Survival Skills for the Information Jungle: Information Problem-Solving Activities Are More Important Than Ever
Creative Classroom August 2001
The Information Jungle
Research for most of us who finished our formal education prior to 1995 operated in an Information Desert. Those five or ten sources required for a research paper were tough to find in our school and public libraries. The final product of our information quest was usually a written compilation of information, often verging on plagiarism to fulfill an assignment that neither requested nor encouraged the creation of new knowledge or innovative solutions to real problems.
Today’s student who has access to online sources of information operates in an Information Jungle. A quick search using an Internet search engine can yield thousands of possible sources of information. Savvy teachers today are asking students not just find and organize information, but to do so to answer genuine questions, offer original solutions to problems, and communicate their findings using a variety of media.
While technology can be enriching, the Information Jungle and projects that call for the demonstration of higher level thinking skills contain perils as well. The role of the teacher and library media specialist has rapidly changed from one of a desert guide (helping learners locate scarce resources) to one of jungle guide (helping learners evaluate and select resources of value). This change has been so rapid that many educators have not had time to learn the skills necessary for their new roles. But for those who do, the rewards for doing information problem solving in the Information Jungle can be tremendous.
Good information problem solving activities and projects help educators answer some loudly voiced critical questions:
- Is technology being used in meaningful ways in schools?
- How can we keep curriculum from becoming “a mile wide and an inch deep?”
- Are schools preparing students to work in an information-based economy?
Uses of Technology in Schools
Teachers have been puttering with technology in schools for over two decades now and don’t have much evidence to show that its use has made much difference in student achievement. The use of programmed learning, drill and practice software, and computer simulations, while mainstays in many labs, have not resulted in gains in student test scores and rarely even attempt to engage students in more than low level thinking skills.
One application of technology does live up to the exciting promises made by the technophiles: using networked computers with access to a wide-range of online information as tools to support problem-based learning activities that help teach information literacy skills. Information found, conclusions drawn, and action requested as a result of these activities can then be analyized and shared with business productivity tools like word processors, desktop publishing software, presentation programs, spreadsheets, databases and video-editing software.
Problem-based learning and information literacy
Problem-based learning is a constructivist approach to helping students learn essential skills through the actual application of those skills in answering questions or solving a problems. In traditional methods of instruction, the teacher poses a question and provides an answer to the question, either directly or by directing the learner to a specific source for the answer. (Read Chapter 24 and answer the questions at the end of it.) Using a problem-based approach to instruction, the teacher helps students answer genuine question of personal relevance related to the topic. (Sidebar 1 - below)
For students to be successful problem solvers, teachers need to teach what are commonly called information literacy skills. These skills usually include having the ability to:
- Articulate the problem and identify the information needed to answer it.
- Know information sources and locate relevant information.
- Select and evaluate the information in those sources.
- Organize, synthesize, and draw supported conclusions from the information.
- Communicate findings and conclusions to others.
- Evaluate the product and process.
While many states and a variety of individuals have developed information problem-solving models, The Big6™ Information Problem-Solving Approach is one of the most popular in current use by teachers and librarians. Details and support materials related to this model can be found at <http://big6.com/>. While often information problem-solving skills are taught as part of an extended “research” project, many teachers are also finding ways for students to practice a subset of those skills on a daily basis. (See Sidebar 2 below)
Information-problem solving meets technology
Most information problem-solving models were developed in the days of the Information Desert. Teaching students information skills dealt primarily with helping them locate books and magazine articles, compile and organize information from them, and write a properly cited “research paper” about a topic selected from a narrow list on which the teacher and librarian knew information could be found.
Happily many teachers and media specialists have found that information technologies compliment and enrich information problem-solving opportunities. (Sidebar 3 below) Students are freed from restricting their questioning to only topics on which the local library has materials. Students are freed from communicating their findings only through written reports. The Internet and other online resources such as full-text periodical databases, electronic encyclopedias, and CD-ROM content specific databases help make finding information on any topic of individual interest possible. Easy-to-use software like graphics, desktop publishing, mind-mapping, database, spreadsheet and webpage creation programs allow students to tell others what they have found though graphics and sound as well as verbally. Video cameras, digital editors, community access channels and school websites give students the opportunity to record and share their findings with an audience outside the school. Exciting opportunities for involving students abound in the Information Jungle.
