Professor Michael Eisenberg Talks Critical Thinking Today

Betsynote: I first ran into Professor Michael Eisenberg last fall when he was introduced to me by multiple folks – the MacArthur Foundation, local Seattle educators, and the NCCE conference organizers.  When I chatted with him in his office (yes, I got lost, even though it was Mary Gates Hall as a landmark) I realized he had a long history of working with Internet literacy and critical thinking, and his pro-library/reference stance provided another insight into the discussion. He has his hand in many projects – university academia, educational research, his own company that creates educational resources, and a startup.  Here’s what he has to say on various issues around search and critical thinking….

Tell us a little about yourself and what you do now

I am currently Professor at the Information School of the University of Washington. I am the founding dean of the School, having stepped aside in 2006. I keep pretty busy these days—teaching (grads and undergrads); being principal investigator on 2 funded research projects – Project Information Literacy (funded by ProQuest and MacArthur), a large-scale study of the information habits of college students and Virtual Information Behavior Environments (funded by the MacArthur Foundation), studying information problem-solving in virtual worlds; giving numerous workshops and keynote presentations on information literacy, technology, and the information field; advising a number of doctoral students; and hanging out with my family, especially my 2 grandkids – ages 5 and 7.


Michael Eisenberg, photo taken by Rick Dahms, Seattle, WA

How and when did you get started working on Internet literacy in education and critical thinking, and why go into this area?

Since graduating from college, I’ve always been a teacher of some kind. I taught high school social studies in California and later was a school library media specialist in upstate New York. I moved from social studies to library/information because I found my passion – helping students at all levels to gain the essential information skills they need to succeed in the world in ANYTHING that they choose to do. Subject area knowledge is okay, but to me, the bigger and more important challenge is to learn to solve information problems: to size up a problem, recognize valuable sources, find those sources, use them, synthesize a product or solution. To me, there is NOTHING more important in education than learning how to find, use, and produce information.

How has the need for Internet literacy and critical thinking skills in students changed in the last 5-10 years? Are they getting smarter by the time they get to the University of Washington?

The need for critical thinking skills hasn’t changed, however the nature, scope, and specifics of engaging in critical thinking has changed. Students today aren’t any more or less smart, but they do have more information and technology at their fingertips. That’s both positive and negative. We hear about information overload, and it is certainly true. We hear about needing to multi-task, and while I don’t think that students are actually thinking two thoughts simultaneously, they certainly are time-sharing very very quickly. So, when students get to the UW, they are more experienced than previous generations in accessing the Internet – the web as well as other tools, systems, and services. But, they aren’t necessarily better at using, synthesizing, and presenting information and knowledge. For example, they may be better at using a range of presentation options (e.g., PowerPoint, creating videos, incorporating graphics), but they aren’t always better at any specific option, particularly writing or oral presentation.

Have you seen any examples in your classes or elsewhere, where lack of critical thinking skills adversely affected the person doing the research?

Sure, I see this every day. Our research in Project Information Literacy shows that students seem to go back to the familiar, over and over. So, while they have access to a wide range of resources, they don’t always take advantage of the wide range. Also, word processing makes it possible to continually edit and improve work, but students are busy and often don’t take the time to do the revisions. Again, our research found a procrastination effect. It’s not necessarily that students are slackers; they just have a lot to do, so they are often doing things at the last minute. Their work suffers because of this. Oh, they can get to a few okay sources, even at the last minute, but it’s very possible that they also miss some excellent sources because they didn’t take the time to dig beyond the search results screen or the more general article search tool made available through the library.

We all remember Yahoo started with a curated directory of links, curated specifically by humans, and then search engines have evolved to use more computational methods. How does that change (or does it change) the educational approach to developing critical thinking in students? Does user interface design play a role here as well?

Well, interface design is quite different from the algorithms that underlie search engines. My field – information science – has been looking at ways to improve search for a long time. I can show you research from the sixties and seventies that studied computational approaches to improving search. We’ve come a long way since the early days of Yahoo and Alta Vista. I’ve talked with some folks working on search at Microsoft, and I am impressed with their knowledge of the various studies of search algorithms, similarity measures and citation searching.  It’s great that the search tools have improved and continue to improve, and equally important that we have ready access to such a wide range of full-text, high quality resources. I can access the rich, full-text article collections of the University of Washington from anywhere on the planet as long as I have an Internet connection. Wow!

