it’s the math

I’m not sure that even my tendency to see information literacy connections everywhere will explain why I’m posting this, but I just thought it was really interesting.  This morning, I got pointed to this article (via a delicious network) which argues that hands-on, unstructured, discovery-based learning doesn’t do the trick for many science students at the secondary level.  Using preparedness for college science as their definition of success, most students are more successful if their high school science learning is significantly structured for them by their teachers.

Structure More Effective in High School Science Classes, Study Reveals

What jumped out at me here was that the reason seemed to be linked to the math – students with good preparation in the math, did benefit from unstructured, discovery based learning.  And then there was another “similar articles to this one link at the bottom of the page, pointing to another study, making another point -which supports this idea too (which is not hugely surprising because both items point to different papers by the same researchers).

You do better in college if you’ve taken high school classes in chemistry, better in physics if you’ve taken physics – but the one big exception to the success in one doesn’t generalize argument?  You do better in everything if you’re well-prepared in math.

College Science Success Linked to Math and Same-Subject Preparation

After that there are more “articles like this one links” leading to articles about middle-school math teachers in the US being really ill-prepared, or things about gender and math and science which really got me thinking about further implications of those findings – if math is such a lynchpin.  So there is something there about how this dynamic, browsable environment makes your brain work in ways that make research better.

There’s also something there about context – getting the “math teachers aren’t prepared” article in the context of the “math is key” research made the significance of the former clearer, made how I could *use* that research much clearer than it would have been if I came upon it alone.  There’s also something there about the power of sites like ScienceDaily (and ScienceBlogs, and ResearchBlogging.org and others) to pull together research, present it in an accessible way in spaces where researchers/readers can make those connections.

And there might even be something there about foundational, cognitive skills that undergird other learning. But mostly, I just found it interesting.

—————

Studies referenced were reported on here:

Sadler, Philip M. & Tai, Robert, H.   The two high-school pillars supporting college science (Education Forum)  Science 27 July 2007:  Vol. 317. no. 5837, pp. 457 – 458.   DOI: 10.1126/science.1144214  (paywall)
Tai & Sadler, Same Science for all?  Interactive association of structure in learning activities and academic attainment background on college science performance in the USAInternational Journal of Science Education, Volume 31, Issue 5 March 2009 , pages 675 – 696.  DOI: 10.1080/09500690701750600

doodling as pedagogy

ResearchBlogging.org

This one has been all over the news in the last two days, but if you haven’t seen it, it’s an Early View article in the journal Applied Cognitive Psychology. The article suggests that people who doodle while they are listening to stuff retain more of what they hear than non-doodlers do.

As an unabashed doodler, for me it’s usually fancy typography-like versions of my dog’s name, this isn’t all that surprising. But my brain keeps going back to it — should we be figuring out ways to encourage our students to doodle in library sessions?

See, the article doesn’t say definitively why the doodling works.  But the author, Jackie Andrade, does suggest that it might have something to do with keeping the brain engaged just enough to prevent daydreaming, but not enough to be truly distracting:

A more specific hypothesis is that doodling aids concentration by reducing daydreaming, in situations where daydreaming might be more detrimental to perfomance than doodling itself.

So you’ve got an information literacy session in the library, with a librarian-teacher you have no relationship at all, about a topic about which you may or may not think you need instruction.  That sounds like a perfect situation for daydreaming.

And it’s not too hard to think of ways to encourage doodling.  Handouts with screenshots of the stuff you’re talking about – encourage them to draw on the handouts.  Maybe even provide pencils?  I don’t know – it’s not an idea where I’ve fully figured out the execution, but I’m interested.

My students, most of the time, don’t take notes while I’m talking.  Part of this is my style, I talk fast and I don’t talk for very long in any one stretch before switching to hands-on.  But I don’t think that’s all of it – most of them don’t even take out note-taking materials unless they are told to do so by their professor (and then they ALL do) or unless I say “you should make a note of this” (then most of them do).   And this isn’t something I’ve worried about.  I have course pages they can look at if they need to return to something, and I’m confident that most of them know how to get help after the fact if they need it.

But the no-notetaking thing means that they aren’t even in a position to do any doodling.  And as someone who needs that constant hands/part of the brain occupation to stay focused, I wonder why I’ve never thought about that as a problem before.

This study specifically tried to make sure that the subjects were prone to boredom.  They had them do this task right after they had just finished another colleagues experiment, thinking that would increase the chance that they would be bored.  And they gave them a boring task – monitoring a voice message.  Half doodled, half did not, and then they were tested on their recall of the voice message.

I don’t mean to suggest that information literacy sessions are inherently boring; I don’t actually think they are.  But I think some of the conditions for boredom are there, particularly in the one-shot setting, and I don’t think there’s stuff that we can do about all of those conditions.  Some of them are inherent.  The idea of using the brain research that’s out there to figure out some strategies for dealing with that interests me a lot.

