Taking advantage of student interactions, especially when they come into the library for research projects, is my way of helping students develop critical thinking skills. Recently I found myself in the stacks of the school library finding books about the space race for a class project. I pulled out a book from 1970 that was about satellite technology and asked the student should we use this book or not. They replied, “Sure. It’s about space.”
I asked them, “What do you think makes this source a red flag?”
To which I received, “I just need a book Ms. Keenan.”
I sighed. Teenagers, I thought. “No really, evaluate this source. When was it published? Is it current? What information can we learn from it and how should we use it?”
The student then picked up the book and proceeded to evaluate it. They said it looked old so it’s not current. It’s mostly about technology so they wouldn’t want to use it for a research project on current space technology.
“What information can we use from this?” I asked.
“Well,” they said. “I could use information about the technology they were using at the time of the space race.”
“Perfect!” I replied and promptly handed them the book. I then proceeded to walk back to my desk and write a note to weed the space, technology, & space technology sections and purchase books on the space race.
This interaction has me thinking about my service to the students in how I supply them resources and develop their critical thinking skills. Luckily, I was able to have this interaction with the student and with guided questions help them analyze the source in order to gather information for their project. Unfortunately, this won’t be the situation every time, but having these interactions helps stimulate the critical thinking skills needed for them to process and understand the information. Teachers sometimes forget to mention that even if a resource is in a library it may not be the resource for that student or that project. The library houses resources for them to use, but students still need to be cognizant of the information presented to them. Library collections are always in need of weeding, curating and developing and some resources may not be current. These resources can easily be accessed by students but they won’t understand why it’s not a good resource. That’s when a librarian can help them consider the source and decide if it is worth using or not.
In the situation above, I realized that my collection is out of date. I’ve recently run different collection statistics (both Follett Destiny and Perma-Bound offer great collection analysis) that prove the need for a serious weed. This isn’t taken lightly since I have teachers who still depend on the same old resources that they want to give to students for the same project they’ve been doing for ten years. This is still ok. I make a point to be free during the student’s research time in the library to have more of these interactions with students. Being in the stacks with them and asking them, “Is this a reliable source?” offers more students the ability to think about information in general. Just because a source comes from the library doesn’t make it a reliable source. It could still be outdated, biased and unreliable. The big message that I want my students to walk away with is to consider the source and think critically about the information they process and use. This skill can transfer into many aspects of their life.
Providing books on current curriculum topics that make it easy for them to process and use is my number one goal. However I also need to challenge them (especially seniors and juniors) with harder texts that might not be so clear cut. My school is a Middle School and High School so providing different levels of materials for research on topics is key. I think access to the librarian during these research times is even more important. Having someone who can teach research and critical thinking skills empowers students to think for themselves and learn how to weed out the misinformation.
Not to toot our own horn, but having a librarian in the school building creates more opportunities for students to develop critical thinking skills. Students need a sounding board to answer these tough questions, especially in a world where they consume (intentionally and unintentionally) vast amounts of information in their everyday activities. Having someone to teach these skills is crucial and beneficial to their skillset. I’m grateful that I live in a state where libraries and librarians are valued, but I know that some schools still don’t have librarians in their libraries. I understand budget cuts, shortages, etc. are only part of the problem but the skills taught by librarians are key skills that students will use for the rest of their lives.
Last but not least, a suggestion for schools that are focused on assessments, rubrics and data mining: my district has been using Trails: Tool for Real-time Assessment of Information Literacy Skills. This site offers assessments for different age groups that can help you with your practice. The tests assess critical thinking skills especially focusing on information and research skills. My district has found the reading level to be a little more advanced for some grades but highly beneficial for assessing our students on critical thinking skills, processing, understanding and using information. This has become a critical tool in our district to see our student’s current information skill set and how we can develop the skills our students might be lacking.