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Signature Pedagogies: Carnegie meets Information Literacy

Our campus has a very active Learning and Teaching Center which hosts educational opportunities on a weekly basis for those involved in learning and teaching. Some weeks it’s faculty presenting ideas or strategies that worked well or didn’t, and sometimes they bring in outside speakers to talk to us. Today, they brought in Lee Shulman, President of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching to talk to us on the topic “Signature Pedagogies: Lessons from the Professions.” This session rocked. Mr. Shulman didn’t know that he was talking to librarians, and he certainly didn’t mention information literacy, but he had a lot to say that resonated with me and inspired me to think differently about my teaching.

First the background. Shulman and his group are studying the learning and teaching that happens in five professions: Clergy, Law, Engineering, Nursing, and Medicine. So far they’ve completed and published the study on educating the clergy. Law and Engineering are coming in a year, and Nursing and Medicine are coming after that.

In doing so, they’ve found that the learning that happens in each of these professions is quite distinctive (in fact, “signature”) and yet have quite a lot of common ground. It is distinctive in that the method each takes to go from reading and assimilating facts to actually doing something with what you’ve learned looks very different. There’s the signature law school classroom with professors cold-calling, students sweating, and much debate. There’s the medical “rounds” method of learning. Engineers model things in groups. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

But it’s what’s the SAME about this type of learning that really struck me. With what he called “uncommon dogmatism” Shulman listed seven things that happen in this type of preparatory training that make it particularly effective.

  • The structure of the learning and teaching are routine. You go into a torts class and you absolutely KNOW, probabilities notwithstanding, that you’ll be called on to argue a point.
  • Students are visible. They are active participants in the learning that happens, and they must publicly perform for the group. Shulman says, “You show me a class of kids who think they’re invisible and I’ll show you a class that isn’t learning.”
  • Student performances are interrelated. They build on each other and refer to each other directly. Any student may be called upon to critique or build on a comment another student made an hour ago, or a week ago. Students are therefore held accountable for their performances.
  • Because the class content is driven by student input, this is a pedagogy of uncertainty. The structure is routine, but you can never be completely prepared for what you’ll encounter during the day.
  • Because there is this element of uncertainty, there is emotional investment. Students are worried about what might happen in class, or they are excited, or a little of both, or something else entirely. I don’t think it matters what kind of emotions are invested; what matters is that the students CARE about their performances.
  • These are pedagogies of formation. They help students build a sense of themselves and their knowledge and their purpose.
  • And finally, there is a sense of responsibility. I had to leave before he was done explaining this point (committee meetings…), but I wrote down “sense of responsibility” anyway because that’s what he was saying as I left.

In the training grounds of these five professions, students learn habits of mind, habits of action, and habits of the heart so that they can access the theory and knowledge of their professions, act on that knowledge, and deploy it correctly in society. One of my favorite quotes from Shulman: “You can’t be injected with a habit. You can’t be inspired with a habit. You have to develop habits by doing things over and over again.”

So how does this jive with information literacy (and can we please come up with a term for info lit that people outside of libraries can understand)? Well, it got me thinking that we’re not consistently doing any of the things he listed to train our students to be adept information consumers. Or rather, we’re really good at the “routine” part, but we’ve got the wrong routine. We’ve got the “come sit and be bored” routine down absolutely pat. But we need to change that and SOON. We need to get students off their behinds, producing knowledge for and with their classmates, trying, failing, trying again, succeeding, and really getting some transferable skills out of our classes.

I don’t care if we only get 50 minutes or 15 minutes. Let’s face it, a full semester probably wouldn’t even cover it. Stop whining about lack of time and focus on maximizing that time to help develop habits of mind, habits of action, and habits of the heart. Wouldn’t it be great if Carnegie researchers could step into our classrooms and be able to tell that research instruction was happening as easily as they can tell that law or medicine instruction is happening? Wouldn’t it be great if we were consistent enough that students would come into our classrooms knowing that being invisible wouldn’t cut it? Wouldn’t it be great if we could take Darlene Fichter’s concept of Radical Trust and apply it to instruction, recognizing that instruction wouldn’t proceed in an orderly fashion, but that we’d probably cover the important bits with student-driven instruction?

Now I realize I keep saying “we” need to change even though I fully realize that there are great instructors out there who are completely engaging and really get their students engaged. But what I mean is that the profession as a whole (and me, in particular) needs to let go, give students some credit, and shift from including “active learning components” in our instruction to having the whole session be active.

I’ll let you know if I figure out how to put all this great theory into practice. (Obviously, my professional training wasn’t built on a signature pedagogy that Carnegie will ever be studying…but maybe they should…) Don’t hold your breath. And please, if you’ve got tips for me as I jump into the strange unknown of structured “unstructured” teaching, shout them out. Be an active participant.

Published inTeaching and Learning


  1. Tony Tony

    Interesting premise, though I’m not quite sure how you mean to go about this new approach. Does this mean you will start cold-calling on students during instruction sessions, and the like?

  2. Iris Iris

    Yes, I think so. Or any other way I can think of to make participation manditory without making myself hated across campus.

    Students beware! I’m inspired and don’t know quite what I’m doing! (This could get really ugly really fast…) :)

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