——————–
Jackie Andrade (2009). What does doodling do? Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.1561

Peer-reviewed Monday – Reflective Pedagogy

ResearchBlogging.org
When I wrote that one theory and practice post last November I was thinking about reflective practice, but I didn’t really talk about it.  Luckily, Kirsten at Into the Stacks picked up that thought for me.  The whole post is great, but here’s the reflection piece:

But the purpose of theory, it seems to me, is as much to cause us to reflect on our practice as it is to inform our practice.

In my own post, I over-used the term “inform,” because while that is important, I think that reflection is just as, if not more important.  Reflection is the point where the practice part of the job mixes with the theory part, with the writing part and the presenting part and the reading outside the discipline part.  It’s not just a matter of taking what someone else has done and saying “I could do that.”  It’s taking what someone else has said and saying “wow, this makes me think/feel/understand something about what I do.”

So this article from last year’s Journal of Academic Librarianship jumped out at me – as it brings together the ideas of praxis and information literacy:

H JACOBS (2008). Information Literacy and Reflective Pedagogical Praxis The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 34 (3), 256-262 DOI: 10.1016/j.acalib.2008.03.009

The article is well-done, and I recommend it if you’re interested in the why of reflective practice, particularly where it comes to teaching and information literacy, but for me it felt a little like that one song in Dirty Dancing – the one they dance to at the end that sounds like it is going to be classic 80’s overwrought pop and you keep thinking it’s going to take off into the saxophones and dance beat and it never does because in that last scene they’re doing the mambo that Jennifer Grey’s character learned as a novice and it can never really deviate from its initial beat as much as it sounds like it is going to?

The whole thing is why we should think about reflective practice, with no how or even how I do it.  Which is fine, and important, but when you’ve already drunk that particular kool-aid it lacks a certain punch.

Anyway, quick summary.  Jacobs argues that librarians need to think more about pedagogy and not just about teaching.  She briefly touches on the lack of teaching/ pedagogy training in library school, and argues that even if one has had a teaching methods class that isn’t enough.   Because so much of the teaching/learning work we do happens outside of the classroom setting, teaching methods alone won’t give us the coherence or the big picture we need to be effective.

She also argues for a broad, inclusive definition of information literacy.  Based on the the UN’s Alexandria Proclamation on Information Literacy and Lifelong Learning, the definition she favors includes that stuff in the standards-based definitions, but “goes on to make explicit what is implied in the other definitions by emphasizing the democratizing and social justice elements inherent in information literacy.”  This broad definition, she says, forces an understanding of information literacy that has to extend beyond the classroom.

Which brings us to the crux of the paper’s argument:

What I am suggesting is that the dialogues we have surrounding information literacy instruction strive to find a balance in the daily and the visionary, the local and the global, the practices and the theories, the ideal and the possible. One of the ways we can begin to do this in our daily teaching lives is to work toward creating habits of mind that prioritize reflective discussions about what it is that we are doing when we ‘do’ information literacy. This means thinking about pedagogy and talking about how we might work toward making the global local, the visionary concrete, the theoretical practicable, and, perhaps, the ideal possible. But how can we, as individual librarians, begin to work toward making information literacy ideals possible?

She argues that letting external standards, or quantitative measures, or standards-based rubrics define what we “do” when we do information literacy is not the way to go.  Not only will that keep us from understanding IL in that broad way advocated here, but it also reinforces an old-school, disempowering vision of education itself – Paolo Friere’s banking metaphor – where the teacher deposits knowledge among the students.

Finally, she gets to the argument mentioned in the abstract, that composition and rhetoric offer a lot to librarians trying to figure out how to understand information literacy in broader contexts.  She points out that the rhet/comp literature pushes back on the idea of standards-based assessment or pedagogy.  For one thing, this kind of approach makes it that much harder to really critically interrogate the assumptions underlying the standards or models themselves.

Which brings her to praxis:

Praxis — the interplay of theory and practice — is vital to information literacy since it simultaneously strives to ground theoretical ideas into practicable activities and use experiential knowledge to rethink and re-envision theoretical concepts.

She points to a particular article from the rhet/comp field, Shari Stenberg and Amy Lee’s College English article Developing Pedagogies: Learning the Teaching of English.  Drawing on Stenberg and Lee, Jacobs argues that we must develop ways to study our actual practice as texts, our teaching as texts.  She further argues that most of what we do when it comes to pedagogy is articulate different visions of it – visions that are not grounded in what practitioners actually do.

Beyond this, she argues that we need to study these things together, have critical, reflective conversations together about what it is that we do.  At the heart of this is the idea that teaching can’t be mastered, that developing our understanding of what we do is an inherently ongoing process.