Information jungle survival tips
Most jungles, however, can be confusing and even dangerous to the inexperienced traveler. The sheer abundance of resources and multitude of paths to them demand the explorer have special skills if they are to be used in constructive ways. Find below six Information Jungle Survival Tips for teachers and students.
Information jungle survival skill 1: Know where you are going and make sure the trip’s worthwhile.
How do your research questions stack up? (Sidebar 4 below) Helping students prepare good questions to answer or problems to solve using information is more important than ever for a number of reasons:
- The vast amount of information available makes research that tries to be exhaustive impossible for nearly every topic. Even in the Information Desert days students would often take a subject like World War II as their research topic. I would then show them the volumes already written on the subject and ask if they really wanted to rewrite all of that information. A clever way of helping students narrow the focus of their research is by helping them find a question, preferably of personal interest, about the broader topic. For the student who wants World War II as a topic, the teacher or librarian might ask, “What other interests do you have?” A student who expresses an interest in horses might then try to answer the question. “Did horses play a part in the battles of World War II?”
- Plagiarism can only be avoided by having the learner ask genuine questions that require original higher-level thinking. Plagiarism has come of age on the Internet. Now when Mr. Fogy assigns a paper on the Olympics of Ancient Greece, the savvy student heads for a site like <www.schoolsucks.com> where a variety of papers are available for downloading on that topic. The copy, paste, find, and replace commands used with an electronic encyclopedia and word processing program make quick work of a topic that does not ask for any original thought on the part of the writer. However change Mr. Fogy’s assignment to read, “How would your favorite athlete of today have done in the Olympics of Ancient Greece?” The student now not only needs factual information but must apply the higher level thinking skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation – and those cannot be downloaded.
- In order for all students to master information literacy skills, the problem or question must be of interest to the individual. Teachers who recognize the core knowledge to be gained through a problem-solving process understand that students can still make topic choices. If the purpose of an activity is to help students understand how the geography of a state affects its economy, it shouldn’t make much difference to the teacher if the student looks at Florida, Nebraska, or Oregon. But it may make a big difference to the student who has a favorite state. Personal choice leads to intrinsic motivation.
Information jungle survival skill 2: Learn to stay on the main trail to avoid the quicksand of irrelevant information.
Searching for information on the Internet is a pretty simple affair. Find a search engine like Google or Excite or Lycos, type a term in the search box, and find hundreds, if not thousands, of possible sources. Students need three different skills to help them improve the results of such searches:
- Start with the best search engine: Google <www.google.com> sorts results by interpreting the number of links to a page as an indicator of that pages value. It seems to work. Ask Jeeves <www.askjeeves.com> allows users to ask natural language questions. Students and adults should get to know one or two search engines well.
- Use advanced search operators in constructing a search. The more descriptive the term searched, the better the results. A search on “twins” will provide links to both siblings and the baseball team. Using the Boolean operator NOT (twins not baseball), will cut down on the number of hits returned.
- Discriminate relevant hits from irrelevant. A child using a search engine to find information about “cougars” is as likely to find pages on sports teams and automobiles as big cats. Most search engines return some descriptors that indicate the general topic of the page. Students need to read these and determine those relevant to their needs. This is especially true in districts without Internet filters when students search on topics that might have sexual connotations.
By the way, another overlooked “skill” that needs to be reinforced is that the Internet is not always the best place to look for information. A 45 minute Internet search for the population of Bolivia can be done instead with a 3 minute search in library’s current World Almanac.
Information jungle survival skill 3: Learn to tell the good berries from the bad berries.
Joey Rogers, Executive Director of the Urban Library Council, observes that libraries should have two large signs in them. The first hanging over the stacks that reads “Carefully selected by trained professionals” and the other hanging over the Internet terminals that reads “Whatever.”
Even very young students can and should be learning to tell the bad information berries from the good ones. Since junior high students often make websites that often look better than those of college professors, we teach students to look:
For the same information from multiple sources.
- At the age of the page.
- At the credentials of the author.
- For unstated bias by the page author or sponsor.
