Learning and Unlearning Habits of Mind

Image via Mark Strozier

Image via Mark Strozier

I attended ALA Midwinter last week and there was forum about the upcoming revisions to the ACRL Information Literacy Standards. There was a fair share of angst and anxiety expressed about the upcoming changes. The previous standards were focused on searching for, retrieving, and managing information, while the upcoming changes appear to take a more holistic approach. From the forum it sounds like there will be much more focus on things like metaliteracies, abilities/dispositions, and threshold concepts. These sound a bit different from what we’re used to, and the argument was made at the forum that we are replacing our library jargon with other disciplines’ jargon.

From my perspective though, it’s simply another approach to teaching information literacy, and that it has to do with things that we talk about all the time. Some examples of threshold concepts included “scholarship is a conversation” and “information has value.” By focusing our instruction on some of these larger ideas it seems like it will be easier for students to begin making connections across classes and assignments. Instead of students simply thinking “I need another article,” they might think “I wonder who else is contributing to this topic?” These are big ideas that take practice, but once students get them their thinking about information will be much more integrative.

Another idea that jumped out at me is that of dispositions habits of mind as a part of metaliteracies. We talk about these regularly at my institution. An example of an important habit of mind for a sophisticated information user/sharer/creator is having a healthy skepticism and questioning of information that they find. I wonder though if it is also necessary to unlearn habits of mind to use information in a sophisticated way?

I’m reading the book Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath and they discuss the concept of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the well researched phenomenon that states  “when people collect information from the world, they are more likely to select information that supports their preexisting beliefs, and actions.” We see students do this all the time saying, “I just need a few more sources to strengthen my argument,” as opposed to being open to what their research surfaces. This is a habit that can be detrimental to the creation of new knowledge and can lead to polarization. Even being aware of this phenomenon would likely be helpful to students. Are there ways that we could more explicitly integrate this concept into our information literacy instruction?

What other habits of mind should our students be learning and perhaps unlearning?

Andy Burkhardt


  1. One of the things we talk about a lot at my institution is teaching students that research is a process, not just one quick keyword search to x number of “perfect” articles. It’s as though students need to learn not only that not all search boxes work like Google, but also that research involves some digging around, some exploration beyond the obvious, and sometimes a little bit of detective work. While this can be a bit frustrating at first for students, being mindful of this concept of research as process can be beneficial both in their academic career and beyond.

  2. You’re right that students are often looking for the “perfect” articles or source and don’t realize that research is a longer process. I love that you’re trying to teach students that it takes more than just a couple of searches. I think what you’re talking about is the habit of mind of “grit” or “persistence” in research. Students often give up or get discouraged and recognizing research is a process sets their expectations for something that takes a little more work and that might be difficult at times.

  3. I think the “scholarship is a conversation” concept can come into play here too, and also the concept that we are all both creators and consumers of information. When a student can’t find the perfect article that already presents the exact argument they want to make in their paper, we have the opportunity to help them think of themselves as part of a scholarly conversation: Yeah, it would be so much easier if you could get all the support for your argument from one place, rather than having to pull together different pieces of it from different places. On the other hand, maybe no one has looked at this topic in quite the same way you are looking at it. Maybe you’re presented an important new point of view.

  4. Exactly Ellen. Helping students understand that they can be a part of the conversation and that they are not necessarily finding the answer but piecing the answer together from different scholars and sources of info. In my teaching this semester I’ve already been thinking about some of these larger concepts. I could see them being really useful in trying to design a lesson or program.

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