And here’s the thing – I really like all of what she has to say here.  I do find it interesting that given the large body of literature on reflective practice she doesn’t draw from that, but what she says is consistent with the parts of that literature I like so overall, I don’t mind.  But here is where she ends.  She’s made the case for reflective practice and reflective conversations, for reading our practice like texts – but she doesn’t go on to the how of things.

Partly, because she refuses to do so:

For these reasons, I resist offering answers, solutions, or methods to questions about how to engage theory and practice within information literacy initiatives.

But recognizes that this is frustrating:

At the same time, I acknowledge that refusing to provide answers to questions such as “how do I teach information literacy” or “how do I become a reflective pedagogue” or “how might I foster a reflective pedagogical environment in my library” often seems evasive and counter productive.

She argues that librarians should engage in reflective dialogue, and that they should in effect walk the walk in front of their students – that the best way to get students engaged in the learning process is for teachers to be engaged in it as well.   That teachers should interrogate their own assumptions about their own learning process, examine why the set the problems they set, be engaged in their own learning process as they would want their students to be engaged.  To encourage students to develop their curiosity, to set meaningful problems for themselves to investigate – librarians should do that too.  Especially when it comes to their own practice.

But again, no how.  And I will admit I don’t find the “articulating this for you would be against what i am arguing” to be unsatisfying.  Because I don’t really think that Jacobs is letting us see her process – I don’t think that she is letting us see her walk the walk.  I see her problem-setting on a personal, engaged level – but instead I see her telling us that there is a problem, arguing that in very traditional, very objective scholarly language, and then positing a solution to the problem that doesn’t fit in that rhetorical structure.  It’s late, and I’m tired, and I will defintiely accept that I didn’t catch something that is here – but I don’t think that personal engagement is here.

Don’t get me wrong, one of the things I like about the article is what I do see of Jacobs’ passion for this subject, her ability to draw connections and connect the dots.  But I want to see her reflecting on her practice – as a teacher, maybe and as a scholar certainly.  I think that would have allowed her to be true to her “no prescriptive reflection recipes” principles, while still offering something more satisfying than “creative, reflective dialogue.”

Perhaps my perspective is skewed, though, because I am increasingly starting to believe that showing students how we use the tools we describe in our own research and scholarship is the best way to communicate their value.  I do think that modeling what we preach is crucial.   So I may be glomming onto what is a less important part of her overall argument than I would have you believe.

Still, my favorite part of this article is buried in footnote 59 – where she can’t resist weighing in with some ideas.  And I find the peek into the reviewing process entirely charming:

59. The question of how to go about enacting this creative, reflective dialogue is undeniably pressing. In response to this piece, an anonymous reviewer asked a crucial question: “am I simply to include more problem based learning into my teaching of information literacy, or do I need to start from scratch and sit alongside the classes I work with, understanding how they think, and walking with them on their path to critical thinking and information literacy. God please give me the time for this.” The reviewer concludes, “However, this is perhaps the nature of the reflective activity the author is recommending.” Indeed, the answer the reviewer provides to his or her question is the answer I too would offer. The act of asking questions such as the ones quoted above is precisely the kind of reflective activity I am advocating. Pedagogical reflection does not mean we need to dismantle and rebuild our information literacy classes, programs, and initiatives from the ground up (though we may, after reflection, choose to do so). Instead pedagogical reflection means that that we ask questions like the ones quoted above of ourselves and our teaching and that we think critically and creatively about the small and large pedagogical choices we make.

DIY research

Not learning to do stuff from tutorials, though that’s where this started, but more thinking about tutorials by looking at tutorials.

It has been a couple of weeks, but I finally had some time to take a look at the backlog in my “arts and crafts” folder in Google Reader and one of the things I found there was this Top 100 Tutorials of 2008 post at The Long Thread blog.

Rachel and I have talked before about crafty or DIY tutorials because we both like to do crafty and DIY things so we run across a lot of them.  And with Karen we talked about crafty tutorials in the context of library tutorials for a bit.

But this Long Thread post got me thinking about that topic again – because I’ve been thinking about tutorials lately in my job sometimes in ways that I find fun, and interesting and sometimes in ways that just make me tired.

A lot about library tutorials makes me tired.  I get tired because the process of making them and maintaining them can quickly get so big.  I get tired because Camtasia doesn’t work on my Mac,  And I get tired using Camtasia and Captivate anyway.  I get tired because you can spend all this time making them and then you’re still left with the even more complicated question of how to get people to actually use them.

