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Threshold Concepts In Practice: An Example From The Classroom

image via Jarret Callahan on Flickr

image via Jarret Callahan on Flickr

I recently read the new draft of the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education and really liked some of the threshold concepts. They felt more holistic than simply trying to teach skills piecemeal. I also was teaching a brand new class last week that wasn’t completely coming together for me — that is, until I tried using a threshold concept to frame the lesson. This seemed to make it click.

I was preparing for an information literacy lesson for sophomores on ethnographic research that our teaching librarians team worked on as a group and that my colleague Lindsey Rae was instrumental in leading and designing. It was a solid lesson that involved a significant amount of active learning, but I felt like I wanted to make a few adjustments to make it work for me. I had a copy of the draft Framework sitting on my desk at the time and realized that this lesson fit in perfectly with the threshold concept Research as Inquiry.

This semester as a part of our information literacy curriculum we are looking at the theme “research strategies” and are discussing different strategies in different classes such as: mindmapping, developing keywords, doing interviews/ethnographic research, etc. And I realized that these are all methods of inquiry. They are ways of developing, formulating, restating, improving, and answering questions. And when I was able to frame the lesson in terms of the research process as inquiry it all came together.

I set up the lesson by saying that research is about asking and trying to answer questions and that ethnographic research was another way of doing that. They had already done textual research using books and articles and this was yet another way of getting answers that had different a different value proposition than reading texts. After practicing doing a little background research and interviewing their classmates I asked them what worked well and what didn’t and they enumerated a number of best practices for interviewing (including things like asking open-ended questions, being polite and respectful, and withholding judgment). I then asked about what the value of ethnographic research in comparison to reading a text and they gave a number of excellent answers including:

  • You get a personal perspective
  • You can see how beliefs work in practice
  • You can ask followup questions and have a conversation
  • You get a richer picture and come across anecdotes and stories that you might not in texts

This was a sampling of the responses, but this was a class that I merely facilitated — students drove the lesson and supplied all the answers. I wrapped it up by reframing the lesson in terms of inquiry and compared that research process to a room in which the lights slowly come on. At first you see very little and then you see some shapes and outlines. As you try different methods, explore more, and ask better and better questions, you begin to see colors and rich detail and really understand what the room looks like.

Using these threshold concepts may not work for everyone, but I can see them being exceedingly helpful to frame lessons and curricula. They help you focus on what is really important as opposed to getting stuck in what you think you are supposed to be teaching. Instead of just teaching a lesson about doing ethnographic research I taught a lesson about inquiry and asking increasingly sophisticated questions. An ethnography is just one lens and one method for doing that.

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New Framework For Information Literacy

image via Andreas Levas on Flickr

image via Andreas Levas on Flickr

The current Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education were adopted in 2000. A lot has happened since then. Facebook was founded in 2004. In 2005 Youtube was born. 2006 saw the creation of Twitter. In 2007 the iPhone debuted. We’re now talking about futuristic things like wearable technology, smart everything, and quantum computing. To say that the information landscape has changed would be an understatement. It has been revolutionized and there is no sign of that slowing. That is why I applaud the efforts of the committee working on the new Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. The draft Framework that they have put out is a step in the right direction, and I’m looking forward to the discussion that ensues.

The committee proposes an updated definition of information literacy:

“Information literacy combines a repertoire of abilities, practices, and dispositions focused on expanding one’s understanding of the information ecosystem, with the proficiencies of finding, using and analyzing information, scholarship, and data to answer questions, develop new ones, and create new knowledge, through ethical participation in communities of learning and scholarship.”

In addition to the new definition, the committee uses Threshold Concepts and Metaliteracy as anchoring elements to structure the Framework. I think there are a number of really beneficial elements of the framework as well as additional work to be done, but through the review process the committee has set up this Framework is going to be a solid guiding document for the future.

Benefits of the New Framework

Holistic – The initial draft is feeling more complete than the previous IL Competency Standards. The previous standards focused on important skills but in a piecemeal way. Students may master some skills, such as evaluating information, but fail to recognize the wider information landscape. This makes it harder to transfer these skills easily across different disciplines and situations.

Habits of Mind – The Framework specifically elevates the importance of dispositions or habits of mind in developing information literate abilities. These are things like valuing persistence and tolerating ambiguity and are a necessary element of becoming an expert information user/consumer/creator.

Future Focused – In addition to being holistic, this Framework seems like it will be better able to meet the unknown information challenges that will face us in the future. Our conceptions of privacy our changing. The ways in which information is created and accessed is quickly evolving. Teaching students just how to successfully use tools or evaluate using a set of criteria may serve them well for an assignment but might not prepare them for the future in which the tools and criteria (such as the changing concept of authority) change.

Possible Challenges

One possible challenge for the Framework is that it might not be as accessible for all librarians. One concern I heard raised in the open forum at ALA Midwinter was the introduction of new jargon such as “threshold concepts.” A related concern that was raised is that metaliteracy was not necessary as an anchoring element and could be integrated into the rest of the document so as to reduce jargon. I personally love the ideas of threshold concepts and at least elements of metaliteracy, but I feel that it needs to be clearer how people can use this in practice (which is why I’m excited about the idea of an online sandbox to share resources).

So far the Framework is looking solid and I’m excited to hear  and be involved with the conversations that are developing around it. It addresses issues that we regularly discuss but that might not fit somewhere (such as the idea that there is no one correct answer in research but that you build and refine the answer from what you find). I’ll be sure to share my thoughts and ideas on their feedback survey, but probably after additional conversations with colleagues.

For other thoughtful responses to the Framework, check out:

What are your reactions to the draft Framework?

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Learning and Unlearning Habits of Mind

Image via Mark Strozier

Image via Mark Strozier

I attended ALA Midwinter last week and there was forum about the upcoming revisions to the ACRL Information Literacy Standards. There was a fair share of angst and anxiety expressed about the upcoming changes. The previous standards were focused on searching for, retrieving, and managing information, while the upcoming changes appear to take a more holistic approach. From the forum it sounds like there will be much more focus on things like metaliteracies, abilities/dispositions, and threshold concepts. These sound a bit different from what we’re used to, and the argument was made at the forum that we are replacing our library jargon with other disciplines’ jargon.

From my perspective though, it’s simply another approach to teaching information literacy, and that it has to do with things that we talk about all the time. Some examples of threshold concepts included “scholarship is a conversation” and “information has value.” By focusing our instruction on some of these larger ideas it seems like it will be easier for students to begin making connections across classes and assignments. Instead of students simply thinking “I need another article,” they might think “I wonder who else is contributing to this topic?” These are big ideas that take practice, but once students get them their thinking about information will be much more integrative.

Another idea that jumped out at me is that of dispositions habits of mind as a part of metaliteracies. We talk about these regularly at my institution. An example of an important habit of mind for a sophisticated information user/sharer/creator is having a healthy skepticism and questioning of information that they find. I wonder though if it is also necessary to unlearn habits of mind to use information in a sophisticated way?

I’m reading the book Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath and they discuss the concept of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the well researched phenomenon that states  ”when people collect information from the world, they are more likely to select information that supports their preexisting beliefs, and actions.” We see students do this all the time saying, “I just need a few more sources to strengthen my argument,” as opposed to being open to what their research surfaces. This is a habit that can be detrimental to the creation of new knowledge and can lead to polarization. Even being aware of this phenomenon would likely be helpful to students. Are there ways that we could more explicitly integrate this concept into our information literacy instruction?

What other habits of mind should our students be learning and perhaps unlearning?