IL is dead, long live IL!

In this post I argue that information literacy (IL) is a last century concept and that inquiry learning (IL) is a more holistic and powerful framework with which to understand how people learn to find and use information.

I was first introduced to the concept of information literacy in the late 90s when I began my librarianship studies. As an experienced teacher, I immediately felt there was something lacking in the way that information literacy was portrayed by the librarianship profession. It gradually became clear to me that, in formal educational contexts, information literacy was being advocated without a pedagogy supporting it. This was due, I felt, to information literacy being ‘owned’ by academic librarians, who in most cases were not teachers and did not understand learning theory or curriculum design theory. I subsequently wrote about the problems I saw in a profession (i.e. academic librarianship) taking ‘ownership’ of a literacy (Lupton 2002).

It seemed obvious to me that inquiry learning was a pedagogy which provided the framework for information literacy. At that time, inquiry learning was being advocated as an innovative pedagogy for higher education curricula. In 2002, I became the coordinator of a curriculum project at the Australian National University that aimed to develop inquiry learning courses in first year. In those courses, information literacy was embedded into the inquiry curriculum.

In the years following, I undertook my Masters and PhD research investigating how students learned through using information (i.e. information literacy) at university. I still used the concept of information literacy even though I became increasingly uncomfortable with what I saw as its limitations. There still seemed to be a divide between the educational concepts of curriculum and pedagogy and the librarianship concept of information literacy.

So, what is the distinction between inquiry learning and information literacy? First, inquiry learning is a pedagogy and a curriculum design framework. Pedagogy is related to the teacher. It is ‘any conscious activity by one person designed to enhance learning in another.’ (Watkins and Mortimer 1999, p. 3). Pedagogy includes the teacher’s strategies, their choice of teaching and learning activities, the way they manage their classroom and the way they design and implement curriculum. Pedagogy is the way teachers organise learning, underpinned by the values and beliefs that they have regarding teaching and learning.

Curriculum is related to pedagogy. Curriculum includes the content and skills to be learned, teaching and learning activities and assessment. There are three manifestations of curriculum: 1) the intended curriculum – what the teacher plans will happen in the classroom; 2) the enacted curriculum – how the teacher actually enacts the plan; and 3) the experienced curriculum – how the teacher and students experience the curriculum.

By contrast, literacy is related to the learner. It is regarded as the knowledge, skills and abilities demonstrated by the learner. The knowledges, skills and abilities are deemed to be different depending on the view of literacy one takes.  For instance, (information) literacy can be seen in three ways:

  • — Generic – a set of discrete, neutral generic skills related to reading, writing and the use of technology
  • — Situated – social practices involving solving personal, work, family and community problems
  • — Transformative – effecting social change through an emancipatory process. (Lupton & Bruce 2010)

Thus, literacy is not a pedagogy, or even a curriculum framework. Literacy needs a pedagogy to develop it and give it meaning. I believe that inquiry learning is a natural pedagogy and curriculum framework for information literacy which relates more closely to the type of learning outcomes we wish to achieve in contemporary educational contexts. As Kuhlthau (2010 p. 3) argues, ‘school librarianship has evolved from emphasis on library skills to information skills in the 1980s, to information literacy in the 1990s, to inquiry as a way of learning in the first decade of the 21st century’. This view is reinforced by the prominence of inquiry in the new Australian Curriculum (Lupton 2012).

The purpose of this blog is to explore these ideas. My next post will be presenting my description of inquiry learning.


Kuhlthau, C. (2010). Guided inquiry: School libraries in the 21st century. School Libraries Worldwide, 16(1), 1-12.

Lupton, M. (2012). Inquiry skills in the Australian Curriculum. Access, June, 12-18.

Lupton, M., & Bruce, C. (2010). Windows on information literacy worlds : Generic, situated and transformative perspectives. In A. Lloyd & S. Talja (Eds.), Practising Information Literacy : Bringing Theories of Learning, Practice and Information Literacy Together (pp. 4-27). Wagga Wagga: Centre for Information Studies, Charles Sturt University, 4-27

Lupton, M. (2002). The getting of wisdom: Reflections of a teaching librarian. Australian Academic & Research Libraries. 33(2)

Watkins, C., & Mortimore, P. (1999). Pedagogy: What do we know? In P. Mortimore (Ed.), Understanding pedagogy and its impact on learning. London: Paul Chapman Publishing.

9 responses to “IL is dead, long live IL!

  1. I have never thought of information literacy as a pedagogy but as the knowledge, skills and abilities that underpin effective and ethical learning within a Iearning framework. The knowledge and skills of information literacy are constantly changing but I would argue are integral to the success of the Inquiry learning process. Why should it be an ‘either/or’ situation? I look forward to a discussion of these ideas.

  2. Thanks Mandy for launching a forum for IL debate!

    I could not agree more with you in emphasizing the role of inquiry learning. It is the key to developing formal education to integrate information literacy into the curriculum. However, I agree with Brenda that we should not miss the concept of information literacy. As a researcher in information studies I need concepts (information literacy or something related) that are accurate and posess analytical power to discuss about the phenomenon (e.g. role of information in learning). Another issue to discuss is what role of expertise we reserve for librarians and scholars in information studies if we abandon key concepts of the domain and replace them by terms used in educational sciences.

    I argue that we (librarians and IS researchers) need to expand our views to adopt the basics of learning sciences to be able to advance in information literacy education (to really talk about pedagogy in our instructional models). I suppose you basicly advocate this idea. However, this does not require that we stop talking about information literacy. Obviously we need to redefine it but this does not mean that we hide our own domain and its tradition.