So I think it’s actually interesting to look at this crafty community, to look at DIY tutorials and think about what tutorials mean in a context where the basic assumption is that people do want to learn how to do this stuff, that they are interested, that they do want to do some of the work themselves.  I have looked at almost all of the tutorials on this list, though I won’t claim that I’ve seen every one of the 100 and there are some common threads that are interesting to think about –

(yeah, I didn’t really mean to say common threads there)

#1.  They’re kind of at the point of need.  They’re kind of not.

There’s no discussion here about how to get these tutorials into someone’s knitting bag or onto someone’s sewing table.  The expectation is that people will find them in their normal information flow, that they will get pointed to them by crafty friends, or on blogs they follow.  Or, that they will find them on the web.

The former thing, I think about a lot. Without a lot of success.  The latter thing, though, I think is something to think about – how searchable are our tutorials?  Do our students even think to use Google as a strategy when they don’t know how to do something?  I’m really asking – is that how they go about answering those questions?  When I need to know how to do something that’s not clear in the directions I have, whether it’s a tool thing, or a software thing, or a cooking thing, my first step is usually to search (Google Reader, Google or delicious) for an answer.  I would imagine that is not a generational thing, but I don’t know.  Are there students out there Googling “how do I find peer-reviewed journal articles?”  or “how do I find newspaper editorials?”

(plus side, by putting those phrases in this post, if they are searching for those things I should start seeing similar phrases in my referral logs soon)

And if they are, what are they finding?  Are our tutorials and modules and how-to’s findable?  Let’s see.  Trying search strings instead of keywords – if I try:

“how do i find op ed pieces using lexis-nexis”

Two of the top four results are from Lexis-Nexis itself.  Includng this one which is #1 and right on point.  Not surprising, and not bad.  The first library result is high, at #3.  It’s from Duke and it’s a more general page about finding periodicals online.

But I don’t think many students would actually phrase a search in this way.  Maybe if they could cut and paste from their assignment guidelines and their assignment guidelines pointed them to Lexis-Nexis.  So how about if we make it more general –  “lexis-nexis” becomes “newspaper databases”  and “op-ed pieces” becomes “editorials.”

“how do i find editorials in newspaper databases”

This time, a page from UT-Austin comes in at #2, and it is quite useful.   There are two other library pages in the top 5 – UNLV at #4 and Long Island University at #3, but in both cases the page in question is simply a list of newspaper databases.

Still, this search requires the user to be pointed to databases, or to know that these sources are likely to be found in newspaper databases.  Here’s the search I actually think is most likely:

“how do i find editorials in newspapers”

Nothing comes up here. The whole first page of results is pages explaining what editorials are, or how to write them.

I have more examples looking for how-tos on finding peer reviewed articles or citing sources, but they don’t really suggest anything different.  I’m putting the searchability question on the list of stuff to think about more.  That seems to be important on a couple of levels – if people are already using this strategy to find out how to do stuff, and we’re not findable there that’s an issue.   If our students aren’t using this strategy, they should be.  But we should make sure they’ll find the stuff we make there first.

#2.  They’re all about how to make something.

This might seem obvious but a lot of our tutorials aren’t about how to make something.  They’re about how to do something that will then let you make something.  So this is both a “how these tutorials are different than ours so we should be careful about drawing a lot of parallels” – and a “maybe there’s another way to think about our tutorials”part.

There are tons and tons of “how to do this thing” tutorials out there in the world too.  The fact that none of them are on this list means that the list is really more about the products that you can make with the tutorials, not the quality of the actual tutorials.  But I think it’s worth thinking about how we conceptualize and present some of our tutorials as well – can we identify some things that our users want to make/ need to make and present the tutorials as a “how to” in that way?

Which connects to -

#3.  These usually assume some knowledge on the part of the user.

In other words, these aren’t “how to sew a skirt if you’ve never seen thread” tutorials.  They are tutorials on how to make stuff for people who already know how to make other stuff using some of the same techniques.

A really extreme example of this is in this tutorial to make these:

The full set of instructions for these bookmarks is this:

I glued little craft floss hair-dos on them and then stuck pipe cleaners in their heads, used more glue to make a felt pipe cleaner sandwich and then whipstitched around the edge.

Now, that is kind of excessively brief, but most of these tutorials assume they can give directions like “whipstitch” or “use your zipper foot” or “use a long-tail cast-on” or “straight stitch” without having to explain every one of those terms.

Which is something I think we can think a lot more about in libraries.  On a couple of levels.

First, is the letting stuff go level.  I think we do have a tendency to think that the tutorials we create have to be complete and comprehensive.  Or maybe this is just in my library.  But the truth is that even though we usually pull back from it, in our conversations about the smallest learning objects we initially start having conversations that do this – “but to do X they will need to know A, B. and C.”  There’s a couple of linked assumptions there – that they will never click on or search for more help at this moment, and that they might never come across our help again after this one time.  I think we mostly know now that we have to let stuff go so that we can focus on real learning of the stuff we do have time to teach or cover.  But it’s hard.

