8 Jul 2016

Information Literacy a Concept in Transition: a Critical Pragmatist Perspective

Guest post by Brendan Devlin,  College Librarian in DIT Kevin Street He is interested in a critical perspective of knowledge and holds that many issues in librarianship can usefully draw on the wisdom found in American pragmatist philosophy.

I was asked to write a short summary of a presentation delivered at the DBS Library Annual Seminar on June 10th 2016.  However I believe that it is better to emphasise the framework in which this analysis was conducted. I started with the idea that philosophical resources more specifically the pragmatist perspective of John Dewey might provide a suitable lens to re-imagine the construct of Information Literacy. I started with the premise that many models of Information Literacy rely implicitly on an understanding of the subject as a “thinking subject receptive to an unchanging world”. What I offered for consideration in the presentation was John Dewey’s alternative view of the subject as an embodied subject transacting in an unfinished universe.

This restructuring of philosophy by Dewey presents a different way of understanding the mind, perception and knowledge.  This alternative perspective then allows a different model of Information Literacy to emerge.  More specifically it seeks to decentre the certainties around knowledge and to present it as something endlessly contestable. Many very fine scientists including Richard Feynman (2010) acknowledge the role of imagination in the process of questing for knowledge. Knowledge is thus viewed as constructed not found.

Contrasting different definitions of Information Literacy
It is a useful exercise to contrast two alternative definitions of Information Literacy one apparently informed by a cognitivist perspective the SCONUL model.  SCONUL offers this definition of Information Literacy:

 “Information Literate people will demonstrate an awareness of how to
 gather, use, manage, synthesise and create information and data in an
 ethical manner and will have the information skills to do so effectively”
If we contrast this definition with that offered by Lloyd (2006 p.182) what is absent or not significant in the SCONUL model becomes obvious. 
 “Information Literacy is a way of knowing, of being in the world and
interacting with it through engagement and interaction with signs,
symbols, artefacts, and from which information relevant to the
context – and thus meaning can be drawn.” 
Lloyd’s definition considers the subject as an embodied, transacting subject in a specific context. The tension between these alternative definitions of Information Literacy highlight what is at stake in re-describing Information Literacy premised on an embodied, transacting subject. Such a restructuring redefines the nature of mind and knowledge, both critical concepts in understanding Information Literacy.

John Dewey’s position
Dewey’s main challenge to the prevalent philosophies of his day was to contest the nature of the subject and to present a new understanding of experience or perhaps more accurately described as “educative experience”.  He offered as an alternative to the thinking person the person located within an environment with the resources of embodiment, culture and mind. What is radical about how Dewey incorporates these resources is that he understands them to be operative organically within the existential situation.

Unified situation
A situation here has a technical meaning and is usefully considered as involving an organism in an environment where there are changes that are demanding some response from the organism. This metaphor offers a radical departure from viewing the subject as a thinking subject dispassionately looking on a fixed universe. The dynamic imperative is a central motif. This has dramatic implications for epistemology described by Sykes (2004 p.21) as “…what constitutes knowledge and what it is possible to know and understand”.   Dewey’s (1896)  “Reflex Arc” article provides the codex for understanding Dewey’s entire corpus and is described in the next section. It reveals cognition as both situated, embodied and distributed.

The reflex Arc Model of engagement.
Dewey (1896) contests the reflex arc model of environmental engagement. His exploration takes the example of a child looking at a candle and reaching towards it.  The traditional understanding of this interaction is that the child sees the candle “the stimulus” and reaches towards the candle “the response”. This is the research arch model of interaction see Figure 1.1 below.


Once the child reaches for the candle he is burned and this causes him to withdraw his hand. Here again the burn is understood as “stimulus” and the withdrawal of the hand as “response”.  The assumption associated with this interpretation is that the child is a passive subject responding automatically to predefined stimuli.
Environmental situatedness
Dewey (1896) argues that one should understand that the child is already situated and tuned into the environment. When this position is taken what is to account as a stimulus or response are determined within an overall coordination of the child in its environment. This shift in perspective means that the entire episode is unified as part of a coherent coordination which has an internal unity. It is this unity within experience that ensures that learning occurs. On the surface this article may seem to be discussing things that are trivial and obscure but provides a codex for understanding Dewey’s entire corpus.

 However this article opens up for reappraisal the nature of the mind neither as external to the body nor to the environment. Mind and body are conceived as integrated forming a unity. Similarly the mind is conceived as an extended mind including as part of its processing capacity the material and cultural resources in the environment. Perception within this framework is a process worked out by engagement in the environment not as something received as given.  Dewey’s view of cognition as embodied and situated is echoed in the work of Harris (2015).

 What was urged in the presentation was that this reappraisal of subjectivity offers a boundary on what we can know and how we come to know.  It also includes a democratic imperative acknowledging that a perspective is always “a view from somewhere”. This reappraisal de-centres our understanding of knowledge not as something “out there” but as involving an interpretative and fallible process. These ideas support the notion that texts are endlessly reinvented by different readers depending on purpose and their prior experience.  These ideas offer a fruitful and challenging framework within which to reimagine the construct of Information Literacy. 

Memories – Unison

And so to join the bits and pieces   
Of experience into one
Where body mind and sense
In harmony join to work it out
Memories mark my body
My present way of being
My way of thinking and believing
Yet all is flux and change.
As an artist with my craft
I hold the elements in suspension
Permitting easy play and orchestration
Allowing the music to emerge
It was never about reclaiming
Memories clear and simple
But to concede that its
About the future not the past
Yet a future written in the past
And so I relax in memories
Soft and liquid malleable
And changeable as the flowing tides

Bent, M and Stubbings, R. (2011) SCONUL seven pillars of Information Literacy: Core model of higher education. Online: http://bit.ly/29b3ps4
Dewey, J. (1896) Reflex arc concept in psychology. Psychological Review 3(4), 357-370. Online: http://bit.ly/297elGU
Feynman, R. et al. (2010) Feynman the Feynman lectures on physics: the new millennium edition Vol 1: mainly mechanics, radiation, and heat. New York: Basic Books Online: http://amzn.to/29a5uEi
Harris, A (2015)   Embodied Situated Cognition: The cognitive iceberg.  Online  http://www.embodiment.org.uk/topics/cognitive_iceberg.htm  
Lloyd, A (2006) Drawing from Others: Ways of knowing about information literacy performance Paper presented at Lifelong Learning, partners, pathways and pedagogies Conference Yepoon,Queensland, 13-16 June 2006 Online:  http://acquire.cqu.edu.au:8080/vital/access/manager/Repository/cqu:589
Sikes. P. (2004) In Opie, C. (ed) Doing Educational Research.  London: Sage Publications Inc p. 15-33.  Online: http://bit.ly/292ZKsE


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