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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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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?

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4 Reasons Librarians Should Join A MOOC

Notes from an Online Class

Me learning math and whatnot

I am now in my fourth week of a Coursera course called Introduction to Finance. It’s a massively open online course (MOOC) that I am taking with thousands of other people from places like Ukraine, Malaysia, Indore, and Bogota. The class involves video lectures, working through problems, discussion forums with other classmates, quizzes, and even math. And even though I’m not quantitatively inclined, I am loving taking this course despite the work and number crunching. It was something outside of my training and education, and it gave me the opportunity to open myself up to a different perspective. There are a lot of good reasons though for librarians to sign up for a MOOC themselves. Here are a few:

Explore Innovations in Higher Education

There is no shortage of talk about new experiments and especially disruption in higher education. There are a lot of amazing startups, projects, and ideas that are gaining traction in the realm of education. Higher education, due to the high costs and new available methods of delivery will continue to change and evolve rapidly, and it’s important to be aware of those changes. Instead of waiting on the sidelines to see what happens, by enrolling in a MOOC or exploring other higher ed innovations, librarians can be an active participant and contributor to the future of higher education.

Update Your Skills

We can’t learn everything in library school and there are other things I wish I had learned there. But luckily librarianship is the ultimate extensible profession. We are good at learning and, MOOCs are one way that we can gain skills and competencies that would enhance our work. There’s a wealth of classes available that could be extremely useful in librarianship. We could understand how to make decisions based on data, learn how to code, study applying game elements to non-game problems, or even design our own class and learn from one another.

Learn From Great Teachers

The professor for my finance class, Gautam Kaul, is a professor at Michigan and has won various awards for teaching and research. More importantly he is a great teacher. He is authentic and brings passion for his subject into the class. He says things like “my role is to show you the beauty of finance,” and “learning happens when you’re happy.” He talks about finance, but also life and love and even pokes a little fun at accounting. I have learned finance concepts under his coaching, but I have learned from him as a teacher. As educators, librarians can learn a great deal in observing other teachers and how they structure classes, deliver content, and relate with their students. When taking a MOOC the learning is important, but observing the teaching can be equally rewarding.

Do Something For Yourself

It’s important to take care of yourself, develop yourself, and recharge. Similar to choosing to do yoga, enrolling in a pottery class, or taking up photography, finding a class you are interested in online is a way for you to challenge yourself and try something new. It’s not necessary to take anything even remotely related to your career. There are classes on mythology, philosophy, or even a beginner’s guide to irrational behavior (which might help in some of those faculty senate meetings). MOOCs are another way to explore yourself and your interests in a new and low investment way.

Taking a MOOC, like other learning, can be genuinely rewarding. Last week I was studying in a Barnes and Noble and got excited (probably causing-a-minor-scene-excited) when I worked through a really difficult example that the professor put up and was able to actually go through it step by step, understand it, and get the correct answer without looking. Learning can, and should be, fun and exciting especially now that the options for learning are increasing. If you’re interested in learning more about the future of higher education, you’re in luck. There’s MOOC starting up in October from some of the pioneers in large open online classes including George Siemens. The class is called Current/Future State of Higher Education, and I’m already signed up. Hopefully I see you online.