According to the Sardine Blog information fluency is:
“the ability to unconsciously and intuitively interpret information in all forms and formats in order to extract the essential knowledge, authenticate it, and perceive its meaning and significance.”
The blog continues by mentioning five key steps: asking good questions, acquiring appropriate information sources, analyzing the information quality, applying the information and finally assessing both process and product.
In my own words, I think of information fluency in the 21st century as the ability to wisely use all of the information that is available to us nowadays. I think memorizing most facts is obsolete when they are literally little more then a few clicks away from reach. Instead of having too little information, we have the opposite problem, which is why asking good questions, strong analytical skills and reflection are more critical then ever.
Application: The Little Things
Instead of doing a big flashy lesson/project on information fluency, I tried to incorporate information fluency into my class on a more daily (mundane?) basis. To me this is more meaningful.
When I first read the description for information fluencies one of the first things I noticed was the part about asking good questions. This really got me excited because I’ve read a lot of physics education research that shows how important the discourse between students in a physics classroom is. In my classroom, we do a lot of peer teaching using big whiteboards. After a group of students teaches the rest of the class an idea, the audience is expected to ask questions.
I’m continuing to work on encouraging students to ask three basic types of questions: understanding, extension, and Socratic. Understanding questions are the ones students understand and expect most readably. Extension questions are questions that build off the original questions. Right now, my students are generally only able to ask questions very closely related (i.e. what if the height was doubled?). I try to encourage students to ask more and more general questions. The last type of questions are the hardest: Socratic. It is so much easier in physics (and I suspect any subject) to have an answer then it is to understand why the answer is right. I once heard about a company that aimed to be able to answer “why?” 5 levels deep for major questions. That’s my goal for my physics students, although we are along way from reaching it. Currently I’m pleased if my students can go 1 level deep (i.e. they can explain the reasoning behind their answer, but can’t explain the explanation). Once in a while a student is able to go 2 levels deep and that is really great!
Another thing I noticed on the sardine site is an emphasis on interpreting visual information. While teaching kinematics (study of motion) this year I equally emphasized graphical, diagrammatic and words descriptions along with the more common algebraic models. One really neat things you can do when you learn about the same idea but in different “expressions” is ask students to “translate” a specific example in one case to all the others. This is really neat because it’s not something you can fake like plugging and chugging an equation. Instead you truly have to understand. Since my students generally are able to translate between one kinematics representation to another I think this was successful.
Finally the last thing I wanted to mention was how we applied our physics knowledge. This year I found about some of the work of the University of Minnesota’s Physics Education Research group. The group has produced a bunch of content rich physics problems. The problems are useful because they don’t fit into nice neat little boxes like standard text book problems do. They talk about everyday situations that appear simple on the surface but are actually quite challenging to solve. One of the problems I used asked about a jogger running around a lake trying to decide when he would meet another jogger. The problems include lots of information which students have to determine relevancy from. One student who literally crossed out the irrelevant information. Overall, I thought the content rich problems were successful because of the obvious level of thought most of my students put into the problem.
The Big Picture
Although the context of my class is obviously physics, I think that these ideas can be applied in any setting. I don’t see why peer instruction with whiteboards couldn’t be used in math or even history. Certainly requiring students to ask understanding, extension, and Socratic questions of each other could be done in any discipline. I also think that using different ways of representing knowledge could be applied to many subjects although the types of representations would obviously be different then the ones I mentioned. Finally I think adding intensive context to problems or assignments can be done in any field.
In short, I believe that working on good questions, multiple representations of knowledge and content rich application help students build information fluency.
Today in my honors physics class I mentioned some whimsically chosen names for the fourth (snap), fifth (crackle) and sixth derivatives (pop) of position with respect to time. Few people know these terms, but the first and second derivatives names are quite common: velocity and acceleration.
As soon as I mentioned the names there was an outpouring of skepticism from students who doubted a science as serious as physics could also be whimsical. I thought the skepticism was great so I encouraged them to look it up and mentioned Wikipedia as one possible starting point. My students questioned the validity of Wikipedia. One even mentioned that “you are the only teacher who likes Wikipedia.” I’ve noticed that my opinion of Wikipedia does not exactly put me in the majority either.
The main complaint I’ve heard leveled against Wikipedia is that it has a lot of errors. I understand why people think that, but is there data to support this ascertain? At least one expert led study seems to suggest otherwise by claiming that the average scientific article in Wikipedia had four errors while the average Britannica article had three. I’ve read many of Wikipedia’s physics articles and have yet to find an error. Sadly, the same cannot be said about many of the high school physics textbooks I’ve read.
The other criticism I’ve frequently heard is that anyone can wreck havoc and vandalize Wikipedia. There’s no doubt that this is true, but how significant is it? Imagine for moment that we live in a medieval village where all hammers, crowbars & saws are controlled exclusively by a carpentry guild. Suppose a technological breakthrough allows all citizens access to these tools. Some might fear distributing these powerful tools which could be used to destroy. Fortunately though, we know that’s not actually what happens. For every destroyer multitudes more build.
I see Wikipedia in a similar light. Although some do vandalize, many more repair. And just like in the medieval town, Wikipedia has methods of limiting the damage caused by users who pollute.
How could Wikipedia be used?
I like Wikipedia because it is generally clear, deep, broad, well networked, and easy to use. I think we should encourage students to be skeptical of not only Wikipedia but also print sources and ultimately ourselves. This may not be practical for every discipline but we scientists are fortunate that the best test is rarely more then an experiment away.
If you’re interested, here is an interesting paper about teaching students to use Wikipedia properly and some insight into how Wikipedia works.
Are my thoughts on Wikipedia tragically flawed? Somewhat reasonable? Or just plain crazy? Please comment below (: