• Emma Pauncefort

The link between critical literacy and enquiry

First published 12 August, 2019

This post followed the clarion call for critical literacy skills. Here, I started to deep dive into the relationship between critical literacy and our consumption of text online and offline.

The internet has been a great democratiser of information. According to one estimate, there are 1.2 million terabytes of data at our fingertips, and counting. Coupled with the information stored in our old go-to receptacle of knowledge – the book – we have been granted the sort of access to pools of knowledge of which previous generations could not even have dreamt. Pull up a search engine or open a book and in a split of a second you can now reach far into any area of interest you care to name; the ability to enquire, it seems, is easier than ever before.

But of course, not all information is equal. If the internet has been a great leveller of access to information, so has it equally been a worrying leveller of source authority. What has come with the ability for anyone, anywhere to publish information and, in turn, for us, wherever we may be, to consume it, is the loss of appreciation of the hierarchy of sources and the need to approach different sources or content types in different ways. This hierarchy of sources is not a case of placing 'literary' work on a pedestal and 'looking down' on other content. Rather, it is a way of measuring the difference between – to take the extreme ends of a spectrum – rigorously peer-reviewed and tested work and the clickbait and 'infotainment' we are often fed and drawn in by on our online information hunts and consumption. It is a framework within which we can usefully work. All of the sources we might come across have potential value, but only if we approach them with a clear understanding of the very different ways in which they function and the type of information they relay. 

With information democratisation has come the challenge of sifting through reams of text and differentiating between sources in an informed manner. The ability to do this is a core component of being critically literate and is essential if our online and offline information gathering is to serve the purpose we set rather than become subordinated to the conflicting agendas of others. It sits at the heart of what it means to really do research ‘proper’ and make original contributions to human knowledge and understanding. It informs how we act upon the content we read; how we digest it and potentially put it to new uses, whether this be for a school or university project, a corporate overview, investigative journalism, or other output within a professional environment. It relies upon us being able to read deeply and make reasoned judgements as we compare and contrast sources and, in turn, produce our own work, which should itself come under appropriate levels of scrutiny; the cycle of critique continues. On an everyday level, it sits at the heart of what it means to really undertake enquiry, or in plain terms, ‘searches’, for our own means, whether that is to decide as to how we exercise our electoral right, book a holiday or assert consumer choice. 

To exercise critical literacy in enquiry-based activity in our current information worlds, both in a professional and personal context, we need to know more than ever before how to enquire, which questions to ask of content and what strategies we might enforce to generate insights. 

Having tutored students from all corners of the earth, from myriad disciplines and stages of study, I have seen how a lack of critical literacy poses the greatest stumbling block to progress and meaningful exploration and reshaping of new bodies of knowledge. In the spirit of continuing the much-needed discussion surrounding The Great Hack, it is clear that we all need a deeper awareness of the workings of content online in particular. A key part of this is understanding how words function within different contexts. 

In the next digest, I will attempt to start to define some of these contexts and their intricacies, and reflect upon how we might engage more deeply with material which appears within them.

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