Critical information literacy in practice : an interpretive synthesis

WCU Author/Contributor (non-WCU co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Beth Allsopp McDonough (Creator)
Western Carolina University (WCU )
Web Site:
John Habel

Abstract: More than two decades of debate since the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) adopted the term information literacy have been marked by ongoing criticism of its associated definitions and standards. Some scholars and practitioners have argued for a critical information literacy, which applies the precepts of critical pedagogy to information literacy instruction. Though intriguing, this body of literature is theoretical and largely-negative and so is not readably accessible to the practitioner. The purpose of this study was to review and synthesize the literature of critical information literacy` through a critical interpretive practitioner lens in order to uncover pedagogy and instructional content to inform my own teaching practice and that of other individual teaching librarians who wish to take a critical approach to information literacy with undergraduate students. The study is a critical interpretive synthesis (Dixon-Woods, et al., 2006), a review methodology designed to be configurative, use an emerging theoretical framework to thematically synthesize ideas, include methodologically-diverse literature, and incorporate an authorial voice. An underlying premise of this study is that there is value in practitioner review of the research to improve practice in the tradition of action research or the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). Almost all of the studies critiqued or criticized traditional approaches to information literacy. Advocates agreed that traditional information literacy overly-focused on tools and skills. Traditional information literacy also presented an overly-simplistic model of the research process that is out of synch with the reality that research is a non-sequential, iterative, and messy process. Most called the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education and other definitions of information literacy to account for over-emphasis on tools-and-skills-based approaches. Some also held accountable the design and focus of traditional research paper assignments. Various voices from the literature negatively described traditional approaches to information literacy as technical, mechanical, behavioral, strategic, and skills-based; while positively describing critical information literacy as critical, problem-posing, multi-dimensional, creative, intellectual, process-based, and in support of student agency. In terms of pedagogy, critical information literacy scholars and practitioners called upon teaching librarians to embrace new roles for themselves and their students. They were advised to give up their own authority and expertise in the classroom; build upon students’ existing knowledge about information; place the student at the center of instruction, and use their own peripheral role as an opportunity to help students transition into academia. The literature revealed some practical advice about how to design instruction that is meaningful to students by incorporating problem-or-question based instruction; using research topics and examples that are meaningful to students’ personal lives; promoting student interaction; letting go of the classroom agenda in order to create space for student interaction; and using accessible language in instruction. In terms of content, the literature recommended that teaching librarians teach explicitly about all types of information; avoid imposing value judgments on types of information sources; teach about information in terms of its purposes and uses; teach information as dialog; and do not limit sources – instead make use of sources students are familiar with as a bridge from their personal lives into academia.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2014
critical information literacy, critical interpretive synthesis, critical pedagogy, information literacy instruction, library instruction, practitioner research
Information literacy -- Study and teaching (Higher) -- Evaluation
Critical pedagogy

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