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The Short Game And The Long Game

“Librarianship is not a set of skills to be learned, or a set of degrees to be mastered. Librarianship is a conversation that has taken place over millennia.”

David Lankes recently had a great post about engaging in the big questions in the profession. He said that “bad conferences are filled with ‘how we do it good’ pieces.” His point is that what is really important is to invite others into a bigger conversation as opposed to talking about just what you do or how to do something.

There is a great deal of value in talking about how to do something. It’s practical and people can see the tangible effects right away. My posts on this blog about iPad apps or Twitter are by far my most popular. But our profession isn’t solely about keeping up on the newest tech or trends. It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day of your job or focus on new technologies that you can bring back from a conference, but if we don’t regularly ask bigger questions we’re compromising our future.

I see this other places as well. In library instruction its easy to concentrate on tools or how to do things, such as how to successfully navigate the databases. We’re experts in these things and students need to know how to use them to succeed on assignments. But they are just tools. If we only spend time on them we’re giving students skills for the present, but compromising their future. Tools change. We have databases and catalogs and discovery and Google today. There’ll be things we can’t imagine yet. That won’t be true in the future. In addition to teaching students how to succeed now, we also need to give them the skills to succeed in the future. We don’t want them to succeed just in their upcoming assignment. We want them to succeed in life. And knowing how to use a database is not the answer, or at least not the whole answer.

We need to be helping students develop the habits of mind that are crucial in research and lifelong learning. These are things like critically evaluating different pieces of information, perseverance in the search for information (not just giving up after a failed Google search), and a spirit of inquiry and constant questioning. These skills will last much longer than learning a database whose interface will change in the next few months.

We need to be playing both the short game and the long game in teaching and in the profession. There are tangible, practical skills that students need and that we need as professionals to succeed in our short term pursuits. But we can’t get so caught up in what we are doing right now that we forget to teach habits of mind or have the bigger conversations that will shape our future.

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Not Just Problem Solving But Problem Identification

One of things that I see students struggle with the most in doing research is question and topic identification. A big portion of the time I spend helping students with their research is spent helping them identify and define what their question is and what problem they want to address. I use techniques like mind-mapping to help students break apart their problem and start asking the right questions. Traditionally the work of librarians has been more focused on problem-solving. “Where do I look for information on human rights?” But increasingly, problem identification is becoming a skill necessary for students to master as they move into a world and economy built on creativity and innovation.

Dan Pink, the author of Drive and most recently To Sell is Human, talks about this importance of problem identification:

“The premium has moved from problem solving to problem finding as a skill,” Pink said. “Right now, especially in the commercial world, if I know exactly what my problem is, I can find the solution to my own problem. I don’t need someone to help me. Where I need help is when I don’t know what my problem is or when I’m wrong about what my problem is. Problem solving is an analytical, deductive kind of skill. The phrase ‘problem finding’ comes out of research on artists. It’s more of a conceptual kind of skill.”

This is a skill that can be hard to learn and especially hard to teach, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore it. It’s a lot easier to teach how to search a database or how to properly cite, but teaching students how to ask the right questions and identify problems will better prepare them for the world they’re entering.

A real world example of problem discovery comes from the folks at the design firm IDEO. In this this video, the CEO Tom Kelley talks about redesigning a toothbrush for children. Based on observation and asking the right questions they are able to see the problem in a new light and design a brush that not only tops sales but fits children perfectly. By finding the right problems and asking the right questions the solutions that follow are going be exponentially better.

This skill of asking the right questions and identifying the right problems to solve is something librarians should definitely be teaching our students. It can be done both in the classroom and at the reference desk. What are ways that you teach this skill?

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Change Drivers in Higher Education

I just began taking another MOOC called the Current/Future State of Higher Education (CFHE2012). I’ve already talked about why librarians should join a MOOC, and this one is really relevant to our work. It has to do with the change taking place in higher education. It’s also not simply a linear course but uses connectivist learning where participants create knowledge as opposed to simply consuming it. The first week has been focusing on the different tensions in higher education and factors driving change. In my view, after doing the reading and watching the webinars, some of the most prominent are:

Value

The value that institutions of higher education provides is being called into question by parents, students, and society. Books like Academically Adrift ask the question, “Are students actually learning?” Consumers of higher ed are asking if huge costs and crushing student loan debt are worth it, especially as less new grads are finding jobs. A question that those in higher education need to be asking is, “how can we better demonstrate value and what are the places that we provide significant value over other options?” Jordan Weissman argues that professional help, formative experiences, a seal of approval for businesses are still things that students cannot get other places. I would say that experience as a whole is the main advantage for higher education. A degree is not simply a stamp of approval or a ticket to a job, but a life changing experience.

Increasing Options

Students now have more choice than ever in their education: two year schools, four year schools, public, private, for profit, certificates, free online classes, MOOCs, learning communities. More than ever, students are mixing and matching different pieces of their education, and in this way education is becoming unbundled. It is no longer a single package like an album, but much more customized like a playlist. Now instead of institutions vying just for a student, they are vying for a piece of that student whether it’s the sophomore transfer student or a student needing continuing education.

Changing Perspectives on What Higher Education Should Be

With the various disruptive factors at work today in the world — the economic slowdown, ever-increasing connectivity, high costs of education, political polarization, etc. — more and more questions are being raised about the role of higher education. Is it a means to a job or is it to help produce thoughtful engaged citizens? Is it a public good or a private good? Should higher education be accessible to everyone globally or only the elite who can afford it? Are those seeking higher education consumers or are they students? The way that we answer those questions, and the other questions we ask are going to dictate where we put our energy and what is really important in higher education.

I am really enjoying the class, readings, and videos so far and I’m looking forward to the next several weeks!