My understanding of the thinking skills underlying inquiry has evolved over the years. Because of my early emphasis on teaching research as a thinking process (as Judy Pitts and I explored in our book, Brainstorms and Blueprints) and my deep dive into critical thinking skills, I started to analyze each phase of the research process, and later the inquiry process, to determine the necessary thinking skills for each phase. When I moved my own focus from a somewhat linear research process to a recursive inquiry process, I intensified my efforts to delineate the skills required to successfully perform each phase of inquiry.
At the same time, I fleshed out my concept of inquiry so that I began equating “inquiry” with “learning.” That broader vision of inquiry led me to expand my understanding of the necessary skills to include literacy/reading comprehension skills and even those skills that are rarely taught in school – study skills like notetaking and identifying main ideas. As I worked on defining the skills over the years, I realized that the big categories that I started with (e.g., evaluating information) were actually composed of more specific skills (e.g., differentiating fact vs. opinion; determining point of view).
The third insight that evolved over the years was the need to develop a continuum of skills. Most of my years as a practicing school librarian were in a high school, so my early work on developing the curriculum of skills that I taught was focused solely on the high school years. I made decisions based on the types of thinking that every high school graduate should be able to demonstrate (based on my own experience as a teacher and librarian, the insights of my classroom-teacher collaborators, and national school restructuring initiatives). When I became a library administrator, I finally broadened my perspective enough to realize that skills needed to be taught and practiced over the entire educational experience, from early elementary through high school. And thus, the idea of a K-12 continuum of skills was born.
For the last half of my career, I have worked intensively to develop a robust PK-12 continuum of skills that I think should be taught or fostered by school librarians. As I reflect on that development process now, I can identify several strands that shaped my thinking and led to the comprehensive 2019 edition of the Empire State Information Fluency Continuum. My development process was as recursive as the inquiry process itself, so it would be impossible to identify the order in which I tackled the issues inherent in the continuum.
Identification of the Essential Skills. My focus has remained on the thinking skills required by inquiry and learning, but I broadened my vision to include all of the major areas where school librarians have a responsibility. The standards of the ESIFC illustrate that broad view; they focus on inquiry, literacy, social responsibility, and independent reading/personal exploration. As technology and digital inquiry and literacy have become important, essential skills in those areas were also identified and integrated into the continuum.
The Stages in the Development of a Skill. Probably the most complex aspect of developing the continuum was figuring out the stages of developing a skill and matching those stages to the developmental abilities of young people. If, for example, the essential skill is the interpretation and synthesis of information, third graders should be expected to state the main idea with some supporting evidence; seventh graders should be able to interpret information and ideas by defining, classifying, inferring, resolving differences, and verifying evidence; and twelfth graders should be able to assess the strength of different perspectives by evaluating the supporting evidence for each. My process in figuring out the development of each essential skill was to cover my floor with large template matrices, spend weeks laying out and revising the sequence of skills inherent in the development of the identified essential skills, and then to check my thinking with librarians who teach at the different grade levels.
Technology Skills. Although I am aware that many librarians are called upon to teach basic technology skills, I included only the ones that applied to learning and communicating ideas. I, therefore, did not include keyboarding, but I did include navigating a website.
Social and Emotional Skills. In recent years, I have turned my attention to the development of the whole child, not just the intellectual capacity of the child. I included social and emotional skills that could (and should) be developed as students are conducting inquiry and pursuing their independent reading and personal learning. Pre-kindergartners can be taught to be self-aware by identifying their own feelings and sharing them with others when appropriate during story hour. Upper elementary students can be taught to identify and respect cultural differences and diverse opinions. Grade 7 students can be taught to empathize with literary characters, peers, people in the local and global community, and social issues by placing them in their historical or social context.
Social Responsibility Skills. In my opinion, school librarians should assume responsibility for teaching students the skills to participate actively and ethically in the world, both within and outside of the school. Certainly, in the age of burgeoning social media, our students need to be prepared to protect their own privacy, ensure that they are consuming credible and authoritative information, and build a positive online profile through their own participation in the online environment. The ESIFC incorporates these social responsibility skills at appropriate ages.
When I revised the ESIFC in 2019, I realized how much the information fluency skills needed by our students had changed since the original publication of the ESIFC in 2012. I am sure that those skills will continue to evolve as the information world changes. Dialogue among school librarians and teachers who are interested in ensuring that their students are information-fluent inquirers will help us refine and develop the continuum of skills that we teach. As we continue to deepen our understanding of inquiry-based learning, we will be able to identify emerging essential skills and prioritize what the students in each school need to learn. It’s an exciting journey and I am delighted to engage with FOSIL colleagues to evolve our thinking.