On another level, though, our students do spend a lot of time finding stuff using online tools.  They do have transferable skills – we can assume they know some stuff.

Back to the craft people, they are also on the Internet.  So even if you use an instruction like “whipstitch” and Annie the Sewing Newbie doesn’t know what that means, she’s on the Internet and and Google will find something that will tell her what it is/ show her how to do it.  Which is another reason why the concept of making our tutorials as findable as possible is interesting.

Which leads to –

#4 – They are presented using social tools

Almost every single one of these tutorials is a simple combination of blog post + pictures.  No fancy video, or branching, or audio involved.  I do think this relates to the “people want to use this stuff” assumption that these tutorial designers have.  They are not focused on building in cool bells and whistles to engage the users because they can assume their users are already engaged.  So they can use the power of today’s social tools to get stuff up there fast.

But even the tutorials that are presented as PDF files are usually delivered via a blog post.  Which means that the people using the tutorials can ask questions.  So you don’t have to explain every step as if the person will never get any other help ever – they can ask you for it, or they can get that help from the other people who have used the tutorials.

For example in the comments to this tutorial, the comments include several from other other crafters answering a question that the original poster had about the project.

Beyond this, many of these projects develop a second life on Flickr – where a lot of different people can show what they did with the basic concept suggested in the tutorial.  This also has implications for library tutorials, I think.  Given how complex and dynamic and personal research is, the idea that other users can show how a different application of a basic concept can lead to different resultsc could have a great deal of utility.

As an example of this, in this tutorial (PDF) about making a fabric-covered charging box for your devices, there is a note to add final projects to the author’s flickr group.


Which connects still further to this -

#5 – There’s value added.  They do some of the work for you.

So these tutorials are made for people who already know how to do some stuff, and really, there are a lot of tutorials out there that seem kind of obvious.  Even on this list of the top 100 there is this tutorial for adding patterned paper to a clear iPod case that seems like it defies the need for instruction.  But there are two things to keep in mind here.  One is that sometimes all we need is the idea – but that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth telling people about the idea.

The other is that most of these tutorials add some value by doing some of the more fiddly work of crafting for you.   There are a lot of tutorials here where I could figure out how to make the thing myself, but it is really nice when someone else has already done all of the necessary math for me:

Hobo lunch bag tutorial (Sewing Notions)

I don’t know how to apply this to libraries, but I think there has got to be some things out there where we could present tutorials on – here’s how you make this thing, and we’ve already figured out some of the fiddly parts for you.

Anyway, it’s not surprising that -

#6 – a lot of the time, they’re marketing tools

The Purl Bee is a great example of this.  This is an upscale fabric and other crafts store in NYC.  There are tons of useful, cute tutorials on their store website – all helpfully linking users to the materials they will need to make the things in the tutorials, which are all available from… The Purl Bee.

materials list for the Bias Tape Bib from The Purl Bee

For this pattern for a Quick Bias Tape bib, there are direct links for four different items that you will need to make the (adorable and easy) bib.

For everyone like me who sees a pattern on the Purl Bee site and thinks “wow that is exactly what I need to make something out of that piece of fabric I bought in San Francsico in the 1990’s” there are probably a whole lot more who think “must buy fabric from Purl Bee now.”

That’s something I think we could definitely do  – create things we could link from our homepage that tell people how to do things we know they want to to do.

However –

# 7 – These are created in the context of an existing community

Even if we have blogs, I don’t think we have a lot of readers.  Even though we have a ton of visitors to our web sites, I don’t think we have a lot of people tracking the changes on those sites.  Relying on our students to point each other to our tutorials seems unrealistic no matter how useful they are.  This one bears more thinking about.

Now, I have big plans to go make reusable fabric versions of all of the gift bags I will need for the next year.   Unfortunately (or luckily) obligations at Midwinter may prevent obsessive crafting from happening, at least immediately.

on tag clouds and teaching

Inspired in part by a conversation from the Information Literacy Summit last week, and in part by this post from the awesome David Silver, we made tag clouds in my class this morning.  U-Engage is a first-year experience class, providing an introduction to what a research university is in general and to OSU in particular.  There are 100 students in the section I teach (actually, there are somewhere around 90) and the room is a classic, old-school lecture hall.

The size and the room make the course difficult in terms of planning engaging activities for the lecture time (the assignments and recitations are a different story – I think they’ve had lots of interactive activities there).  This has been compounded by the fact that most of the course content in the middle of the term has been delivered by guest lecturers.  I’m co-teaching the class and both of us have been feeling that we really wanted the last few weeks to be interactive and engaging because we have been kind of on the sidelines for so long.

