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Learning to be compliant: The role that fear plays within information literacy teaching

Trigger Words: Mental Health, Anxiety, Shame

Dr Alison E Hicks
Dr Alison E Hicks

Over the last few years, considerations of mental health and wellbeing have become particularly important within library work. In the UK, this focus is often driven by statistics that show the high proportion of young people who have a probable mental health problem (Young Minds, n.d.). More specifically, anxiety is often positioned as an issue that is on the rise, with nearly one third of women aged 16-24 indicating that they experience symptoms (ONS, 2020). Libraries and librarians have been swift to recognise these challenges, including through the development of activities designed to support wellbeing, particularly at academic crunch points. These activities may include the provision of popular or self-help reading collections as well as informal services, such as colouring, jigsaws and therapy dogs (Cox & Brewster, 2021). While information literacy has not featured prominently within this discourse, it might generally be assumed that instruction sessions contribute to wellbeing by providing community support outside formal academic structures.

Or at least that is what I thought until I read a series of social media posts by Naomi Fisher, a clinical psychologist who specialises in trauma and alternative approaches to education. In this post, she focused on the role that fear plays within teaching strategies – something that she thinks is so ‘ubiquitous’ that educators (and adults) may not even realise they are using it. Exhibit A: The educator who implies that if a student does not attend class, they will end up under a bridge or their parents will be sent to prison. Exhibit B: Piling on the homework and warning that next year will be harder. Exhibit C: Using behavioural or punishment systems wherein a learner and their wrongdoing are highly visible to others. Running throughout all these examples is the use of fear to control behaviour, whether it involves the fear (and guilt) of losing your parents or the fear (and shame) of punishment. For students who find it easy to comply with educational requirements, this approach may be quite successful. However, for learners who are more ‘exposed’ to these threats, the use of fear can lead to intense anxiety as they struggle to obey and comply.

These examples are set in a highly structured schooling system, which may or may not be directly relevant to teaching librarians. However, I was struck by the connections that Fisher
makes between fear, anxiety, and compliance, particularly given the important role that compliance plays within many models of information literacy. Recent work with a colleague demonstrates that compliance forms the second most frequently referenced learning outcome within information literacy frameworks (Hicks & Lloyd, 2022). Within the metaliteracy model, it forms almost a quarter of the entire document. If compliance is really that important within our professional discourse, it becomes more important than ever that we interrogate how we teach for these ideas. More specifically, how might we rely on fear to teach for compliance, including adherence to governance structures or legal restrictions? Have we stopped to consider the impact of our approach on the most anxious learner in this context? Do we even know what to look for given how many educators might not even realise how they are approaching this topic? As Fisher points out, fear may help us to control learners, but it’s also impossible to control the fear that we create. And, if we are relying on fear to teach about compliance, couldn’t information literacy instruction then be seen as contributing to anxiety and mental health issues rather than helping to alleviate them?

These are complex issues and I recognise there are many innovative and non-fear-based methods that people use to teach about legal and governance issues. However, I found
Fisher’s post a useful reminder of the need to constantly check in with or reflect on the nuances of our own classroom practice.


Cox, A. M., & Brewster, L. (2021). Services for student well-being in academic libraries: Three challenges. New Review of Academic Librarianship, 27(2), 149-164.

Fisher, Naomi [@naomicfisher] (14th October, 2022). The use of fear to control… [Tweets]. Twitter.

Hicks, A., & Lloyd, A. (2022). Reaching into the basket of doom: Learning outcomes, discourse and information literacy. Journal of Librarianship and Information Science, 09610006211067216.

ONS. (2021). Young people’s wellbeing in the UK: 2020

Young Minds (n.d.). Mental Health Statistics.

Alison Hicks is one of the Library & Information Schools Representatives of the CILIP Information Literacy Group.

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