Kathy Schrock has a wonderful, comprehensive webpage on website evaluation at <http://schrockguide.org/abceval/>
As students use research to solve problems about controversial social and ethical issues, the ability to evaluate and defend one’s choice of information source becomes very important. (See Sidebar 5 below)
Information jungle survival skill 4: Don’t just gather sticks. Make something with them.
Traditional research assignments asked students to gather factual information and present it in an organized fashion. But if problem-solving activities are to help students master critical thinking skills, they must also require that learners:
- Organize information to help determine importance and spot trends
- Determine the importance of discrete pieces of data
- Anticipate critics of the findings or solutions and be able to defend one’s choices
- Offer conclusions and solutions that show insight and creativity
- Advocate an action or actions that can be taken by the audience of the research findings
This is how information problem skills will be used throughout students’ lives. Whether using information to select a community in which to live, political candidate for whom to vote, or camera to purchase, we gather sticks of information for the purpose of determining a course of action.
Information jungle survival skill 5: Learn to play the jungle drums (and remember, others are listening)
One of technology’s very best attributes is how much it can help us improve the communication process. Most technology curricula include how to use a word processor, desktop publishing software, spreadsheets, databases, presentation programs and video cameras. Increasingly, students are learning how to create webpages and do digital editing. Learning such technologies simply for the sake of learning them leads to what consultant Jamison McKenzie <www.fno.org> calls “PowerPointlessness.” Glitzy webpages, noisy hypermedia presentations or colorful brochures that are very short on content are too often the result of “computer classes” that disregard content area learning.
Using technology to communicate the findings of a problem-based activity keeps this from happening. The emphasis is not on the use of the technology, but the effectiveness of the information problem-solving process that includes communicating one’s findings.
Technology has also made it possible for students to have a much wider audience looking at and reacting to the results of their projects. For example, findings reported on webpages can be shared with students around the world as well as with family and community members. Broad audiences create students who are more conscientious about their work.
Information jungle survival skill 6: Prepare for the next journey by learning from the last.
Information problem-solving skills are sufficiently complex that complete mastery of them is probably not possible. Assessment tools that help students continue to improve their information searching, evaluating and communicating skills are necessary rather than simple evaluative tools. Checklists and rubrics that describe specific criteria for both content and technology mastery give students direction for continued improvement. (See Sidebar 6 below)
The hazards are great, but so are the rewards
Teachers who help students formulate and answer meaningful questions and solve real problems take chances. Critical thinking often leads to messy solutions, information literacy activities are tough to time, and higher-level thinking by students often leads to genuine intellectual challenge for the teacher. To be successful, teachers may need to collaborate with technologists, library media specialists, and assessment experts in order to design effective projects. And the results of such projects can be both spectacularly good and spectacularly bad.
But these teachers have the satisfaction of knowing that their students are using technology as a real world application; that basic skills are being reinforced through their application, that they are providing meaningful, motivational experiences for their students. And as one media specialist puts it, “The activities that require originality and creativity and the use of technology in order to solve a problem are just plan fun for both students and teachers.” Getting students excited about learning powerful skills is the best reason of all for trekking in the Information Jungle.
Sidebar 1: Why use problem-based learning?
One of my favorite units I taught as an elementary librarian was on H.W. Wilson’s Readers Guide to Periodical Literature. This useful guide was so complex that the company sold a complete package of materials designed to help students master its use: worksheets, overhead transparencies, and even a test about the material.
I used these materials to great effect. My students demonstrated that they could find magazine articles on a particular topic, identify the name and date of the magazine in which an article appeared, determine the author’s name, and tell if the article included illustrations or graphs. I knew this because all my kids scored very, very well on the test that came with the teaching packet.
Only one question seemed to stump the majority of the 5th graders to whom I taught this unit. As I remember, it read, “Under what circumstances would you use the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature?” But hey, they passed the test with flying colors, and I considered myself a pretty darned good teacher.
Sidebar 2: Everyday practice in problem-solving
- Use the Internet to check the weather forecast and make a recommendation about dress for the next day.
- Search and report an interesting fact about the author of the next story being read by the class.
- Email students in another class to ask their opinions on a discussion topic.
- Recommend a movie or television show to watch the coming weekend.
- Find two science articles that relate to the current science unit. Evaluate the credibility of the sources of information.
