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?

9 thoughts on “Information Literacy and Inquiry as Disruption to School Culture Oppressed by Testing

  1. Hi Buffy.

    As a teacher of undergraduates, I have learned a lot about the ways my students “think school is done.” In my course, they are responsible for themselves and their actions. They are treated as competent and worthwhile people. Their voices and interests are accounted for as best I can. In many cases, this is surprising to them. They are all used to being subjected to learning and curriculum – not to contribute to it. It is wonderful to see many of them blossom into their own agency in the classroom. Still, it seems, some of them don’t.

    I am glad you mentioned Bob Fecho because I learned a lot of what I know about inquiry in one of his courses. My experience was many of the things Sharon Murphy outlined in that helpful list. Most of all it was deeply personal and even a little scary. A couple of other colleagues had transformative experiences in that course, but others did not, which led us to wonder why that happened. Why transformative learning really happened for some and not for others. For me, the personal learning that happened caused such disequilibrium in my life (as it meant confronting my own privilege and values), I was in a tailspin. I could have withdrawn, and even wanted to at times. If I did not have a solid support system and relative stability in the rest of my life, it probably would have been too much for me to handle.

    So these are two possible reasons for resistance – one, that students, by the time they get to you, have been taught that “school gets done” through rote memorization, drill-and-kill practice, and low level mental engagement. We talked about this yesterday in my class when we discussed AR testing and the low level of reading it guides students to. There is no questioning of the text or response. I applaud your efforts to resist, and hope you continue to do so. Its a battle worth fighting. Im glad you brought up Freire, and although I am more a Bourdieu girl, the idea that schooling is a reproductive mechanism to serve the privileged class is a similarity of the two. These things have to be disrupted.

    Second, it could be that some students don’t have the resources, maybe for of a number of reasons be they personal or otherwise, to engage on that level right now. (Im not saying that some students arent capable of this – all of them are and deserve to be a part of inquiry driven learning. But some may have instabilities in their lives that prevent some of that commitment and mental room). In my experience, a lot of things have to be going right in other areas for the kind of deep engagement and personal learning inquiry requires to take place. So for some you may simply be planting seeds, and the flowers will come later – delayed, but still beautiful.

    One of the most inspiring things that Ive seen lately was an unexpected discussion by my students yesterday. We started talking about AR, the economics behind it, and the way it shapes young readers. This led, quite unexpectedly, to a spirited discussion of the abusive uses of testing they have seen in the classrooms they spend time in. They do not understand why schooling is done this way. They see so clearly how misguided and just plain wrong it is. They see how it gets worse for kids who are already in trouble. There was dissent, frustration, even outrage. I can only hope, when they walk into schools as new teachers that they maintain that fire and follow their gut, leading their kids into inquiry, learning, and growth.

    Thanks for making me think this morning!

    Beth

    1. Beth, I am really looking forward to reading your article about your experiences after the first of the year!

      I truly appreciate your taking time to share your thoughts here–they are enlightening and encouraging.

      Thank YOU for making me think! I am looking forward to engaging in inquiry with you in December through our virtual book club!

      Buffy

  2. I’ve had an interesting experience as an observer this year that has me thinking very hard about these questions.
    I love that Beth pointed out that her transformative learning experience was a little scary. I suspect that is the case with many transformative learning experiences – that they can be scary, exhilarating, among many other emotions. Fear is behind a lot of resistance.
    My S.O. is teaching an “at-risk” Algebra class for the first time in 15 years, it is a one off and totally outside his wheelhouse. I spent an hour late last night researching ways to help him differentiate Algebra instruction, and it is on my daily agenda. But one of his biggest frustrations is the resistance he receives to applied math through labs or projects. I keep trying to explain that for these kids this is something very different and scary for them, so yeah, he will receive push back. And at the heart of this I am sad and worried for a culture in which so many students want to know the right answer and not the right question (for them).
    However the reflection on the questions you asked at the end of your post keeps pushing me forward, both in thinking of supporting the learning and instruction of teachers who want to ‘disrupt’ and in considering my own practices. (although I am out of schools for now).

