Although not a presentation in the conventional sense, I have posted my preparatory notes for my conversation with Barbara Stripling for School Library Connection about inquiry in the digital environment.
Barbara Stripling: Although I’m in the U.S. and you’re in England, we have connected around our visions of inquiry. How would you describe inquiry and what differences in the approach to inquiry, if any, have you discovered between the US and the international school library community?
Darryl Toerien: The Galileo Educational Network, which is the professional learning arm of the Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary, describes inquiry as “a dynamic process of being open to wonder and puzzlement and coming to know and understand the world, and as such, it is a stance that pervades all aspects of life and is essential to the way in which knowledge is created”.
This is very powerful, and the fact that inquiry – as a process and a stance – is fundamentally an epistemological concern – a concern with what and how we know – is crucial, and may not be obvious to colleagues who are new to inquiry, especially if they are approaching inquiry from the relatively narrow perspective of information literacy.
Inquiry as a process and a stance brings to mind the graffito that reads, “Are you ignorant or apathetic?”, to which someone has replied, “I don’t know and I don’t care!”
Inquiry as a process seems to me to be increasingly well understood and supported, and the fact that we are talking today is evidence of that. So, we have decades of cumulative experience and a growing number of excellent resources at our disposal to address the problem of ignorance, or not knowing what to do.
Now inquiry as a stance seems to me to be to a different matter entirely, because what we have to contend with here – afresh every day – is the problem of apathy, or not caring enough to make the effort required to know and understand, which may well be a consequence of simply being overwhelmed.
In deciding to use a process approach to inquiry-based learning, school librarians and teachers face the same fundamental issue, no matter the size of their library and the nature of its collections and technology—how to influence, orient, and motivate the pursuit of learning using a process of discovery that encourages curiosity and the love of learning.
This brings me to the second part of your question, which is perceived differences in the approach to inquiry between the US and the international school library community.
The most striking difference is the extent to which inquiry is simply not a feature of professional discourse in some countries, my own included. And where there is a concern with the information-to-knowledge journey, it tends to be with the information and not with the construction of knowledge and understanding from the information – in the language of your cycle of inquiry, Investigate and Express rather than Construct.
IB schools and some international schools are an obvious exception in these countries.
Interestingly, since being elected to the IFLA Section Standing Committee for School Libraries I have come to appreciate how influential the IFLA School Library Guidelines (2015) have been in countries that have embraced them in shaping their understanding of and approach to inquiry, which is very similar to the US. This, I suspect, is due to the influence of colleagues from the US who have been on this journey for longer than many.
How does the digital environment both facilitate and hinder inquiry?
Somewhat paradoxically, I think that the very characteristics of the digital environment that facilitate inquiry also hinder inquiry.
The question of equity of access as aside, which remains a fundamental concern, these broadly relate to the quantity of information, discernment of its quality and motivation.
At a certain point the relentless increase in the quantity of information brings about a qualitative change – scarcity of information becomes an abundance of information, which becomes a superabundance of information. The problem then shifts from finding enough information to dealing with too much information, which is both a different and a new problem. David Foster Wallace’s Total Noise captures this qualitative change perfectly – the growing “tsunami of available fact, context and perspective” (2007!). Then, to this tsunami must be added the growing maelstrom of mis-information, dis-information and mal-information created, manipulated and distributed to devastating effect. And to make matters worse, the difficulties of building knowledge and understanding from information in these conditions is made more challenging still by the fact that the digital environment is both overwhelmingly and endlessly distracting, and this brings us full circle – inquiry is both an epistemological process and stance, and being able to carry out the process is no guarantee that we will care enough, one way or another, to make the effort to do so.
What inquiry skills do you think become most important or most challenging in the digital environment? Why?
Huw Davies (@huwcdavies), lecturer in Digital Education (Data and Society) at the University of Edinburgh, recently wrote:
No digital literacy programme is ever likely to work unless it produces reflexive critical thinkers, motivated to challenge their own thinking and postionality: people know and care when they are being sold a biased or racist view of history, pseudo-science or when they are being manipulated. As Danah Boyd (2018) identifies, digital literacy to needs to be about epistemology: how do we know what the facts are and where do we go to find them. It also needs to be about the methods and methodologies that support our epistemologies as the key to thinking for ourselves, understanding claims and validating knowledge without having to rely on heuristics such as appeals to authority.
Danah Boyd (@zephoria), in turn, references Cory Doctorow (2017), who wrote:
We’re not living through a crisis about what is true, we’re living through a crisis about how we know whether something is true. We’re not disagreeing about facts, we’re disagreeing about epistemology.
This problem becomes less abstract, and more pressing, when you consider scepticism towards climate change, vaccinations and COVID-19, for example. It is tempting to frame the solution to this problem in terms of information and its ‘quality’ – if people had ‘better’ information, they would draw ‘better’ conclusions. But this does not appear to be the case, because up to a certain point we all have access to the same information, and yet draw different conclusions.
The “establishment” version of epistemology is, “We use evidence to arrive at the truth, vetted by independent verification (but trust us when we tell you that it’s all been independently verified by people who were properly skeptical and not the bosom buddies of the people they were supposed to be fact-checking).”
The “alternative facts” epistemological method goes like this: “The ‘independent’ experts who were supposed to be verifying the ‘evidence-based’ truth were actually in bed with the people they were supposed to be fact-checking. In the end, it’s all a matter of faith, then: you either have faith that ‘their’ experts are being truthful, or you have faith that we are. Ask your gut, what version feels more truthful?”
To return to your question, I would argue, then, that regardless of environment the skills that are most important and most challenging, but especially so in the digital environment, are those involved with constructing knowledge and understanding from information. And this, I think, is where we, as teachers and librarians, urgently need to develop our own knowledge and understanding – how information becomes knowledge and understanding in the mind of individual inquirers, in order to better support this process. And then also how, given the realities and practicalities of school, to nurture the wonder and puzzlement that leads to knowing and understanding the world into an abiding stance.