- Locate a place from a current news headline on an online map resource like <www.mapquest.com>.
- Recommend a book to a classmate based on other books that classmate has read using the school’s library catalog or an Internet source.
- Update the class webpage with interesting facts from units studied and links to related information on the web.
- Estimate the number of calories and fat grams in the meal served in the cafeteria that day.
- Find a “quote of the day” on a specific topic and use a graphics program to illustrate and print it out.
Sidebar 3: Integrating computer skills with research skills
Eisenberg and Johnson in “Computer Skills for Information Problem-Solving: Learning and Teaching Technology in Context. ERIC: ED392463 <http://www.ed.gov/databases/ERIC_Digests/ed392463.html> align specific technology skills to specific steps in the Big6TM information problem-solving model. Also found here: http://www.doug-johnson.com/dougwri/computer-skills-for-information-problem-solving.html
Jukes, Dosaj and Macdonald in Net.Savvy II: Building Information Literacy in the Classroom offer a technology-centered, but practical approach to using technology to help students make meaning of information.
Stepien, Senn and Stepien in The Internet and Problem-Based Learning. Zepher Press, 2000. describe eight problem-based units that use the Internet as a primary resource.
Sidebar 4: A rubric for the quality of a good information problem-solving project:
Level One: My search for information is about a broad topic. I can complete the assignment by using a general reference source such as an encyclopedia. I have no personal questions about the topic.
Example: My research is about an animal.
Level Two: My search for information answers a question that helps me narrow the focus of my search. This question may mean that I need to go to various sources to gather enough information to get a reliable answer. The conclusion of the search will ask me to give a supported answer to the question.
Example: What methods has my animal developed to help it survive?
Level Three: My search for information helps answer a question of personal relevance. To answer this question I may need to consult not just secondary sources such as magazines, newspapers, books or the Internet, but use primary sources of information such as original surveys, interviews, or source documents.
Example: What animal would be best for my family to adopt as a pet?
Level Four: My search for information answers a personal question about the topic, and contains information that may be of use to decision-makers as they make policy or distribute funds. The result of my research is a well support conclusion that contains a call for action on the part of an organization or government body. There will be a plan to distribute this information.
Example: How can our school help stop the growth of unwanted and abandoned pets in our community?
From “Designing Research Projects Students (and Teachers) Love,” MultiMedia Schools, November/December 1999. http://www.doug-johnson.com/dougwri/designing-research-projects-students-and-teachers-love.html
Sidebar 5: A Range of Sources.
Your students have been researching current diseases and they come into the classroom with information from these sources. Could you help them determine which could be considered the most reliable? Might you as a teacher have a different opinion than some parents about the validity of information from some sources?
- Center for Disease Control
- The bestseller The Hot Zone
- Flyers from an insurance company or HMO
- Personal webpage
- Chat room conversation
- Rush Limbaugh’s radio talk show
- National Public Radio’s “Science Friday”
Sidebar 6: A Problem-solving project assessment tool
Small study groups have been asked to select an event in early American history of interest to them and prepare a multimedia presentation to share with the rest of the class. The teacher, classmates, and each team member will evaluate the presentation using this guide:
Your Multimedia Presentation Should Include the Following Content:
1. In large bold print, title your presentation with both the location and the years. Also, provide clues that locate your picture in time. For example show:
a) proper clothing
b) correct transportation
c) tools and weapons
d) people doing their daily work
2. Create or import pictures of the key events. What happened in your area that was so important that we’re still studying it today?
3. Include pictures of the main geographical features.
a) rivers, oceans, lakes
b) forests, deserts
c) mountains, canyons
4. Include symbols that were important to the people in your region.
a) religious symbols
b) job-related symbols
c) celebration or holiday symbols
5. Include important or famous people.
6. Include important or famous sayings or documents.
7. Include the sources of all information given including pictures.
8. A minimum of eight cards, each with a uniform background and layout style.
9. Easily seen and understood navigation buttons.
10. A logical organization for the stack.
11. Readable text.
12. Clear graphics.
13. Sounds and movies that add to the understanding of the topic.
Check off each box as you complete the items listed. Ask a parent or other adult to also complete the checklist. After you have finished your stack, indicate your region and sign your names below.
Region or Colony ____________________