My co-teacher had a brainstorm for last week’s activity, but we still didn’t have anything ready for this week – the final week before their group project presentations.  The textbook wasn’t inspiring.  There is some great information about the value of reflection (which has been a theme throughout the course), and on goal-setting but that stuff didn’t lend itself well to the kind of activity we had in mind.  Reflection and goal-setting kind of needs to be personal to be meaningful the way these things are presented in the text, and we wanted something social and collaborative.

So at the IL Summit my husband Shaun talked about how he has an assignment requiring students to pull keywords out of the readings they do.  It was fascinating to hear about that because his students’ difficulties finding keywords in many ways mirrors the difficulties we see students having in the library when it comes to choosing keywords.  But because he is working from a known thing “what are the keywords that the author uses that capture the key ideas in THIS TEXT” he has an advantage we don’t – it seems like that would work way better as a first step than what we frequently have to do – “try and predict what words authors will use in this discourse that is entirely or almost entirely unfamiliar to you.”

In his presentation, Shaun mentioned that he is still working on ways to make the larger class discussion about the keywords work better, and I thought about David’s post above.  But it wasn’t until I was working at the reference desk on Saturday that it all came together in my head – collaboration, social, keywords and tagclouds.

So here’s what we did – I demonstrated Wordle because, like David, I expected that most of the class wouldn’t know what a tag was and by extension, wouldn’t know what a tag cloud was.  I wanted to get two ideas across:  the idea that the tags needed to be single words or at most two-word phrases, and the idea that the tags would display larger if they were used more often.

(I also thought that Wordle would be of interest to some of the class, that it might come in useful for its own sake in their final projects, and that some of them might find it a useful study tool).

Then we asked them to come up with 5 keywords that described their first term/ transition to college and write a reflective paragraph about that.  Once that was done, we go to do the social part.  We had them get in groups of 4-5 and create a tag cloud out of all of their keywords.   This is why it was important to me to make sure the concept of “more use = bigger text” was clear.  To do that right, they would need to talk about their keywords, what they had in common, and if they maybe chose slightly different words to get at the same concept.  These small groups also had to come to consensus on five “group” keywords.

Looking at the group keywords after the fact, I was surprised that a lot of the groups seemed to put together their five not by choosing the five most “popular” keywords (the ones used by most people) but instead that they tried to choose one of each group members’ keywords.  I think this makes sense when the assignment is as personal as this – if they were trying to choose keywords that would reflect the meaning of another person’s text, I would expect this might be different.  In addition, some groups used keywords for their “group” keywords that didn’t appear on any of the individual lists.

ETA – we took pictures -

uengage1

Then, each group had to send one member to the chalkboard to come up with a group tagcloud, using the chalk that was available.  On one level, this would ideally take a while as the groups compared their five words and decided how best to represent them.  In practice, it didn’t work out that way, but I think that the way it did work out was better.  As it turns out, there was very little overlap in terms – in fact, there was less overlap in the group terms than there was in the individual terms in one sense.  So while there were a few terms that should probably have been bigger because lots of groups had them, there weren’t many like that.

ETA – more pictures -

uengage31

Secondly, even though there were 14 or 15 people up at the board making the tagcloud (remember – there were about 75 people in class, and the small groups were only 4-5) that meant there were still WAY more people than that still sitting in the lecture hall seats.  This means that every minute the representatives spent figuring out the “right” way to make a tagcloud was a minute the vast majority of the class had to be dis-engaged.

So instead, people talked some and made some words bigger because they were repeated.  But they also made some words bigger because they were the words that the smaller group had felt were the most important.  And there’s a validity to that, and a meaning to that, that I don’t think our original plan had captured.

ETA – last photo –

uengage21

All in all, I was pretty happy with how the exercise turned out.   I think this kind of exercise could have been especially effective earlier in the term, before the students knew each other as well as they do now – to humanize the 100-student classroom environment.  And on that note, I think this kind of exercise would work really, really well in library instruction sessions as well.  Combined with Shaun’s idea above about pulling keywords from a text, or perhaps using keywords generated another way – it’s a safe, collaborative way to talk about the connections between ideas and the terms we use to describe those ideas.

And isn’t that the big picture philosophy behind keyword searching – I mean, isn’t that the fun part?

Finally, I have to say that we could have just had each group representative put their terms into wordle – but I don’t think that would have worked as well.  I think the physicality of the chalkboard and the actual social/cognitive act of having to do themselves what the computer does for us was important in making this engaging.  In this case, the sheer number of people involved and the limited time we had meant that some got more out of it than others – and the chalkboard session had more of a free-for-all feel to it than a Deep Thoughts feel.

