Reigniting Trust

Teaching Information Literacy

Young people have a wealth of knowledge right in their pocket. Angela Kohnen is teaching them how to cope.

Angela Kohnen
Angela Kohnen

 Angela Kohnen Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the University of Florida’s College of Education. She specializes in developing curricula to teach information literacy in middle school, helping children make sense of the volume of information available online. The interview has been edited for length and style.

Tell us about yourself and your work.

I am in the College of Education, in the School of Teaching and Learning. My background is that I taught high school English, then pursued a doctorate in curriculum and instruction with a specialization in English education.

| Click here to read about Angela Kohnen’s research. |

During that time, I got involved in a National Science Foundation grant that was connected to teaching students how to write like science journalists. The idea was that we could improve their science literacy by having them engage in journalistic practices. It was a really fun grant, and it was a little bit outside my area of English education. It was the first time I was thinking about and looking at literacy in other places. What was intriguing was how the students were making sense of the information they were encountering, particularly online. That became something that I have been thinking about since. That was about eight years ago.

Things have changed a lot since then, in terms of what the online environment is like, but that question of what young people do, particularly middle and high school students, to decide what information they find credible, what information they pass on to their friends, that continues to be my work. I am really interested in how we teach young people to make sense of all of this.

Tell us about your work with the Consortium on Trust in Media and Technology. What you have discovered about how to teach students and what are the challenges?

I think my work is a bit more applied than others in the Consortium. I tend to learn from research in some of the other fields, like journalism and communication, and think about how their work might inform educational interventions and curriculum.

Most teachers are really busy and online information literacy instruction can slip through the cracks. A lot of times online information literacy instruction will end up being a stand-alone lesson instead of being integrated throughout the year. Sometimes the librarian will come in and give a talk, and it is almost always done in connection with some research project that they are getting ready to start on. It will frequently include an overview of the library resources that are available. They might use those checklists that were developed 15 ago now, like the CRAAP test:  currency, relevance, authority, accuracy and purpose. Sometimes there will be worksheets that they fill out to evaluate information. The upshot of all this is that it tends to be seen by the student as something you do when you are doing a paper in school. It is completely divorced from the way they think about information outside of school.

What is the goal and in what order do we teach it across multiple grade levels and, ideally, across multiple content areas.

If there is a video, they trust it. If an article has a graph next to it, the credibility just shoots up in their eyes. The English language arts teacher cannot handle this alone. We started talking to the math teachers. We  started talking to the social studies teachers. I think part of what makes some of the stuff that we are doing a little different from other scholars in the area is that we are trying to develop a cross-curricular approach, a multi-year, cross-curricular approach. How can we think about online information literacy for sixth grade and seventh grade, as well as eighth-graders, ninth-graders, 10th-graders—all the way up to 12th grade. And what pieces of that makes the most sense in math class? What pieces make the most sense in social studies? We are trying to lay that out and think about it.

We are also very interested in thinking about the role of identities and dispositions in online information literacy instruction. Many curricular interventions are designed around the skills students need to tell good information from less good information—they operate from the premise that most people would evaluate information rationally if only they knew how. I’m not sure that’s true. So we start from the premise that we need to do two things simultaneously: cultivate in young people the identity of someone who is committed to the rational evaluation of information and teach the skills needed to do so.

We have definitely made some progress. One of the things that has been the most fun with middle school students is starting with what the internet is and how it works. It has always just been there for them.  That is really fun for them and opens up their eyes to the fact that this is all created by people with biases and agendas, and we just need to be more aware of how this information is getting to us and why it might be there. Google is a thing that is between you and the information. This gives them the idea that there is a mediator of information and it is not pure.

Based on your experiences, what can we say about trust? How do students trust information when you first meet them, and where you are trying to bring them?

We have been playing with four of what we might call dispositions around information. We have been talking about curiosity, skepticism, commitment to accuracy and persistence. These are four important values.

We arrived at these after doing some talks with experts around information, and discovered that if we can help kids notice when they want to know information, when their curiosity is piqued, we think that is a really important quality. But it is the idea of skepticism that is our favorite, and that seems to be the one that we get the most mileage out of. It is hard because you do not want to create a bunch of devil’s advocates or cynics, people who never will trust anything.

The commitment accuracy part is our attempt to capture the idea that all knowledge is tentative. Everything is always in flux and the brightest among us are those who can change their minds when presented with compelling evidence to do so.

When we talk to them about accuracy, we are trying to address the idea that, “I am trying to get the best information I can today. And I know that a week from now, there may be new information that may allow me to change my mind. I am getting accurate information.” We use “accurate” instead of “true.” If you get a science textbook from 10 years ago, everything in that science textbook was credible at the time it was written. It was trustworthy at the time it was written, but half of it is wrong now, right?

