Information Literacy and Inquiry as Disruption to School Culture Oppressed by Testing

My Media 21 project is inspired by the work of Wendy Drexler and Dr. Michael Wesch; this tweet from last week’s NEIT Conference reflects an essential question driving my Media 21 project:

As my Media 21 students have shared some new research reflections in the last week, I have felt both overjoyed and frustrated by responses.  How is it that some students have seen the last 15 weeks as the most challenging and rewarding learning experience of their lives that they hope will continue second semester while others have viewed the learning experiences more as a chore and something to simply “get done”?  Why do some students embrace reflection and original thinking while others chafe in the face of learning experiences that do not reflect the knowledge banking nature of today’s test driven educational climate?

In reflecting and returning to a reality that I faced when I adopted a literacy as inquiry stance as a classroom teacher in 2002, I am revisiting my studies of literacy as inquiry with Dr. Bob Fecho at the University of Georgia.  Just as some students resisted a learning environment I created that valued questions, not black and white answers, I see this resistance in some of my Media 21 students who seem to prefer learning activities that value regurgitation of facts rather than questioning or critical, creative thinking.  This question came up during Dr. Wesch’s keynote at NEIT:

In my corner of the world, my answer is “More than you might think.”  While some students are liberated by choice and free thought, others feel threatened by a learning environment that is inquiry driven and participatory in nature.    I can’t help but think that this phenomenon is easier to comprehend when you consider today’s students are among the first generation to grow up in a test driven school culture that is contradictory to inquiry.

What is inquiry? Here are qualities identified by classmate Sharon Murphy in Fall of 2002:

• Dis-ease. There are many questions raised without answers.

• Establishes more than the teacher as validator of knowledge/work.

• Feeling of responsibility to yourself and the class.

• Recognizes classroom as a complicated, non-laboratory place filled with complex, caring human beings.

• Fights culture of school that wants THE right answer.

• Doesn’t hide what is occurring in class and makes class part of determining what is occurring.

• Patience- doesn’t give up too quickly and realizes community/learning/inquiry doesn’t happen overnight.

Does this sound like the learning environment many school librarians crave yet find themselves hungering for it in the current educational landscape?

In revisiting my initial reading of Pedagogy of the Oppressed of 2002, Paulo Freire says the oppressed are often “hosts” of the oppressor (48) because they are so immersed in the culture of oppression.   Does this description fit today’s student who must buy into the testing culture so privileged (whether by choice or force) by public schools?  Does it also apply to many classroom teachers whose careers are judged by test scores and perhaps even our profession as school librarians as we are called upon to tie our programs to student achievement in order to “survive”?  How does the assimilation of the discourse of testing impact how students transactions with information and how they construct knowledge?

The current test driven culture values knowledge banking and correct answers; standardized curriculum and conformity to ways of knowing and learning are the hallmarks of contemporary American education.  In many schools, students and teachers feel pressured to “cover” knowledge precisely and efficiently.  Contrast these values to those Freire asserts:

“For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other”(72).

So what does this all mean?  Right now, some key ideas are resonating with me:

My big question:  how can inquiry driven learning and an inquiry stance on information literacy positively disrupt students who are entrenched and oppressed by the testing culture?  How can participatory librarianship support inquiry and students who find conversations about learning troublesome rather than empowering?   How do we address their “dis-ease” they feel as they are pushed out of their comfort zone?  How can school librarians and libraries be more effective sponsors of information literacy and transliteracy?