But, searching to locate and access a source is only a small part of critical thinking. Again, by critical thinking I mean quite specifically being information literate –

1 – Task definition: being able to define an information problem, decision or task.

2 – Information seeking strategies: to select good sources that will hopefully provide information to meet that problem.

3 – Location and access: to find, search for those sources.

4 – Use of information: to use the sources, and pull out what’s relevant.

5 – Synthesis: to mull over and combine the information into a decision or product that meets the original task.

6 – Evaluation: to evaluate the result as well as reflect on the process.

As you can see from these 6 stages of information literacy, critical thinking is a lot more than typing a few words into a search engine and getting back some content. 

I want to emphasize that these 6 stages are not necessarily linear, top-down, or prescriptive. Different people go about information problem-solving in different ways. Some often jump from task definition to synthesis and then back to information seeking strategies and location and access. Some start by reading or viewing – stage #4. BUT, to be successful, each stage must be successfully accomplished at some point in time.

User-generated multimedia (think Youtube but also podcasting, etc) has become extremely popular. How does that affect teaching critical thinking skills?

I really like the way you phrased that: user-generated multimedia.  Looking at the above information literacy/critical thinking breakdown, we can see that this is specifically valuable for #2 – information seeking strategies and #5 – synthesis.

As a synthesis tool, it’s fantastic that students can now create themselves and share with others. My options for student presentations used to be primarily limited to writing papers or giving an oral report. Now, the students can create videos, voice-over slide shows, use graphics, photos, charts and tables, etc. In all my classes, students have assignments that now go beyond simply presenting in class or writing a paper.

And, for information seeking, students now have access to a very wide range of multimedia content created by each other as well as various experts. I use videos from YouTube in my class as well as in preparing for class. I also use content created in Flickr, on social networks, and yes, even in the Wikipedia. Of course – from a critical thinking perspective – we need to be cautious about authority, reliability, validity, currently, accuracy, and other dimensions of relevance. Again, that’s why we need to infuse critical thinking learning and behavior into our courses.

Social media sites have also experienced phenomenal growth. How has this affected what you teach students?

I keep finding new ways to use social media in my courses. For example, I now use Facebook in every course – my distance/online courses as well as face-to-face. Previously, I used discussion boards made available by various learning management systems, however I prefer the Facebook Group function because it has the “wall” for posting interesting things as well as the “discussion” option to share and interact. In my online classes, for example, I break the students into small groups and with a rotating discussion leader each week. They discuss on Facebook among themselves and then the leader posts a summary for the entire class at the end of the week. The next week, we start again.  The students don’t have to “befriend” me in order to join the class group on Facebook; they still can retain some privacy. Our group isn’t a public one, so only the class can participate. But, since the students use Facebook so much for their own needs, it’s easy for them to switch over to the class group. And, it’s easy for me to send a message to them, and they are more likely to read it than email.

I have many more examples of use of social media as well. For example, sometimes I will set up a backchannel during class – using Twitter – so that students can Twitter to each other during a lecture to raise questions or note key points. It keeps them engaged in the material as well as keeping me on my toes. I will pause every 10-15 minutes and ask what the backchannel is talking about.

Cell phones are now everywhere, and for many people (students among them)  they are the primary link to the Internet during their day. Does the form factor of a device affect Internet literacy and critical thinking skills?

I encourage my students to use any and all devices – relevant to the class. I don’t expect them to be emailing or texting to friends or surfing the web or answering a call. That’s no different than pre-Internet when I once pounced on a student for reading a newspaper during one of my classes. He knew better and my students today know better. I try to have a good rapport with my students—encouraging their interaction and engagement in the material. There are times when I am going to lecture or discuss something that is very challenging and requires full attention. I will ask them to put their “lids down” and give me and the class their complete attention for a certain time period. At other times, I suggest that they look for more information on something that has come up in class – using whatever means they have available.

