27 September 2013

On information skills, facts and opinions

At library skills sessions, when asked why colleges and universities encourage use of books, Access students often repeat: because we have to rely on facts, not opinions. If this was said only once, it’d be ok as a somewhat limited interpretation of what, perhaps, the student heard in the classroom.
Unfortunately, this is repeated again and again without qualifying: reliable facts, unfounded opinions. It appears learners hear in our classrooms that facts are in opposition to opinions.

It is not true, of course, that facts are in opposition to or better than opinions. Facts themselves are interpreted knowledge: what we regarded true a century ago may not be true for us now. Knowledge develops; at the same time we, individually and collectively, develop biases or get rid of them and so on. Opinions not resting on sound knowledge are useless. At the same time, it is not difficult to see that what we call facts, at large extend are underpinned by values and opinions; at the same time, facts inform those values and opinions.

By giving simplistic answers to students, we confuse them: they can’t make sense why what is found on the internet may be less reliable than what is found in books (do we, educators, really believe that either?); they can’t explain the value of blogs, they remain suspicious and sceptical about us, educators, and about their own abilities to make sense.

I have started challenging the dichotomy of facts against opinions if I hear it at my sessions. I try to explain that books are full of opinions and that’s what makes books interesting. Some of those opinions are better than others for the virtue of resting on solid facts – verifiable, widely accepted – as we know them today. Now I almost always ask Access to HE students why colleges and universities encourage use of books. I encourage them to think about the authority of authors, institutions standing behind those authors and their publishers investing money in something they believe being valuable, of good quality and desirable for people. I mention blogs written by such people: we must not pretend that the internet is not full of the amazing, freely available content.

Learners often challenge me: truth is singular, there is only one truth. Yes, it is one – at any given moment; it is a higher viewpoint, according to Bernard Lonergan. But truth is never static. My compatriots who came to Britain after the Second World War, avoided speaking to their children in Belarusian at home. They were afraid this would put their kinds in disadvantage at school and in the later life. Today, such attitudes would be laughable: from research we know that bilingual children are doing as well or better on average than monolingual ones. My compatriots relied on the truth of their own days; truth today is quite different.

This year I realised that learners should be left with puzzles and challenges, with an option of support too, but not with the simplistic answers. Information skills can’t be taught in one hour as they rest on being able to think critically, creatively. This can be achieved by embedding information skills into normal teaching for a long period of time. It’s more helpful tom provide learners with the tools (library skills) and leave them to discover more at their own pace, according to their own needs.

1 comment:

  1. Like this piece; have been reading around the Miliband v D Mail debate this morning Encapsulates what you are saying about facts and opinions and where the 'Truth ' lies. Must go, researching mid century British socialism Thanks D.Mail !