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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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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.