Empowering the intentional learner: a critical theory for information literacy instruction.

Author:Doherty, John J.

In a political system grounded in an informed citizenry we are members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom and the freedom of access to information. We have a special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations. [1]


Why is intellectual freedom so important, and why do librarians have a special obligation to it? Brazilian educator and critical/conflict theorist Paulo Freire would probably reply that information is at the core of education, and that it has a democratic, liberatory power that will give all members of society the equality of access to society's power [2]. In other words, Freire's goal of social transformation through education is implicit in the above statement. While this is an important concept, it tends to mask another, more critical aspect of information literacy; that due to this "special obligation" librarians have been guilty of a patriarchal and privileged positioning of their expertise in relation to the users they serve.

Freire's critical form of educational theory suggests that educators (and we include librarians here) need to first engage their students in the contexts of the students' experiences. In his practice in remote areas of Brazil in the 1950s and 1960s, he developed literacy programs for indigenous populations that did not initially impose the dominant culture's idea of literacy on the students. Only through engaging students in the terms of students' own experiences can an educator then build in concepts of learning that dialogues with those experiences to create a more dynamic, empowered, liberatory educational experience [2]. In such practice, power is with the student, not the educator. Since there is a strongly privileged, patriarchal power relationship in much of a library's interactions with users, including in the area of information literacy instruction, this paper, therefore, takes a critical theory view of libraries, information, and library users (critical theory is a sociological view that looks at the world through a lens that embodies issues of power and privilege in social relationships).

The paper is an example of a reflective dialogue done with the intent of developing a more critically grounded theory of information literacy instruction. First, we will examine the concepts of progressive liberal education as presented in the recent Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU)'s National Panel Report, Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College [3]; and the theory of information literacy instruction implicit in the Association of College and Research Libraries Institute for Information Literacy Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education [4, hereinafter, the ACRL Standards]. From this we will suggest a new theory of information literacy instruction, that of the empowered intentional learner. Then, this theory is tested in practice through a case study of a freshmen class developed and taught by the authors. Freire suggests that theory must engage with practice in a reflective dialogue where one informs the other and vice versa to develop more meaningful, critical theories and practices (what Freire and others refer to as praxis, or reflection- and doing-in-action). Therefore, we finally reflect on both the theory and practice, discussing how one informs the other, and through this model how reflective dialogue between the two develops a new grounded theory of information literacy instruction for empowered, intentional learning.

Information Literacy and Greater Expectations

Information literacy is not just a library issue, especially if one looks at it as a tool for empowerment and liberation. It has been suggested that it is the critical issue for the twenty-first century, that it is "of keen importance to all educational stakeholders, including faculty, librarians and administrators" [5]. With the explosion of information resources and sources available to learners today with the concomitant political, social, and global trend at attempting to control information, information literacy is a much more important concept and a greater requirement in life and in the workplace.

The ACRL Standards define information literacy for higher education as the ability to "recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information"[6]. A key theory implicit in this document and in library practice as a whole is that of the lifelong learner, one who should be able to evaluate and interpret information retrieved from various sources and resources. [7]

Such a concept has been a part of progressive educational theory since at least John Dewey, who, while discussing science education in 1916, suggested:

Since the mass of pupils are never going to become scientific specialists, it is much more important that they should get some insight into what scientific method means than that they should copy at long range and second hand the results which scientific men have reached [8]. If one replaces science here with information literacy, one can see the importance of such learning to continued success beyond school and college; in other words, life long learning.

The Greater Expectations panel recently reframed this idea to discuss the Intentional Learner. Their document, intended to be "an analysis of the challenges facing higher education and an honest appraisal of our successes and failures in meeting them," [9] says:

Students will continue to pursue different specializations in college. But across all fields, the panel calls for higher education to help college students become INTENTIONAL LEARNERS who can adapt to new environments, integrate knowledge from different sources, and continue learning throughout their lives. [10] It emphasizes that in order to "thrive" in the 21st Century, the intentional learner should be: empowered "through a mastery of intellectual and practical skills;" informed "by knowledge about the natural and social worlds and about forms of inquiry basic to those studies;" and, responsible "for...

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