CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 9 . . . . January 3, 2003
Gertrude Stein stated, “Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.” When a book helps to make common sense out of today’s information blizzard, then it has a place in education. There is a need for books, such as Info Tasks, that reduce the mastery of information processing to a common sense approach. Info Tasks for Successful Learning is a useful paperback, chock-full of learning activities that structure a process-oriented approach for building skills in our information-rich environment. There are two fronts on which this book is a valuable resource: (a) students dealing with everyday information, and (b) teachers and students responding to curricular goals and outcomes. Daily, students encounter information that they need to process effectively in order to understand their environment. Info Tasks responds to this need to equip students with a “life-support system” (p. 6). Further, Info Tasks responds to many of the current association and curricular mandates regarding learning about and with information (e.g., International Reading Association, National Council of Teachers of English, Canadian curricular documents). The book’s activities are differentiated, interactive, and constructivist in nature. All the book’s activities are tied together with a simple formula of designing information processing tasks by moving through prepare, access, process, and transfer. The authors have identified and synthesized major themes and systems that contribute to a sophisticated yet demystified approach to improving student achievement through information processing.
Info Tasks is organized into an introduction, five chapters, thirty nine instructional task organizers, a glossary of terms, and a list of professional resources including books and Web sites. It is as compact as possible, but not over simplified. The main topics of the book organize the many skills associated with processing information into four overriding macro skills: (a) evaluating information for relevance and validity, (b) sorting information to make connections, (c) working with information and testing ideas, and (d) analyzing and synthesizing information for drawing conclusions. The introduction, addressed to teachers, summarizes the main idea of information literacy and sets the stage for teachers who would like to use and expand on the authors’ approach to building skills in reading, writing, and research using information. Each subsequent chapter describes micro tasks associated with the chapter theme and breaks these into a process of clarifying the task, building understanding, and demonstrating understanding. The first chapter, “Sorting Information to Make Connections,” outlines several micro “info” tasks that help students to become critical consumers of information that they gather and sort for relevancy to their learning task. The second chapter, “Working with Information and Testing Ideas,” outlines micro tasks that assist in the identification, ordering, and comparison of the information that students have gathered about any given topic. The third chapter, “Working with Information and Testing Ideas,” contains micro tasks that help students to clarify, deepen comprehension, deconstruct, interpret and make connections with information. The fourth chapter, “Analyzing and Synthesizing Findings and Drawing Conclusions,” contains micro tasks that bring it all together; making judgments, exploring solutions, and creating to demonstrate understanding. Chapter Five, Designing for Success, is a concluding chapter recommending that teachers go beyond assigning and telling to ensure student success. This chapter recaps a best practices approach that is student centered, collaborative, interactive, inquiry based, uses scaffolding, and leads towards self-monitoring. Chapter Five also includes three noteworthy pages dedicated to processing WebQuests. Teachers at the middle and senior levels would find this part very useful. The chapters are followed by task organizers on which student can write. Some are more sophisticated than others so it is important for teachers to be selective about their use of these pages, perhaps creating their own for students in the early years. I tried several of these organizers with middle school students and found them to be productive, activating, well spaced, and attractive. The activities inspire students and give shape to instruction. The glossary of terms, though useful, appears to need expanding and some revision for a teacher audience; for example, “differentiating” is described as “identifying the differences among things.” The list of professional resources is exceptional and adequately comprehensive for a book this size. In addition, the list of Web sites is short, but of high quality.
The scope of the book is limited to the scope of the processing strategy. However, the strategy, itself, is not limiting in that it could easily be adapted for use with any new information sources that appear as a natural evolution within our information-rich society. The authors suggest that their activities are not new but rather, familiar strategies with an information literacy “twist.” The activities are up to date but will not lose quickly their relevancy simply because they are focused on processing of information rather than on the content itself.
Teachers would have no difficulty using the book but would take best advantage by reading it all beforehand, rather than just selecting activities at random. In addition, the activities demand that the teacher be an active facilitator of the process with a goal of students “doing school” for themselves as self-monitoring, life-long learners.
Info Tasks deals with a wide variety of information literacy tasks. The cover and title do not do credit to the contents. One of the first things that strikes one when looking at the cover is that it might only have to do with information and communication technology. Some of the indicative cover pictures; a book, crayons and scissors disappear into the background when the title Info Tasks appears in bold print. From a graphic design point of view, the cover is attractive and holds meaning for the contents, but from a first glance it gives a different impression. For example, I had a group of teachers look at the outside of this book, and they predicted that the text within only had to do with computers. They were quite surprised by the diversity within the book. It is really the title that does not match the contents, suggesting more of an information manual with accompanying tasks, rather than engaging information learning activities. You cannot judge a book by its cover holds true in this book’s case.
I recommend this book as an ancillary text for any elementary and middle school program in any subject area. Most of the activities, and especially the underlying concepts, could be used at the high school level as well. The activities target student performance through interaction with information and improved performance measures. The approach reduces the complexity of today’s information blizzard to a gentle breeze that guides students to ever more sophisticated use of information in their daily lives.
Karen E. Smith is an assistant professor at the Faculty of Education, University of Manitoba. She instructs teacher education courses in language arts, literacy across the content areas, and arts education. Her special interests include literacy and the Internet, new literacies, and online learning.
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