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Magazines > MultiMedia Schools > March/April 2003
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Vol. 10 No. 2 — Mar/Apr 2003
The Online Educator
Contemporary Literacy: Essential Skills for the 21st Century
by Janet Murray, Information Specialist

Economic forecasters and business analysts predict that 21st century jobs will require information-processing skills. They expect a fundamental shift from production to information management, with a much higher percentage of the workforce employed in service industries. The 1990 Department of Labor report of the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) identifies information and technology as two of the five competencies essential for employment.

The Bertelsmann Foundation and the AOL Time Warner Foundation joined with experts from education, business, and government to convene an international 21st Century Literacy Summit in March 2002. The White Paper resulting from that conference concludes:

The explosive growth of technology in every aspect of society offers us a unique opportunity to engage our citizens in economic and civic life. Digital technologies have given us new and better ways to teach and learn. They have made us more efficient at work. And they are enabling us to participate more directly in the governance of our lives.... In return, they demand that we continually acquire and develop new knowledge and skills. Information and communication technologies are raising the bar on the competencies needed to succeed in the 21st century, and they are compelling us to revisit many of our assumptions and beliefs.1

How do predictions about the 21st century workplace affect us? As responsible educators, we prepare students for their future. We know what skills our students will need and develop a strategy to help them acquire those skills. We need only look at national information literacy standards and national educational technology standards for students (NETS-S) to realize that technology and information problem-solving skills are already part of the educational landscape.

Big6 Skills

1. Task Definition

1.1 Define the information problem.

1.2 Identify information needed in order to complete the task (to solve the information problem).

2. Information Seeking Strategies

2.1 Determine the range of possible sources (brainstorm).

2.2 Evaluate the different possible sources to determine priorities (select the best sources).

3. Location and Access

3.1 Locate sources (intellectually and physically).

3.2 Find information within sources.

4. Use of Information

4.1 Engage (e.g., read, hear, view, touch) the information in a source.

4.2 Extract relevant information from a source.

5. Synthesis

5.1 Organize information from multiple sources.

5.2 Present the information.

6. Evaluation

6.1 Judge the product (effectiveness).

6.2 Judge the information problem-solving process (efficiency).

—From "A Big6 Skills Overview" by Mike Eisenberg,

Defining Contemporary Literacy

Traditionally, schools taught the "three R's: reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic." "Literacy" was captured in international census data by estimating the percentage of people who could read and write.

As computers became essential in the workplace and dribbled into schools, "computer literacy" entered the curriculum, usually in the form of an introduction to the new vocabulary of bits and bytes, hardware and software. Computer courses focused on programming languages. "Keyboarding" replaced typing.

The term "information literacy" first appeared in the mid-1970s as awareness grew that information was becoming an overwhelming and unmanageable deluge. In the 1980s, people realized that computers might be useful tools for organizing and retrieving information. In 1989, the American Library Association codified a definition which provided the basis for subsequent discussion: "To be information literate, a person must be able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information."2 In other words, "literacy" implies more than vocabulary and awareness; it requires critical thinking.

This connotation of "literacy"—one that includes interpretation and evaluation of a medium of expression—has been applied in many different contexts. One reads about visual literacy, media literacy, textual literacy, numerical literacy, technology literacy, and network literacy. In each case, the author expects the word "literacy" to suggest a complex of skills, including analysis, evaluation, synthesis, and application. Merely teaching reading and writing is no longer sufficient, although those are certainly the foundational skills upon which all other literacies are built. [For a more extensive explication of the importance of contemporary literacy in the digital age, see Ferdi Serim's new book, Information Technology for Learning: No School Left Behind. See]

Using the Big6 Skill to Achieve Contemporary Literacy

What are the implications for educators? Traditional "research papers" (cutting and pasting from an encyclopedia) and traditional "library skills" (using the card catalog to locate materials) are obviously inadequate to the task of empowering an information-literate citizenry.

In the Information Age, students must be able to purposefully access information from a variety of sources, analyze and evaluate the information, and then integrate it to construct a personal knowledge base from which to make intelligent decisions. To foster these capabilities, educators must reexamine their assignments and teaching strategies. We must recognize and accept the fact that knowledge is changing so fast that no traditional curriculum can sufficiently supply students with fact-based learning needed for the challenges they will face. Instead, we must teach them the skills to continue learning independently long after they are out of school.

Both the 21st Century Literacy Summit and the second National Technology Plan (released by the U.S. Department of Education in December 2000) cite the Big6 Skills as an "exemplary practice" that supplies an organized strategy for effectively meeting information needs while developing critical-thinking skills.

The Big6 Skills approach to information problem-solving is perhaps the best-known and most widely used method of teaching information and technology skills. Library media specialists can collaborate with classroom teachers to incorporate the Big6 Skills approach in any assignment or project that requires accessing, evaluating, analyzing, and synthesizing information, but some schools and districts have progressed beyond this scattershot approach to develop information-literacy curricula and courses.

Developing Information Literacy Curricula

In West Hartford, Connecticut,...