The idea that we play with the most is: how do you know this information is good enough? That’s where persistence comes in. We noticed that, with many students, if it is not on the first two results on Google, they are done. The answer cannot be found. So we want to develop some resilience and grit. When it comes to information literacy, it is important to have some resiliency. Young people and librarians have coined the term “source agnostic.” Because everything coming at them is mediated by a screen, everything looks the same. If you ask a bunch of seventh-graders or eighth-graders where they get their information, a lot of times they just say, “Google.” It all looks like Google or Instagram. Social media platforms are accelerating that because they strip away the distinguishing features that might make a New York Times article look different from a Buzzfeed article. So we are trying to build some basic content knowledge about the different kinds of sources that exist and what they mean. Like, what does it mean for it to be a news article in The New York Times versus an editorial in The New York Times? That is really hard.

When you start with students, do they trust everything that they see?

Yeah, often. We find it very similar to some other work that they do at the Consortium with adults. If they want to believe it, they believe it—if it pushes their confirmation bias buttons. I think the best we can hope for is that developmentally, middle-schoolers are trying out new ideas. They aren’t quite as firm in their positions as they will be by the time they are 18, 19, 20.  They are a little bit more open-minded, a little bit more willing to try out new ideas than they will be in just a few years. We hope this is a spot where we can build in awareness. Like, “if I am feeling myself getting fired up about something, maybe I need to take a breath because it may not be true—fake news is more likely to have an incendiary headline.” If we can do that, they will have less of a problem.

Tell us about your project under the banner of the Consortium.

Last year we were working at PK Yonge Developmental Research School with the eighth-grade interdisciplinary team, and did a trial run of a series of lessons and curriculum. The goal is to create an information literacy curriculum for eighth grade that had application in English, social studies and algebra. Basically, it is a year-long set of flexible lessons that can be dropped into different content areas, so they have a curricular connection. In math, we will give them some stats literacy. So on a typical day in algebra, they would be looking at the math behind the particular graphical representation, and then we will come in and talk about the information literacy pieces that might connect. In social studies, they might be looking at primary source documents. Then we will think through information literacy.

What do you think the long-term implications might be?

In my dream world, if they were able to go through a curriculum like this, where it becomes part of their entire secondary experience (or six through 12), they would be getting this reinforced again and again.

There is interest to develop the curriculum up through 12th grade. If we can do that, then obviously we will be following the kids along. Longitudinal data would be exciting to have.

From a trust standpoint, is it your sense that we learn things early on about trusting information in the same way that we learn other elements of trust? Like learning that your parents are trustworthy, or in some cases untrustworthy.

That is a fascinating question and I wish I had a better answer. I am not 100 percent sure. We do know that their early experiences are with the internet and the devices that you go to as sources of information. We have moved from a tactile world, where we have “stuff,” to everything being virtual. Some students have never touched a newspaper, in many cases, or a magazine. When you do that, you develop knowledge of what a newspaper is, what it is for, and an awareness of the world that was not as highly curated as your information sources are now.

There are implications in terms of what I think of as incidental information that you happen to encounter, like when you would you would flip through your dad’s record collection. Some of these experiences used to build trust in things like a newspaper or the nightly news. There are advantages to what is going on now, too, and I do not want to forget that. But in terms of what people are trusting, and why they are trusting it, I do think some of that is happening early.

I think if we are able to give young people exposure to some of these other high-quality sources of information and explain why, my hope is that it will carry forward a bit and build an understanding of the landscape of information and how information flows out in the world. Part of my mission is to make sure people understand that some dude blogging in their room while they are watching a feed is not news. That is not reporting. There might be news but it is not reporting. There is value to the slower model.

How much does appearance play a role here? How much does the physical presentation matter to young people?

I think there are a couple of interesting things about that. In studies that I have done, kids are just sitting in front of computers. We show them different websites and ask them to talk through what they are thinking. Appearance matters a great deal, which is interesting to me because I think about some of the stuff that I have to interface with, like a government site or an academic organization. There is no money for web design. The stuff is so bad. But it is actually really, really credible. Young people would tend to discount it unless they noticed that it was a government organization, which often they did not.

But then they also know what looks like click bait. They know that looks like something they just want me to click on. They can tell that it’s got a crazy headline, or it is got a lot of links all over it. That seems to reduce their assessment of credibility. It can be super sleek looking, but if it looks really click baity, they do not like it and they tend to discredit it.