    Best regards
    Eero (University of Tampere, Finland)

  3. Inquiry learning is a way of thinking about and processing the conceptual structure of a subject (ie. discrete discipline or course of study). Each subject has its own distinct mode of inquiry. Teaching students to make meaning of the organising concepts and questions within a subject can be starved of the rigour and passion for inquiry by substituting old style, information literacy models. I listened to your proposition at the SLAQ12 Conference and have come away affirmed as both TL and teacher, that my History students can develop more in-depth, discipline-based skills of inquiry through the historical inquiry process, drawing on the IL thinking skills to assist with the mechanics of organising and presenting their findings. Thank you for the opportunity to rework my thinking. Regards Suzanne

  4. The skills for independent learning are wide-ranging and our understanding of the set we collectively refer to as information literacy skills are only part of this picture. I believe information literacy, digital literacy and trans-literacy skills should be taught explicitly but will only effectively be transferred to students as new or reaffirmed knowledge if they are embedded into an inquiry or research assignment. There must be an opportunity for students to immediately use and practice these skills in context for it to be meaningful for them.
    To this end, I have am working to embed specific information literacy and research skills into the curriculum at the secondary school I work in, in a way that reaches all students and transitions between year levels and subject areas.
    I look forward to following the journey you’ve begun!

  5. My title ‘IL is dead, long live IL!’ is a little mischievous, as I believe there is still a place for information literacy. I’ll discuss this more in my next post where I will talk about the characteristics of inquiry learning. My view is closer to Suzanne’s, as I have often seen information literacy being treated as a generic and neutral concept, devoid of a disciplinary framework. I think that if inquiry learning was used as the overarching framework then the idea of information literacy will necessarily become more situated in disciplinary practices.

    This is a great discussion – keep the comments coming everyone!


  6. Mandy, love the attention grabbing checky head line. Designed to raise the hairs of all Information Literacy loving librarians, like me. Thanks to you and all the excellent responders to your article for raising so much food for thought. For me, it’s a vexing issue. How to effectively to document and develop IL in my school community? I look forward to your next installment… ‘All hail IL’ ?!

  7. Hi Mandy,
    Hope all is well in AUS these days.

    You seem to have set a ball rolling! Like others I don’t think it is a simple either/or question, and I suspect you don’t either, so will look forward to hearing how you get round that suspicion.

    Your point about librarians ‘owning’ Information Literacy (IL) should be set against the relative lack of interest shown by lecturers and other educators and also the range of reasons why this should be.

    One answer is that academic assumptions about the place of information in learning and student capacity to recruit the kind of information needed to extend their subject knowledge have tended to be rather optimistic, thereby tending to stunt the development of good IL for students through teaching, feedback and assessment.

    Another reason is the historical and, I believe, now acute tension between teaching and research in academic career advancement.
    Despite much rhetoric and a good deal of solid work, this is proving to be a very difficult problem to overcome, so I’ll be interested to see your views on how ‘Inquiry learning’, or indeed any other pedagogical formulation, is going to be developed in teaching practice if the institutional culture does not prize it alongside research success. If teaching is a low stakes aspect of academic careers, what price IL?

    There are about 50 years of sound research into the nature and development of higher education teaching and learning but the uptake by practicing academics has not been great. This despite significant external political and financial pressures to audit, or even enhance, teaching quality. Whilst many projects and examples of postgraduate courses for new lecturers, CPD programmes etc. can be identified to show that research is being applied, it does still seem to be the case that the main learning environment in universities is visible through a traditional lecture/ lab/ tutorial template. Within this environment there are of course a range of patterns of learning development/ innovation/ enhancement, depending on discipline, uptake of technology, activity by committed academics and a degree of attention to ‘problem’ areas, assessment for example.

    Teaching of employability ‘skills’- IL often entailed – have also made inroads in response to decades of priority given by public policy and sector leadership to the belief that university teaching is about producing human capital for national economic growth and competitiveness. An assumption worth questioning now that we are facing double dip recession and not growth. Who knows what genies might leap out of the bottle in answer!

    Against this backdrop, I reckon IL still has a way to go in contributing to a better and more comprehensive higher education in the 21st century, but of course this will be conditioned by whatever insights into teaching and curriculum renewal we can effectively deploy to change academic cultures.

    All the best,

    Bill johnston
    University of Strathclyde, Scotland.

  8. Hi Bill,

    I always love discussing these issues with you as you have such a wide view, and you are able to frame information literacy within the bigger political and economic picture 🙂

    As you would know, in higher education, some advocates of inquiry learning have used the concept of research-based learning in an attempt to link teaching and learning with the high-status research culture. But while there pockets of innovative practice, I agree with you that the traditional model still dominates.

    The problem is: inquiry learning is risky. And in higher education we are not encouraged to take risks. I have explored this problem in my recent paper “Reclaiming the art of teaching” forthcoming in Teaching in Higher Education

    Stay tuned, as I’m going to explore the idea of inquiry learning as risky in a future post 🙂

    Best, Mandy

  9. I’ve taught in VET NSW extensively and inquiry learning has yet to appear on the landscape. I suspect this might be a common experience across other states, but I’d be interested to hear from others.

    Having initiated a number of cross discipline projects over the years, it is the issue of ‘ownership’ which always occupies considerable time. In my experience it is the failure of the organisation to address systemic ‘ownership’ issues that is really preventing any wide spread cultural change.

    I’m interested in inquiry learning as an overarching framework that can assist teachers to look at ways that their knowledge and skills can complement and not compete with each other. But this would seem to be a long journey…………….

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