‘Critical’ Information Literacy

Whose information literacy?

The capacity for local conditions and issues to influence the way information literacy is defined and taught, is a concept that has gained significant momentum over the last decade among librarians and educators around the world.

This growing realisation has resulted in an increasing body of research produced at the intersection of critical pedagogy and information literacy. From this research, the concept of ‘Critical Information Literacy’ has emerged.

Jacobs and Berg (2011) explain:

“In its focus on engaging with questions about information, critical information literacy is an attempt to help students see that information questions are deeply embedded within cultural, social, political, and economic contexts”.

In other words, whether we realise it or not, information literacy never occurs in a socio-cultural vacuum.

The addition of critical pedagogy to information literacy discourse, represents a fundamental shift in scholarly perspectives concerning the purpose of information literacy programmes and the responsibility of its teachers.

Simply put, those of us who are responsible for developing information literacy programmes, need to think hard about:

  1. The kinds of worlds (plural intended) that exist for the particular students we teach.
  2. The powers that obstruct and facilitate various freedoms in those worlds.
  3. How our students are situated in relation to these powers.
  4. What our students need in order to freely navigate and interpret the structures that constitute their world/s.

How to add ‘Critical’

Understandably, this involves developing content that reaches way beyond the generic capabilities usually associated with information literacy programmes. It means drawing on the following, and more:

  • Intersectionality (the ways that our lived experience is effected by our membership in different groups – gender, sexual orientation, class, age, religion, and geography).
  • Existentialism and similar philosophical theories that offer frameworks for describing the subjective human experience.
  • Non-academic skills (however illusive the definitions may be right now!).
  • Habits of mind.
  • Deep learning.
  • Metacognition (a person’s awareness and understanding of their own thoughts and cognitive processes).
  • Logic, and the art of dissecting and formulating arguments.

Recognising the ‘feeling’ of an information need

Think this is all going a bit too far?

I don’t.

By the time children leave school, they should be able to feel an information need when it arises, and meet that need with the same exacting instinct that applies to eating food when hungry. It should be that natural.

Don’t remove the subjective view

When we speak about ‘trustworthiness’, ‘authoritative sources’, ‘authenticity’ and ‘authorship’, we need not compel students to relinquish their views. The point is to recognise we all have views, and that these views will impact:

– Our questions

– Our interpretations

– Our decisions in life

Students should understand the phenomenon that is confirmation bias. They should test themselves, identify fixed mind-sets, and examine how their opinions impact their information seeking behaviours.

Some key (general) points:

  1. The inescapably subjective nature of their own information gaze.
  2. The importance of informed opinion.
  3. The truism that ‘no text is without purpose’.
  4. The idea that information informs decision-making, and this has an effect on our lives and the world at large.

These points can be easily worked into a lesson where critical thinking and problem solving are intended outcomes.

What the lesson looks like depends on what your students need and what they can relate to. In other words, put the teaching and learning into the context of their worlds.

Information is power

From the perspective of critical pedagogy, school education is where adults pass the world on to the next generation. Or more accurately, it is where children learn how to care for and alter the world through decision-making, hopefully for the better.

If children are not given the opportunity to develop the knowledge, skills and understandings required for this undertaking, they will of course impact the world anyway – as every human life does – but they may not realise to what extent or in which ways. Furthermore, if History is our teacher, we all know what can happen when the general populace don’t know how to find answers, see through to the truth, or think independently

Yep, that’s right: ‘blind consumerism’, socio-economic health divides, susceptibility to populist political regimes, and so on.

We should tell this to our students. Students should be alarmed. Students should feel that this power of knowing how to find information and make decisions, is a freedom they are entitled to receive from their schooling… and if they don’t receive it, they have been robbed.


Jacobs, H. L., & Berg, S. (2011). Reconnecting information literacy policy with the core values of librarianship. Library trends, 60(2), 383-394.