A wealth of knowledge? Debt collectors, prison sentences and the implications for how we conceptualise, teach for, and assess information literacy

This guest post has been written by Alison Hicks, JIL’s Editor in Chief.

It was the title of the financial literacy piece that got me- “What can rich kids do that poor kids can’t?” The idea that wealth and poverty might have an impact on what people are able to do is such a simple one, but it is one that we tend to shy away from in information literacy work. In fact, much like we hide behind the concept of diversity within LIS (Hudson, 2017), I might even argue that it is an idea that we actively refrain from interrogating through our belief that information literacy instruction is the great equaliser. Yet, while I normally avoid financial literacy writing with a barge pole, given its typical emphasis on blaming people for making poor financial decisions rather than acknowledging long histories of financial exploitation, I found that this short article offered a novel perspective – as well as some food for information literacy thought.

Dr Alison E Hicks
Dr Alison E Hicks

The premise of the article is straightforward. In 2019, the Money and Pensions Service, which is sponsored by the Department for Work and Pensions, carried out its annual Children and Young People’s Financial Capability Survey with just under 4000 11–17-year-olds. As part of this survey, young people were asked to define financial concepts, including, for example, what we call ““the money people pay to government” and “the amount the price of things in shops goes up by.” Leaving aside issues broader questions related to whether being able to define something equates to financial literacy (as well as my own slightly shaky ability to define some of these terms), responses from these tests were subsequently stratified by advantaged or disadvantaged socio-economic groups in an attempt to examine causes of financial inequality.

As you might expect, results from these tests played out in an unsurprising way. Young people from the advantaged socio-economic group displayed a far better grasp of financial concepts at age 11 and an almost identical gap was maintained throughout the teenage years. In fact, the survey demonstrated that 15-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds showed similar scores to advantaged 11-year-olds; or, as the study put it: “poor kids have similar financial skills just before they are about to leave secondary school as rich kids do just after joining.” The survey also demonstrated that advantaged young people have a better grasp of how money works ‘in practice’ with large differences being noted between the two socio economic groups related to working out how much money could be gained by investing £100 on a 2% interest rate.

You are, by now, perhaps guessing where this is going. Inequalities are set in by secondary school therefore we need more financial literacy interventions to try and address these obvious and potentially life changing issues. However, this is where things suddenly get very interesting. Instead of stopping after noting these large and unassailable inequalities, the survey continues by asking about the consequences of not keeping up with paying bills. And in this case, the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged young people narrows with members of the disadvantaged group scoring higher than their advantaged peers in a handful of areas, most noticeably related to the potential for custodial sentences. In other words, young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are just as financially literate- if not more so- when they are asked questions about certain financial issues, particularly financial problems with which they may be familiar.

Obviously, this study provides a very crude measure of financial literacy- and it is important not to make assumptions that disadvantaged young people will necessarily know more than advantaged young people about financial difficulties, debt collectors and prison, amongst other issues. However, these things aside, this study demonstrates how an assessment of literacy- financial or otherwise- is impacted by the questions that we ask- or the knowledge that we value and the skills that we look for. In other words, assessing whether someone is literate or not is often a hugely subjective process that draws upon our own biases and culturally specific understandings related to what constitutes valid or appropriate ways of knowing rather than a broader appreciation of how local practices, tools and beliefs are used to negotiate literacy events and episodes.

So, what does this mean for information literacy? The idea that information literacy looks different in different contexts is fairly mainstream now, but the related idea- that information literacy prioritises certain forms of knowing – and the potential impact that this might have on who we deem to be information literate or not- has been less well-explored. One promising approach is work that examines funds of knowledge – research that emerges from the field of education to argue that people’s varying life experiences can be resources for learning rather than impediments (Folk, 2018; Ilett, 2019). Validation theory may provide a further useful lens for re-examining how and what we teach within the information literacy classroom (Quiñonez & Olivas, 2020). However, this study of financial literacy demonstrates that there is still huge scope to explore how we are embedding culturally specific ideas of information literacy within our assessment practices as well as in our broader theoretical and practical information literacy work.

Folk, A. L. (2018). Drawing on students’ funds of knowledge: using identity and lived experience to join the conversation in research assignments. Journal of Information Literacy, 12(2).

Hudson, D. J. (2017). On” diversity” as anti-racism in library and information studies: A critique. Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies, 1(1).

Ilett, D. (2019). First-generation students’ information literacy in everyday contexts. Journal of Information Literacy, 13(2).

Quiñonez, T. L., & Olivas, A. P. (2020). Validation theory and culturally relevant curriculum in the information literacy classroom. Urban Library Journal, 26(1), 2.

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