All eighth grade students participate in the information and technology literacy course, which is part of the 30-day unified arts rotation. This course completes the sequence that begins in sixth grade with thinking skills and continues in seventh grade with research strategies. Through this assured learning experience, students will become efficient and effective users and producers of information, using the information and technology tools necessary for success in lifelong learning.3

West Hartford students "create a WebQuest connected to a topic from one of the middle school curriculum areas" using the Big6 Skills with the Connecticut Computer Technology Standards and the Connecticut Learning Resources and Information Technology Standards as a framework. The course includes network navigation, responsible use of information and technology, pre-search (brainstorming topics using Inspiration as the graphic organizer to develop an essential question), search strategies, and resource evaluation before students synthesize their information to produce a WebQuest. Finally, the students evaluate both their process and their product. [See also "Teaching Information and Technology Literacy through Student-Created WebQuests" in this issue.­FS.]

The Mankato (Minnesota) Information and Technology Literacy Curriculum developed by a committee led by Doug Johnson provides the foundation for many similar efforts across the nation. "The information skills curriculum is centered around large projects at each grade level during each school year. These projects do the following:

• use a version of the Big6 information-processing model

• have clearly stated objectives from I.S.D. 77 Information Skills curriculum, which in turn supports the State Graduation Rule requirements

• are assessed in a complete and objective manner

• use technologies and identified productivity software

• build cumulatively on skills learned the previous year

• meet district benchmarks for each grade level, K-12.

The Mankato curriculum includes an additional goal framed in terms of the information-based economy for which we are preparing our students:

Potential employers of Mankato public school graduates should be confident that their new employees will know how to identify information needs, locate relevant information in an efficient manner, understand and evaluate information, and use the information to solve a problem, complete a task, or be able to communicate that information clearly to others. Graduates will be able to use technology effectively in the information problem-solving process.4

These two examples of information-literacy curricula share some essential characteristics: Both use the Big6 Skills as the information problem-solving model, focus on using technology as a research and productivity tool, and are consciously aligned with district and state standards.

Addressing the Challenge of Contemporary Literacy

How can we apply these models in our own schools if we are not fortunate enough to work for a school district that shares the vision articulated in West Hartford, Connecticut, and Mankato, Minnesota?

Three years ago, I wrote:

Many teachers and administrators do not yet realize that library media specialists have precisely the training and skills needed to implement information-literacy skills in the curriculum. The traditional library school provided instruction in organizing information (cataloging), evaluating materials (selection), and formulating research questions (conducting reference interviews).

School library media specialists have a unique opportunity to adapt their professional skills to meet the challenges of the Information Age. As electronic access to information proliferates in schools, library media specialists can model the adventure of lifelong learning by teaching faculty and students how to search the Internet for pertinent information, evaluate the reliability of information retrieved, analyze and synthesize the information to construct personal meaning, and apply it to informed decision making.5

Contemporary literacy skills are too important to our students' future success to allow them to be ignored in the frenzy over high-stakes standardized testing. Library media specialists have an opportunity and a responsibility to provide leadership for their administrators and teachers. They can inform by citing the above curricula and model the importance of contemporary literacy in the curriculum by using the Big6 Skills with students and teachers working on information problem-solving activities. Media specialists can demonstrate the connections between the Big6 Skills, national information literacy, and educational technology standards by referring to my matrix, "Use the Internet with Big6 Skills to Achieve Standards." Directing their administrators' attention to the current emphasis on scientifically based research required by the ESEA No Child Left Behind Act, they can cite the results of Keith Curry Lance's research: "Studies conducted in Alaska, Colorado, and Pennsylvania show that school media librarians and libraries help kids perform better on standardized tests."6By accepting the leadership opportunity and responsibility, library media specialists can provide the means for students and teachers to achieve essential contemporary literacy skills


Relevant Web Sites

"White Paper: 21st Century Literacy in a Convergent Media World."
March 2002 [].

"Information Power: The Nine Information Literacy Standards for Student Learning." 1998 [].

"Technology Foundation Standards for All Students." ISTE NETS [].

"e-Learning: Putting a World Class Education at the Fingertips of All Children." December 2000

"Big6: An Information Problem-Solving Process"

"ITL [Information and Technology Literacy] Course Description" [
ITL_Curriculum_Grade_8.htm ]
[Sample Implementation:

"Mankato Schools Information Literacy Curriculum Guidelines" [

"Use the Internet with Big6 Skills to Achieve Standards"

"School Library Media Impact Studies"


1 White Paper: "21st Century Literacy in a Convergent Media World." March 2002. Berlin: Bertelsmann Foundation/AOL Time Warner Foundation. 16 October 2002 [].

2 "Final Report of the American Library Association Presidential Committee on Information Literacy" (1989), quoted in Kathleen L. Spitzer with Michael B. Eisenberg and Carrie A. Lowe, Information Literacy: Essential Skills for the Information Age, Syracuse, N.Y.: ERIC Clearinghouse on Information & Technology, 1998, p. 22.

3 "Information and Technology Literacy Curriculum: Grade 8." 2002. West Hartford Public Schools

4 "Mankato Information and Technology Literacy Curriculum." February 2002 [

5 Janet Murray. "Librarians Evolving into Cybrarians: New Roles for School Librarians." MultiMedia Schools. March 2000: 27-30.

6 Keith Curry Lance. "School Library Media Impact Studies." Library Research Service (a partnership between the Colorado State Library, Colorado Department of Education, and the University of Denver). 2002. [].

Communications to the author may be addressed to Janet Murray, Kinnick High School, PSC 473 Box 95, FPO AP 96349-0095; e-mail:

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