Teaching Skepticism

Skepticism is “generally any questioning attitude towards knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts, or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere.” — Wikipedia

Yesterday I posted on the need to for academic librarians to teach college and university students critical thinking and critical evaluation skills during library instruction. I feel that the role of the academic librarian is not simply to teach student how to find information sources, but how to think critically about the information sources they find and evaluate information sources both for their research needs and for validity and purpose. Regrettably, these skills are not taught very often in secondary education, and students arrive as college freshman lacking the ability to be “discriminating consumers” of information, media, or facts in general.

Source: wburris on Flickr.com

I feel that we, as academic librarians, have a duty to not only arm our students with these tools, but to stress the importance of skepticism in dealing with the constant barrage of information, media, news, data, and facts that we encounter in the early 21st century. I find that many students I work with are simply willing to believe anything they see on television or encounter on the internet instead of approaching it with a critical eye and a healthy dose of skepticism. But let’s face it, skeptics don’t always command respect in out society that holds the ideologies of “blind faith” and “stand your ground” as law and “capital-T” truth.

This is where academic librarians enter the picture. As educators, our primary role is teaching skepticism. It is our job to instill the “questioning attitude toward knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs” and to teach students how to debate “claims that are taken for granted elsewhere”. As Michael Gorman argues in his book Our Enduring Values: Librarianship in the 21st Century,  rationalism is a core value of librarianship. As rational professionals, we are trained to be skeptical of information we encounter. We seek for corroboration of facts and strive for the most accurate data and information sources. We seek to debunk myths, half-truths, and falsehoods. And we seek to impart these values to the students we instruct. To me, library instruction is much more than just “showing students around the library resources”. Library instruction is teaching critical thinking. Library instruction is building inquisitive consumers of information. Library instruction is teaching skepticism.

Library Instruction is more than Teaching How to Fish

When I first started my career as an academic librarian over 10 years ago, my “teaching philosophy” when it came to library instruction was simple: Arm students with the tools they needed to navigate library databases, the online catalog, and find information sources needed to write good papers and create good projects. Working with both undergraduate and graduate students over the years, I have found that most students, when pointed in the right direction, are pretty good at searching and finding the sources needed for their own research. Even first-year undergrads and high school students taking college courses for credit can navigate the library’s home page, connect to a “discovery layer” or a large commercial database, and make it do what they need it to do and bring back good results. I credit this to growing familiarity with search concepts in the use of Google and other search engines, better instruction in secondary and elementary education on using library and Internet resources, and better search engines and user interfaces on the Web, on commercial databases, and on library systems.

Source: danguer on Flickr.com

Increasingly I found myself instructing students on “how to search” or “how to use the online catalog or discovery tools” only to find that many are coming to college with these skills. A trend that I am seeing much more often, however,  is a lack of critical thinking skills and the ability for students, undergrad and grad students alike, to evaluate information sources, intelligently and articulately describe why they used a particular source,  and lack of a reasoned explanation of why they searched a specific way on the Internet or on more “academic” sources. Students know the “hows” of searching, but not the “whys” of searching or how to determine which results are good and which results are crap. To this end, I have been spending much more time in my library instruction sessions working with students on information evaluation tools, critical thinking skills, and asking many more “why” questions than “whats” or “hows”.

The old adage of “Teach a man to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime” needs refinement. We not only need to teach students “how to fish” but also how to determine which fish are poisonous, which are too small to keep, and why we are fishing in the first place. The most important skills that academic librarians can teach college and university students, are critical thinking skills and the ability to evaluate information sources effectively. The lines between “good” and “not-so-good” information sources have become extremely blurred, and it’s our job to teach our students how to evaluate the “good fish” from “the bad”. We’re not only instructors of search techniques and library research, but instructors in critical thinking and information evaluation. Let’s make our students discriminating fishermen.

Using Wikipedia in Libraries

I want to go on record as saying that I love Wikipedia. I’m a contributor and user of Wikipedia and often steer students and others to this valuable resource to answer quick reference questions or to get an overview on a topic, especially current events or popular culture. Does Wikipedia have issues? Sure, but then so does every other reference tool from the venerated Encyclopaedia Britannica to a pathfinder created to illustrate the finer points of a library’s collection. I would rather teach our students how to be proficient users of any information source than to prohibit them from using this popular and, often times, well-written and well-researched source.

Inside Higher Ed has a great article today about how the University of Houston is harnessing the power of Wikipedia to gain more exposure for their digital collections. This is a novel and excellent way to “partner” with Wikipedia to make Library collections and resources more readily and widely available. I would challenge my fellow librarians to look for other ways to “partner” with Wikipedia to make the resource better. Consider editing or creating a Wikipedia article. Look for ways to incorporate Wikipedia into library instruction or reference service. Or use Wikipedia to highlight collections and resources at your local library like the University of Houston has. Wikipedia is only as good as the people adding information to it and I feel that we librarians have a lot to add to the mix.