This also seems like a great way to connect class work/ reading with library session work.  I think we all feel like the “teach how to drive the databases” one shot feels disconnected from the learning that goes on in class in a way we don’t like.  We talked after the Summit about building in some keyword exercises in our beginning composition classes, at the start of the term in the non-researched papers, and using those keyword exercises to get at the critical reading piece that Shaun talked about with his assignment.

I think that’s a great idea on its own, but I also think that then building from keywords there to keywords while exploring ideas and finding your own sources might draw a connection between the idea of critical reading, writing and research — all of the pieces of the course.   With the tagcloud exercise, it’s easy to think of ways to do that in the disciplines as well – a pre-library session assignment identifying keywords from a class text, a library session tag cloud of that text and another of the student keywords.  And so on and so on and so on, leading up again to student-generated tag clouds representing ideas about research and suggesting pathways they can use to research about ideas.

showing not telling

I’ve been working today on a presentation for next week – not a typical conference or workshop presentation, but a presentation for a class I’m teaching. I thought I was thinking of it more like a presentation than like teaching because the environment I’m teaching in here is so different than the environment I’m used to – 100 students, lecture-style classroom – very different than the 20 students/ hands-on workshop that I’m more familiar with.

Today, though, I’ve been realizing that I’m thinking of it more like a presentation as much because of the content I have to cover as anything else. AND – because I’m thinking in terms of ‘coverage’ – which is not only something I don’t usually have to do, but also a focus I usually find myself arguing against. So I had to think about it – why am I thinking about coverage now?  Why am I thinking about the stuff I want to introduce more than the stuff I want students to be able to do when they’re done?

On Monday, I need to talk about college student development theory.  Part of this is to supplement their textbook’s super-brief description of Chickering’s seven vectors of college student development, because all of the 700 students (our section + six others) are supposed to apply that model their midterm paper. Part of this is to introduce the concept of theories and models, what they means for academic discourse, and what it means to use theory critically. The following Monday, I need to talk about critical thinking. For fifteen minutes.

So, the thing is, there really isn’t anything concrete that I want them to be able to do – or, there’s nothing specific that I want them all to be able to do. I don’t really want to break down critical thinking, or what theory is, and have them take the first step in this class – which is the only way I can think about active learning in this case.  That might be a limitation on my part, but there it is.

Because a huge piece of these topics, a huge issue that I actually do want to communicate to the students, is that no one can make these students (or anyone) take theory seriously and apply it to practice.  No one can make them think critically – even if they have all of the skills and understandings necessary to do those things they can still choose not to do them and there is nothing that I, or anyone else, can do to change that.

Take this paper assignment.  Yes, we can require them to read about Chickering’s seven vectors, we can require them to understand them well enough to write about them.  We can even require them to write a paper about their own connection to that theory — but we can’t make them do it for real.  We can’t force them to reflect.  We can’t require them to be honest in their analysis and application.  They can make up every specific example from their own lives and there is truly nothing that we can do about it.  And, to be sure, doing so successfully would exhibit some high-level critical thinking and creativity skills, but it wouldn’t get at everything we want to get at here.

On at least one level, this is what the content itself is all about.  College student development theory is, in a very real way, describing the process by which students get to the point where they can do those things not just because they can, but because they want to.

So, what I’m thinking is that the issue isn’t how to figure out active learning exercises for teaching these topics.  On some level, the papers and projects in the class are the active learning experiences – and they are active learning experiences that give the students a lot of freedom to do these things in a way that makes sense for them.

No, what I’m thinking is that the best thing to do is to acknowledge up front that no one can make them use this stuff.  Correction – no one can make them meaningfully use this stuff.  Acknowledge that up front, and keep the focus of the presentation on why it’s useful to me.  Why I like it, how I use it, how other scholars use it and why it’s useful.  After all, if we’re going to ask them to be honest and reflective, it seems only fair to provide them with a little of that in my own presentation.

Oddly, I’m fairly comfortable with this focus, even though it means I’ll be talking for quite a while on Monday.  Of course, I have plenty of places where I can ask them questions and check in with them, but still it’ll be a lot of me-talking.  And I’m sure part of the class will never engage with what I say, no matter how many cool pictures and analogies I use to supplement.

All of this has me thinking as well about library instruction.  In a lot of cases, we do teach the stuff that we can (kind of) require people to do – we can require people to find articles using databases.  No matter how resistant they are, if they go through the steps and the exercises, they’ll learn something about how to do that.  It’s easy to come up with concrete, “what I want them to be able to do,” learning outcomes for that stuff.

