Perhaps without even realizing it, we are inundated with information nearly everywhere in our lives.
TV, radio, Spotify, SoundCloud, text messages, notifications that someone liked a post on Instagram/TikTok/Snapchat, news alerts, emails from teachers, advertising in every social media feed, and scrolling through the hundreds of posts up on the Shade Room every day. That is the media life of a teenager (and we’re probably missing a few things.)
And, especially as AI advances, it’s getting increasingly difficult for both students and adults to sift through this information for what’s real, what’s trustworthy, and what’s important.
So, while schools around the country rightfully focus on traditional student literacy, K-12 students in New Jersey will soon learn another form: information literacy.
New Jersey became the first state to mandate that K-12 students learn information literacy to help students “weigh the flood of news, opinion, and social media they are exposed to both online and off,” Republican Sen. Mike Testa said in a statement.
Part of mandating it means that it will be accessible to all students, not just students in wealthier areas.
“We are making an effort to equalize access to information literacy, as well as educational resources,” Ewa Dziedzic-Elliott, president of the New Jersey Association of School Librarians, wrote in a statement to Word In Black. The association was integral in getting this New Jersey law passed.
“We are the only state in the country that is making this requirement into law,” Dziedzic-Elliott wrote. “Regardless of the school district and its demographics, we will have to teach information literacy and provide equitable access to this information across the state.”
But what is information literacy?
Information or Media Literacy
Today’s information landscape is overwhelming.
Most people aged 40 or older grew up reading a newspaper or listening to the 6 o’clock news their parents put on, says Dr. Michelle H. Martin, the Beverly Cleary Professor for Children & Youth Services in the Information School at the University of Washington, and co-founder and board chair of Read-a-Rama.
But now, kids are “inundated with information constantly,” Martin says. Some might be from reputable sources, but they interact regularly with misinformation and disinformation. This makes media literacy much more critical, so they know how to evaluate a source.
“It’s a different type of reading,” Martin says. In addition to decoding what’s on the page, it’s also considering the source and assessing the argument being made. “This push toward information literacy is to help kids learn how to navigate and discern what they’re looking at and what they’re taking in.”
READ: We Aren’t Worrying Enough About Declining Student Literacy
In fact, the World Health Organization declared us to be in an “infodemic” and is preparing a global curriculum to manage it.
“Everybody has access to the internet, and anybody can put out information,” says Brittney Smith, the senior manager of education partnerships (East) at News Literacy Project. “So it’s very important to know how to evaluate that information so you know what to trust and what to share with your social circles and your family.”
Plus, kids are growing up in a technological world. Whether you believe in “digital natives,” young people are often the most technologically advanced in their households, which can give an overinflated confidence regarding what they interact with on those devices.
“Just because you are a good user or navigator, training about the content is another step,” Martin says. “You see 2-year-olds who can very easily navigate an iPad. So when you grow up that way, then you think, ‘Oh, I got this.’ And you don’t necessarily got it.”
Literacy of All Kinds Is Critical to Freedom
Before her current role, Smith spent eight years working as a life science teacher, a job she was working at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. She learned in real time how many of her students and colleagues didn’t have the skills to evaluate information, repeatedly coming into her classroom to ask her questions about COVID.
“That really got me thinking about how it must feel to be bombarded by information that sounds really scary and then not have the tools to seek out other resources and see if they’re all agreeing,” Smith says.
In a 2018 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics, Black students had significantly lower scores for computer and information literacy than their peers. The average score for Black students was 475, compared to 540 for white students and 563 for Asian students. The national average was 519.
The survey also found a connection between test scores and students eligible for reduced-price lunch. Schools where less than 10% of the student body was eligible saw an average score of 564, and the average score dropped to 476 when more than 75% of students were eligible.
Being literate allows you to find information you need to make your life and others’ better. It’s a skill that’s really basic for a democracy, Martin says, and “has been absolutely critical to freedom.”
“Democracy was not part of the landscape for Black people during enslavement,” Martin says. “Those of us who are living now as Black people in America owe it to our ancestors, some of whom died, to be able to gain literacy that would lead to their freedom.”
Martin recalled the Frederick Douglass quote that knowledge unfits a man to be a slave, and says that’s more relevant now than ever as “politicians and government entities are trying to tell teachers and children what they should not have access to.”
“Besides making us stupid as a nation by deleting parts of the knowledge base, it’s also compromising the ability of children and young people to know the things that will lead to their freedom, whatever that freedom looks like for them,” Martin says. “That is a danger zone that we’re in now.”
Plus, Smith highlighted how the Black community is often a target of misinformation, especially during election cycles.
“As an organization, we’d like to see widespread requirements for information literacy beginning as early as kindergarten,” Smith says. “It is imperative that students are graduating from high school with the skills they need to evaluate information and to think critically about claims they are encountering.”
What Information Literacy Training Looks Like
As with all forms of literacy, kids are never too young to start learning information literacy.
At the News Literacy Project, there are free resources for students, educators, and the larger community. Plus, the students’ lessons are designed so they can take what they learned and share it with their family members. All lessons are taught by diverse subject matter experts and followed by an assessment and challenges to test their new skills.
And, as with all lessons, they will look different depending on the age group. Especially when it comes to information literacy, it depends how much independence kids have in online spaces. Schools and public libraries often have parental controls in place to keep certain sites off-limits, but those barriers might not be in place at home or on a personal device.
As kids age, the training needs to become more sophisticated to help them figure out what sources are going to support their learning, Martin says. That could be accessing the online encyclopedia or finding where databases for specific fields are kept.
“It should increase as the child gets older and the sophistication of the information increases, but I don’t think it’s ever too early,” Martin says. “If you have a 2-year-old who’s using an iPad, they probably need some information there, too.”
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