Information Illiteracy: A National Pandemic

With twin Master’s degrees in educational leadership and library science, as well as expertise in educational technology, Glen Warren straddles the worlds of the classroom and the library as well as the worlds of technology and information. That makes him, by his own admission, an odd bird in the growing movement to integrate digital literacy into education and society.

After fourteen years of teaching experience, he knows the classroom. But he also served as Coordinator of Media Resources [i.e. librarian] for the Orange County Department of Education and is a Google Certified Teacher (GCT). He teaches information literacy and educational technology at McPherson Magnet School in the city of Orange, CA.

He is currently Vice President of Government Relations for the California School Library Association (CSLA) and is Educational Liaison to the California Office of Privacy Protection and California K-12 Education. He is on the Technology Committee of the California Brokers of Expertise, the official public education teacher collaboration site. He is an advisory panel member of the California Digital Literacy Pathways for the office of the Governor and a panel member for the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing tasked with addressing teacher librarian competencies in the area of information literacy.

He co-wrote the California Model School Library Standards addressing digital literacy learning outcomes for K-12 and co-created Woogi World’s Cyber Hero, and the FBI-SOS Program”s Smart AUP website. He is an advisory board member of Web Wise Kids, iKeepSafe, FBI-SOS Program and The Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use. He also serves as co-chair for the Library Media Educators’ Special Interest Group for Computer Using Educators (CUE).

Literacy 2.0 spoke with Glen on the eve of the annual CUE conference about the current state of digital literacy in education, the role of librarians in today’s schools and what it will take to achieve significant progress in advancing the new literacies.

In addition to being a classroom teacher, you serve on numerous panels and committees and you make the rounds to speak to parents, teachers, administrators, law enforcement and private industry groups. What makes you so passionate about digital literacy in education?

It’s a long story, but basically after a decade as a multi-subject teacher I went back to get a second degree in information literacy, and in the first class I was introduced to a lot of new ideas about critical thinking and about creative learning platforms. I was told that the job of information literacy specialists (i.e. librarians) is to break down the vertical barriers to learning—to work horizontally across all areas of learning and connect the dots for students, parents and the community. That first class spoke to everything that as a teacher I had personally identified as missing or dangerously anemic in this you-will-regurgitate-what-we-taught-you system that is education today. I was captivated.

In your view, what’s the most pressing issue right now?

There is a crisis of critical thinking in this country. We have a desperate need for kids–and adults for that matter–to be better critical thinkers.

Critical thinking has always been an important life skill. What makes it so urgent now?

The difference is the Information Age, or whatever you want to call it. More information equals more critical thinking. In my field we refer to the set of skills necessary for accessing, evaluating, integrating and using information as information literacy. Critical thinking, discernment and judgment are the underpinnings of information literacy.

How are we doing? What does it say on our information literacy report card?

It says we are far below the curve. It says information illiteracy is a national pandemic. We have an educational system right now that is not keeping up with the technology or the information. Our schools are still teaching kids what to learn, not how to learn.

Is it that bad?

Yes, it’s that bad. We are dishing up a bulimic education. Test data does not tell the whole story about the health of the education we are providing.  Look at what’s happening to our kids. They are already shutting down in terms of the idea of being lifelong learners. They are already getting fatigued before they get to high school. Talented kids who are qualified for GATE [gifted and talented education] programs are opting out.

Where are we going wrong?

We’ve created a system in which kids are taught they just need to get the right answer.

Is there someone to point a finger at?

At everyone and no one. We’ve got teachers that are definitely wondering why am I doing this because it is not the spirit and heart of education they signed on for. We have parents who lament barely having conversations with their kids because the kids are spending so much time memorizing what has to be regurgitated the next day. We’ve got administrators and district people who are scared to death of being judged solely by results on the latest high-stakes test.

What are we missing here?

I think we are taking a beating psychologically and emotionally because we have created an educational system that runs counter to our core values.

Core values?

We have convinced ourselves that we know what kids need to learn, but what about what they want to learn? What about the critical thinking that is necessary for learning? What about helping kids learn to value learning? What about valuing the child? I think those principles are this country’s core values, but they’ve gotten lost in the system. We’ve got a system that bleeds out those values. We have created a situation in which we don’t have time to ask what the child wants to learn even if that is what we most want to do.

But if those are our core values why do we ignore or neglect them in favor of programmatic, standards-based education?