    1. Hi Mary Ann!

      Thank you so much for taking time to share your thoughts and experiences here! I agree that fear is a common cause of resistance, so I’m thinking about how to address those fears.

      Like you, I too am worried about this culture that values “the” answer or “right” answers.

      Thanks to Beth Friese and Kristin Fontichiaro, we will be doing a virtual book club in late December about inquiry circles. I’d like to invite you to join us! For more details, please go to http://teacherlibrarian.ning.com/forum/topics/inquiry-circles-book-group .

      Thank you for reading my blog, and I hope you’ll join us with the book club, which is open to everyone!

      Best,
      Buffy

  3. I made my way to your blog by way of a RT on Twitter– imagine my surprise to find one of my Twitter buddies commenting on your blog.

    I’ve been wrestling with the same issues in a class of preservice educators I’m teaching, as well as mulling all this over in my own blog.

    My glum prediction is that this student pushback & resistance is merely the first wave of what NCLB hath wrought: a generation of students afraid to think for themselves, act on their own behalf, color or create outside the lines.

    Teaching as a Subversive Activity, indeed.

  4. Hi Buffy,
    Your big questions are certainly thought-provoking. My students are always surprised when I bring up the notion of discomfort/dis-ease, especially as it relates to their research endeavors. I remind them to expect a certain amount of discomfort/dis-ease as they write their research papers.
    Thanks for this post. I will have to revisit it often.

    1. Hi Chris!

      Thank you so much for visiting and reading my blog! I will be revisiting these questions and will be sharing student feedback on this front as well in the next two weeks or so.

      We are going to be exploring the idea of inquiry circles through a virtual book club open to everyone. I’d like to invite you to join us and help us explore these questions and others at http://teacherlibrarian.ning.com/forum/topics/inquiry-circles-book-group.

      Thank you again, and I hope we can explore these challenges together as a learning community!

      Best,
      Buffy

  5. The debate between education that is test-based versus inquiry-based may never be resolved. Both approaches have their rationale. A big rationale for test-based education is that assessment of student learning is quantifiable and objective. There is definitely value in being able to measure student learning. Another supporting reason for test-based education is that many students will be motivated to study when they know a test will be at the conclusion of a study unit. I am glad that there are tests for certain professions such as in medicine, architecture, and accounting. The outcomes of these professions need a level of expertise that is clearly competent in the necessary knowledge of their disciplines.
    Inquiry-based learning is more likely to produce learning experiences that connect all the conceptual dots of a topic of study. Inquiry-based learning will more likely include learning that is difficult to quantify, yet the learning may be very useful and perhaps more likely to stay in a student’s long term memory. The fuller experience of inquiry-based learning gives more breadth and depth to the individual bits of data that are included in the process. Discussion of string tension has a lot more meaning when a student decides to try comparisons between various stringed instruments like a harp, mandolin, and classical guitar.
    One thought is that it would be nice if students could choose the type of educational paradigm that would be a good match. In Biel/Bienne, a town in Switzerland where both German and French are spoken, I was told that students could choose to attend one of two high schools that were right next to each other; one school had the curriculum taught in German and the other in French. Could there be some sense to letting students choose to attend a school that is test-based or another school that is inquiry-based?
    I agree that teaching to the test can be oppressive to the atmosphere of an educational environment. I wish education could be more in the spirit of enlightenment. The practical need to learn certain nuts and bolts is part of reality. As developers of the future, society has to continually assess the purpose of education. For some, education is to keep up with the global market place; for others, it is to have a skilled workforce at home; and for others, it is to have well-rounded competent citizens. I am glad that the test-based and inquiry-based education debate is happening. Progress is generally the result of experimentation and discussion.

    Wayne A.

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