6

The Evolution of Library Instruction

image via Denise Chan on Flickr

image via Denise Chan on Flickr

The other day I read Lane Wilkinson’s excellent post about his thinking as he and others are tackling revising the ACRL Information Literacy Standards. This is important work since, as Lane points out, they were approved 13 years ago. Much has happened since that time and this is a document that affects a lot of libraries. Libraries around the country use it to guide their own teaching, college competencies, and accreditation. Lane talks about the idea that instead to simply teaching skills and abilities such as evaluating information, we teach intellectual virtues and dispositions.

This got me thinking about library instruction more generally and the way that it has changed through history and even the way my view of  it has changed since I was in library school. It seems to me that library instruction has undergone an evolution over the years in both the way we talk about it and the way we approach it and teach it. This evolution has been a three step process and each of them build on and are informed by the previous one.

1. Bibliographic Instruction

This type of focus is very tools based. In bibliographic instruction, students are taught how to use our catalog or our databases. They are taught how to do Boolean searching and how to use a table of contents. Many pieces of this instruction are necessary and also inform the other evolutionary iterations. Students need to know how to use our library specific tools to find and evaluate the information they need. It’s much easier to teach tools, but if we simply stopped at teaching students that we have stuff and how to use it we would be doing them a disservice. That is why an evolution was necessary.

2. Information Literacy (ACRL standards from 2000)

For the most part, our current evolutionary step, as Lane points out, is focused on teaching skills. These are important skills like locating and evaluating information. We use tools like the CRAP test and we teach research strategies. Much of the way we devise our own local competencies is based on the language of teaching student the skills and giving them the abilities to succeed in challenging research and in meeting their various information needs. But this language can be limiting. If we are only providing them the skills and abilities and not aspiring for something greater, students may be able to succeed in college but when they get to the real world will they be able to continue that success?

3. Information Sophistication

Something we talk a lot about at Champlain College is fostering “habits of mind.” This sounds similar to the idea of intellectual virtues that Lane was putting forward. I’ve heard other librarians talk about this same idea in different terms as well. We want to help students become not  just literate but sophisticated and fluent in their use of information. This involves not just learning skills but applying and practicing those skills to develop certain habits and dispositions. A student who is sophisticated when it comes to information does not just know how to evaluate a source of information, but would have have the habit of regularly questioning and critically examining information they come across instead of taking it at face value.

Teaching habits of mind is not something that is simple though, and it might involve different pedagogies. At Champlain we often try to use the inquiry method which is directed specifically at teaching habits of mind and helping students to form “an educated response.” Our awesome new Assistant Director for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment Alan Carbery has had significant experience with Problem Based Learning and I’m excited to learn more about it and try some new methods. In both of these cases the methods focus on giving students experience in working through problems and doing critical questioning. These methods allow students to practice the habits of mind needed for someone who is sophisticated in their use of information.

Each of these evolutionary steps are necessary for students. They cannot develop skills if they cannot use tools to find information. They cannot develop habits of mind unless they have skills that they can practice. But when students leave college, they shouldn’t just be literate–they should be fluent, sophisticated. It’s an aspirational view of library/information instruction. I hope to hear more librarians continue to talk about it and I’m glad that Lane’s view will be represented when the ACRL standards are being revised. We have to remember that we are not just trying to help students succeed while they’re in college. We want to prepare them to succeed in life.

1

Remove Your Librarian Glasses

Image via Graham Blackall on Flickr

Image via Graham Blackall on Flickr

I recently spoke briefly at an all day retreat at our college about why I am involved with diversity work on campus (I’m a member of the faculty Multicultural Affairs Committee and completed a 25 hour intensive called Intercultural U). There are a lot of reasons for doing diversity work, despite it’s difficulty and the discomfort it can cause, including social justice reasons, and the opportunity for critical thinking and grappling with complexity. But the main reason I’m drawn to this work is because it’s personally enriching. It’s deep, meaningful, and authentic work. You get to grow and get outside your own lenses and biases and ultimately see reality more clearly.

This ability to challenge your own perspectives, examine your implicit assumptions, and inquire into the the viewpoints of others is crucial to diversity work, but also to the work we do in our organizations and the work we do as librarians. Most of the time see what we want to see or are conditioned to see. This can be the cause of a lot of the problems we face or lead to patterns where we get more and more frustrated. This can happen when serving students and faculty or working with colleagues.

Have you ever thought, “if only students came to ask us for help, they’d be so much more successful on their assignments,” or “if only faculty consulted librarians when designing their assignments students wouldn’t struggle so much?”  We often see the issues we face through librarian lenses or our own personal biases and not as they really are.

There are ways to take off our librarian glasses though, and when we do we are able to work more effectively with our colleagues and serve our students in the ways they want, not the ways we want.

Cultivate empathy

Too often we make assumptions about our users and design services around those assumptions. This can lead to poor utilization of those services and frustration by both the users and librarians. The problem’s that we’re trying to solve are not our problems, therefore we need to put ourselves in our users’ shoes and uncover their struggles, needs, and motivations. There is already great work being done by some libraries in this area, such as the ERIAL project. If you want to dig deeper into empathy, Stanford’s d School has some great resources.

Uncover implicit assumptions

There are implicit assumptions and mental models that we carry as librarians and educators that constantly color our experience of the world and of which we are not even aware. These could be unsaid things like “face to face education is the most effective kind” or “students these days give up easily.” In the book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge says that mental models often are helpful at one point but “as the world changes, the gap widens between our mental models and reality, leading to increasingly counterproductive actions.” Trying to make these assumptions explicit so than can be examined is an important element of getting outside our own lenses.

Don’t just interpret, observe

One way to uncover your assumptions is to recognize the difference between observation and interpretation. In a Design Thinking in Education workshop I recently attended, the speaker showed us an image and asked us to tell her what we could observe. It was surprising how fast we moved into interpretations, saying that the person in the image was a woman, assigning motivations and speculating on what the person was doing. We do this with students, faculty, and colleagues all the time. “The students are just not interested.” “My colleague just dislikes change.” The idea here is to cultivate a beginner’s mind and make observations. From there you can ask about those observations and test out different theories or assumptions based on those theories.

Advocate AND Inquire

We so often simply try to push for our own positions and advocate on behalf of the library, but if you only do advocacy you are not seeing the whole picture. When you’re advocating you’re not open to other viewpoints and you miss out on opportunities to learn. I’m sure most people have had the experience of pushing for an idea in a meeting and both sides simply got more polarized in their positions. Senge says that “When inquiry and advocacy are combined, the goal is no longer to ‘win the argument’ but to find the best argument.” Just talking louder is not going to be effective.

The ability to uncover what is hidden can be really powerful. What are ways that you use to get outside your own experience and put on different lenses into the world?