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Category: Teaching and Learning

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.


Three Take-Aways for Librarians

Today was ARLD Day at the Arboretum just outside of Minneapolis. Aside from the thick clouds and persistent rain that kept us from taking our planned walk through the grounds after the day of meetings, it was a great day with three main take-away messages:

  • Research Portals 2.0 are coming.
  • Gaming tests and stretches problem-solving, collaborative, and communication skills. [One question: are these skills transferable?]
  • We can teach better instruction sessions if we pay attention to engaging students. Try incorporating gaming principles.

Now that you’ve got your take-aways, here’s some detail.

First Take-Away

The first take-away heralds the beginning of the planning of a concept that could revolutionize research. The University of Minnesota has been working (under a Mellon grant) to develop My Field, a research portal of the future. It’s not live yet, not even in beta (we saw mock-ups of page concepts at this session), but the documentation is here and mock-ups (in powerpoint) here. Basically, it’d be a space where researchers could log in, have resources suggested to them, gather other resources, tag everything, develop goals and time-lines, collaborate with other scholars, share what they want to share, keep private what they want to keep private, and get help with anything from resource discovery to publishing.

Now that they’ve finished working through the planning grant, they’re moving toward getting an implementation grant that would fund both the library and the computer science department to design the various mix-and-match components of this highly web 2.0 space. The really good news is that this thing would be completely open source.

Second Take-Away

The second point came from the morning’s keynote address given by Constance Steinkueler on the intersections between Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) gaming and cognition, learning, and social interaction. Not only was she an engaging speaker (even though she’d broken her toe just the morning before speaking to us and had to hobble around during her presentation), but she did an absolutely fabulous job of charting the cognitive and skill-building activities that (should) make gaming so intriguing to educators. I’ve heard talk of gaming before (though as my last post makes clear, my poor computer just won’t let me join in the really high-powered stuff myself), but this is the first time I’ve heard someone make such a clear connection to my work life. Here are some snippets from the notes I took at during the address. (I was too busy taking notes to actually blog while there, which I think also speaks to how interesting and engaging the talk was.)

  • Collaborative problem-solving is absolutely required in the gaming world, so gamers get very good at coming together, pooling their resources and talents, planning out strategies (including information gathering from fansites and fan forums), attempting the task, and then disbursing to join other groups. This is the same as the “Cross-Functional Teams” touted in the business world.
  • Gamers become skilled at highly stylized communication and even learn pidgin forms of other languages (since games are populated by avatars maneuvered by people from all over the world).
  • Collective intelligence, generated through fansites, blogs, forums, wikies, and the like, is the best and most authoritative information out there. (If you’re thinking Wikipedia, your on the same trajectory I am.)
  • Games become the new “third space” where people can engage and socialize on neutral ground (not work or home).

I should note that the discussion following the presentation was particularly un-useful. People asked the same old questions about the connection between violence and gaming… And I never got up the courage to ask whether any research had been done to show if these wonderful cognitive skills are often transferred to other areas of gamers’ lives. Too shy. I need to get over that.

Third Take-Away

The final take-away point came from the session called “Find Your Inner Gamer: Adapting Instruction for Digital Natives” by Robin Ewing and Justine Martin from St. Cloud. This session focused on what makes games such engrossing activities that people of all ages will spend 20+ hours every week exploring, trying, failing, trying again, learning, and collaborating. Wouldn’t it be great if they could be even 1/20th as engaged in a 50-minute session?

Well, these two librarians have been looking for ways to do just that, and they’ve begun by distilling what makes gaming so engaging. They’ve found that gaming engages gamers because they focus all attention on a goal or a problem, there are rules and goals to keep things focused and give instant feedback, there’s the challenge and the satisfaction of achieving new levels, players have control of their actions, and they are in a fantasy world, so they are free to be creative and experiment with new things.

They’ve translated this into their instruction by making sessions student-driven (that’s right, NO DEMO!), doling out “power-ups” strategically so that just when students want it most you reveal the added searching power of AND, and intentionally working in feedback and reflection. This last is analogous to touching something in a game, having something happen in response, reflecting on what happened, and moving forward with that extra piece of knowledge that can be tested and re-formed as necessary.

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Academic Librarians vs Academia?

Two seemingly unrelated events converged to create a clearer picture of what academic librarians are facing these days. One was a stimulating and enlightening meeting with the Twin Cities Writing Professionals group last Friday. At this meeting, members of the group and the librarians they had invited to join them for a day all began to realize that we’re working with students on the same general skills (thinking critically, reading critically, evaluating what you’ve read, and communicating well). But that’s a topic for another evening. The moment of realization came for me when one writing professional attempted to articulate the difference between writing professionals and librarians by saying,

It seems to me that we’re both trying to help students toward good writing, but while writing professionals believe in providing guidance but not answers, librarians are trained to deliver answers to questions.

Needless to say, this provoked quite a bit of lively discussion. I don’t know of a single academic librarian who strives to do his or her students’ homework for them!

The second event occurred today when I attended the presentations given by senior French majors at my campus who had just completed a year-long project (their senior thesis or, as we call them here, “comps”). As I listened to the three girls present on reconciling traditional vs colonized marital arrangements in Madagascar, the French health care system, and stereotypes of “youth” and those riot-ridden “suburbs” in France, it struck me that “successful” comps talks problematize more than they clarify. In academia, we are suspicious of anything that seems to “answer the question” too clearly, too neatly.

So here’s what librarians face on college campuses today: a general conception that we “answer” questions, and a culture that regards finding answers as the cheap and easy way out, as naive, or even as cheating.