to “develop a search strategy” and understand the research process, and I like this focus on research not being a process that looks like this:

Research Linear

And more of a process that looks like this:

Research Messy

And probably a lot messier than this.

Because the truth is, all parts of the research process influence each other, and all part of a person’s writing process influences that person’s research needs, so to think that we can teach one, linear, “correct” way of doing research is a bit arrogant. And I think the Framework, and this frame in particular, really responds to a more 21st century approach to teaching and research. For me, it has also opened my mind to reject the notion that one can master information literacy and become “information literate.” We’re not working toward the end of that linear process, right? Instead, we’re developing habits of mind, “knowledge practices,” if you will, that reflect increasing awareness of the complexity of what it means to search for information.

The other part of this frame that struck me is the use of the word strategic. Searching is strategic and a good strategist recognizes that the best way to get tripped up to do the exact same thing every time, regardless of the circumstances. To throw in a pop culture reference: in Catching Fire, the second book of the Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss mistakenly thinks going into the games the second time that she and Peeta will follow the same strategy they used before: ignore the other competitors, trust no one else, and take no allies. But Haymitch realizes that strategy won’t work the second time around, because the circumstances have changed. In his words: “I want you guys to forget everything you think you know about the games. Last year was child’s play. This year, you’re dealing with all experienced killers.” If you’ve read the series, you know that Haymitch is the big thinker, the planner. He’s been around the games long enough, and knows how they work. And he knows that the fastest way to end up dead is to not adapt to the changes in their circumstances. So while Katniss and Peeta understand the kill-or-be-killed strategy of the arena, Haymitch understands the games as a larger, more complex system than simply what happens after the gong sounds. Throughout the books (and the movies….) he is constantly reminding Katniss that this is bigger than her, bigger than District 12, bigger than each individual part of the machine.

This is what we want students to begin to open their minds to. This system of information is bigger than they’ve ever considered. It is not as simple as teaching them how to click through the library website until they get to a database, plug in the “correct” key words, and find a scholarly article. It’s not about the individual steps in the process, it’s about grasping the bigger picture, and beginning to think like Haymitch: responding to the context with the tools you have at your disposal. Part of that may be skills-based, yes, because students have to be aware of the tools available. What this Framework puts into perspective, however, is that knowing how to get to a library database is useless if one does not how to think critically about their research context.

Research is nonlinear. It is iterative. To be successful, students have to be flexible and responsive. It is not enough to jot down some key words and, if unsuccessful, give up and assume there’s nothing out there on their topic. They have to begin to ask themselves: So that one way I approached this problem failed. How can I respond to this to be more successful next time?

Let us all wish each other luck. 🙂


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