What’s happened is pretty simple. Most of the time education tends to lead with its heart. We were loving the kids, but we were overindulgent. We were not getting robust results on tests. We didn’t balance it right. We were flat-out bad managers. That’s why the accountability and standards thing took off. Then, we went so far into the required, we forgot what was desired. We dropped the desired part of the curriculum and got hung up on scorecards.

The demands of the society on education are changing. The tools are changing. The access to information is changing. The ways information is created and distributed are changing. Is the educational system responding adequately or appropriately?

More bad news. The University of California information collaborative issued an official resolution that students emerging from K-12 are not prepared to deal with information. They are technologically literate, but they are information illiterate. They might be digital natives, but they are not digitally literate.

You’re making it sound pretty bleak.

The heart of education is still beating. It’s in the DNA of the country and of sane citizens in the country. I have great faith it is still there.

What’s the solution? What needs to happen?

I think we need to move back toward love-based learning. If we are going to make them lifelong learners we are going to have to get them to love learning. But at the same time we do that we have to help them learn to be information resilient. They have to be able to handle all the stuff that is coming at them—good and bad—and use it with real wisdom.

What is the role for librarians in that transition?

Our training is specifically in the area of information literacy. It’s not about books; it’s about the interaction of people with information. It always has been.

School librarians do not teach library to people. They support all the other academic areas, the community and all the stakeholders. They help people learn what they want to learn. Teacher librarians are uniquely equipped to improve digital literacy because that’s their skillset.

Do you think that perspective is widely shared?

Frankly, librarians are not all that good at representing themselves. Librarians are great at being invisible and that’s dangerous for the profession. School librarianship is an enigma in a lot of people’s minds and we only have ourselves to blame.

How do you see the role of librarians changing?

It used to be an information desert and you needed a librarian to help you find that certain book hidden under a certain rock. Now we are in an information rain forest. The information comes in like a flood and kids have no sea walls. They don’t have systems to be able to manage and discern and to use and to understand the potential long-term consequences or value of how they are interacting with that information and how they are becoming contributors to that information. The paradigm has changed radically.

And that’s what librarians have to offer?

We have people who are qualified and trained for that, but we are not always invited to the discussion table. The system looks at librarians as book custodians. It doesn’t see a need anymore for what it thinks of as an “information concierge”.

In California we are leading this country in so many ways and some of them are not good. And one of the ways is we currently have about one librarian for every 6,000 students—the lowest proportion in the country—and it’s decreasing.

Most elementary schools don’t have a single teacher or administrator trained in information literacy. We are devaluing critical thinking and information literacy in education, and cutting librarians is a symptom of that.

What is being done?

A wide range of stakeholders are coming together to address the problem of digital illiteracy. We are finding common ground in the new standards and definitions of digital literacy and ICT literacy.

Can you elaborate?

Well, for example, California recently published a digital literacy plan for California [Digital Literacy Pathways in California] supported by both the current and previous governors. The team came up with a great definition. It was a labor of love and effort and sweat and pain. During the same time period, the state established new library standards, which turned out to be nearly identical to the digital literacy standards.

You are saying that digital literacy is becoming a kind of a rallying point for changes in education?

I think it is. People are coming together passionately and working together on this in ways they never have before. Things are happening. One of the biggest breakthroughs is that the state school library standards say we must ask the kids what they want to learn.

Do we need more libraries and librarians?

Sure we need more libraries and teacher librarians. I would love to see that. But if you are not going to fund libraries at least make sure you have someone who is information literacy trained—a credentialed teacher librarian—at every school, even if they are serving in a classroom, who can mentor and support the teachers and kids in the application of the information along with the teaching of the technology.

Educational technology and information literacy should wed?

It’s more than technologists and librarians holding hands and loving each other. It’s really everybody—inside and outside education—breaking down the barriers. We are not going to be able to get this done unless we combine the expertise of librarians, technologists, parents, law enforcement, administrators, government agencies, school counselors, higher education and many other stakeholders. Tell me who shouldn’t be at the table.

The larger goal in all this is learning how to work together for the benefit of our kids. As we move toward implementation, we all have to agree that the only way is together or not at all.

What are the chances of success?

At the heart of it we all have a shared hope for our kids, a common hope that unites us.

When you engage on a level of passion and principles that’s when you get action. That’s what’s happening. We are doing this because it needs to be done, because it is significant. The vision of a better future is what’s driving us. That is why we can’t lose.


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