But there are also these bigger picture questions we would like them to start thinking about, and start applying to their own lives, their own practice, and their own world view about how knowledge is communicated and valued.  And I realized, in those segments I do the same thing I’m doing here – I’ve stopped telling students that the quality of the information they’ll find in databases is inherently better, for example.  Or that the quality of peer-reviewed articles is inherently better.  Generally, I approach the “why you should use databases” piece as a demonstration, and from the perspective of “here some reasons why I use these tools or sources.  Here’s why I think they’re cool.”  It seems to work.  I’m certainly more comfortable with that approach, and they seem to be open to hearing the message in this way.

Which gets me rethinking some of these ideas about coverage.  Certainly, there are lots of situations where we value coverage over learning.  The whole idea that if I mention 10 topics in an hour, they’ll somehow learn about 10 topics in an hour is bad and has to go.  But maybe the flip side is also unbalanced – if we try too hard to make everything about active meaning-making for them, do we leave ourselves out of the equation too much?  If learning is social, and I think that it is, constructing meaning together is a crucial part of that.  We know that when it comes to group work, and to peer groups.   But maybe showing why and how we care, why and how we really use the stuff we want them to use – isn’t the same as telling so much as another way of constructing meaning together?

liberation and library instruction – part 1 of ?

WorldCat recordI would really like to respond to this call for papers, and since abstracts aren’t due for several weeks I’m using it as  a reason to do some reading and re-reading.  Right now, it’s A Pedagogy for Liberation, a dialogue between Ira Shor and Paulo Freire.  This isn’t the most famous Freire, that’s undoubtedly Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but it’s one of my favorites because it is a dialogue — and they talk about the benefits of that format in language that’s very compelling – all about co-creating meaning:

Dialogue belongs to the nature of human beings, as beings of communication.  Dialogue seals the act of knowing, which is never individual, even though it has its individual dimension (p. 3-4).

And since I initially described this space as a place where I might do some pre-writing, and that concept is entirely tied up in the idea that doing that pre-writing in a place that is not my own head might be useful and valuable in a way that internal reflection is not — I’m going to indulge in putting some of the ideas this re-read is sparking down here.

I got through the first two chapters last night (and for the record, this book is very short, and very readable).  And I have mostly been thinking since about the question of motivation and what it means for libraries.  Freire and Shor agree that motivation has to be located in the here and the now of learning – not in some future benefit or some future activity.  Freire says, “I never, never could understand the process of motivation outside of practice, before practice (5).”  Shor echoes this with, “I’d emphasize that motivation has to be inside the action of study itself, inside the students’ recognition of the importance of knowing to them (6).”

I find this really compelling.  I also think is something I need to think about a lot more in terms of library instruction because much of the motivation we provide to students in library instruction sessions is “learn this and you’ll see the benefits at some later time.”  We deal with that in a limited and imperfect way by requiring that students have a research assignment that we can teach to, but that just moves the point at which the motivation kicks in a little closer.  It doesn’t actually put it in the here and now.

There’s a scene in Dazed and Confused where my favorite character Cynthia says “God, don’t you ever feel like everything we do and everything we’ve been taught is just to service the future?”  That line is why Cynthia is my favorite character and that line is what Freire and Shor are talking about here.  And that line really describes some of my anxiety about library instruction sessions, particularly those of the one-shot variety in basic skills courses that are themselves presented to students as disconnected from the “real” work they will be doing in the disciplines.

This puts the motivation two steps away, right?  Learn these basic skills so that you can perform well in later classes and you want to perform well in those later classes so that you can get a good job. Can we really blame students for feeling like nothing they do in school matters now, and can we blame them for resisting when they can’t see a direct line between the thing you’re teaching and that elusive “good job” goal down the line?  We need to give them something better, and I’m not sure what.

Or maybe I should say I’m not sure how.  I do think I have a sense of the what. I think we all have a sense of the what.  We teach this stuff because we find it intrinsically fulfilling, after all.   I talked about this briefly in the gaming post the other day, and I also talked around this concept today over at ⌘f — there is motivation to be found in research and learning.  Those processes are compelling and even fun.  But I don’t feel like I get there very often in my interactions with students – they may get there by themselves later because of something we did, but that’s not quite the same thing.

Freire and Shor argue that part of the process of finding this here and now motivation is not trying to do it alone.  In other words, by watching and listening to students and seeing what they are really doing, what they are really interested in, and what they are really motivated by, you can co-create a learning experience that will be compelling and motivating to all of the learners in the room – students and teachers alike.  I think there’s something in that for library intructors.

This means creating environments where students feel comfortable enough to act authentically and to show their true motivations.  The one-shot library session?  Probably not.  Maybe in the hands of a better or a different teacher than I am it could be, but I’ve never mastered the art of immediate (within 50 minutes anyway) relationship-building that would require.  But as librarians, we’re not limited to the classroom – we also have our libraries. And out in the library, I think, we might get some of the answers we need, if we’re willing to listen.