One of the biggest detriments to effective use of the Internet in class is still the inequity among students. There are the haves and have-nots. The form factor might help this by reducing costs and offering alternative means to be connected.

In talking recently with teachers at the NCCE conference in Seattle, two issues came up that were affecting their ability to teach students critical thinking and general Internet skills.  One was the filtering many school systems are doing, to prevent students from reaching certain Web sites.  The other was that teachers themselves don’t have uniform access to computer hardware or training to teach these things.  What do you think are the best ways to attack both those problems?

I want to emphasize that there is a BIG difference between teaching general Internet skills and critical thinking. You don’t necessarily need full Internet access to teach critical thinking. Critical thinking is being able to tackle a problem and engage in all requisite stages of the process to successfully complete the task (not prescriptively or linearly as noted earlier).

At the same time, how can we expect students to gain proficiency in using state-of-the art tools as part of critical thinking if they and their teachers don’t have access to hardware, software, systems, and networks? These are baseline requirements. I don’t see one-on-one laptop programs as “the answer” to critical thinking and improving education, but I very much support one-on-one laptop programs. Every student needs access to technology. As far as filtering, I understand the concerns of parents. I am a grandparent and my grandkids both use the Web regularly. But, I much prefer codes of conduct and setting expectations for students and then holding them accountable. That is part of critical thinking.

And, I greatly favor and encourage use of quality library resources – article search engines and databases, full-text ebooks, websites identified as high quality – as well as targeted searching of the web through quality search tools. So, the alternative to the wide open web isn’t filtering. It’s a 21st century library information and technology program. Why shouldn’t every student across the US have equal access to high quality library article databases? Let’s take the money spent on filtering software and buy access for every school. THEN, teacher-librarians and classroom teachers can work with students to determine quality and relevance of sources and learn how to efficiently extract the relevant information from those sources while acknowledging authority of the sources through proper citing.

A lot of folks reading this blog will want recommendations of books to read, and Web site resources they can use to teach Internet literacy and critical thinking. Can you list 3-5 resources that people may not have heard of?

Well, my own “Big6 website” – www.big6com is certainly one that I would recommend. The Big6 is the most widely used information literacy approach in the world. We have lots of materials for educators as well as for parents and others.

If you want to look at a curriculum for information/Internet literacy and critical thinking, the curriculum written by Doug Johnson, Bob Berkowitz, and myself was recently updated:

For more on Project Information Literacy, check out our website –

We also have some short videos on YouTube –

I’m also a big fan of Jamie McKenzie and his work on critical thinking and educational technology:

What’s next for you on the topic of critical thinking skills? (Betsnote: are you teaching a class, speaking, writing a book, doing a study, etc)

I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire:

– Completing a revision to the Big6 Workshop Handbook

– Starting a major revision to my textbook on Information Literacy – Information Literacy: Essential Skills for the Information Age,. Libraries Unlimited.

– Speaking at a number of colleges and school districts in the next 6 months (including the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (NC) Schools which recently adopted the Big6 approach as a district-wide priority)

– Working with my teams on my 2 research projects.

Lastly, I am deeply engaged in fighting for high quality, school library information and technology programs in K-12 schools. With the financial problems facing schools, some are considering cutting library programs and teacher-librarians. This greatly concerns me as teacher-librarians are the champions of information literacy and critical thinking learning. Teacher-librarians are responsible for the information literacy curriculum and seeing that it gets taught through integration with subject area classroom curriculum and assignments. Teacher-librarians also help to manage cutting edge information technologies and networks in schools as well as provide equitable access to all students.  Now, some school library programs need to change to better meet the needs of students, teachers, and community members. I am working with many in the field to better focus their programs on delivering quality information literacy learning.

So, if my points above resonate with people, I hope they will join me in supporting teacher-librarians and library information and technology programs in their communities.

Let me conclude with my take-off on the parable of the fish. You know the parable of the fish –
“If you give a person a fish, you feed them for a day. But, if you teach a person how to fish, you feed them for a lifetime.” Well, I say the following: But further, if you help a person learn how to find and use information about fishing, they can teach themselves how to fish, or to do anything else that they desire in life.”

That’s what information literacy is all about – learning to find and use information.

Thank you,

Mike Eisenberg

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