Since I was a high school teacher before I started library school, I’m finding it really hard to switch off my “teacher brain” even well into my second semester. This makes sense, considering that I want to become a teacher-librarian. However, it has also had an unintended side effect: I spend all of my time in class imagining how I would teach the course.
Hopefully this is the universe’s way of telling me that yes, school librarianship is my ultimate purpose here on earth. But it’s also led me to give a lot of thought to the teaching methods used in library school, not to mention experience a lot of frustration when those methods are antiquated. Librarianship is a field that lends itself naturally to self-directed inquiry, collaboration, innovation, and interactive, Web 2.0 styles of thinking. So I was dismayed to discover that while these terms are used a lot in library school, the format of my courses is based on a much older model of education where students acquire knowledge through rote learning and memorization.
To me, learning does not mean remembering stuff that you can regurgitate later. As award-winning educator Sir Ken Robinson points out, this model may have been useful in the Industrial Age where workers on assembly lines specialized in specific, repetitious tasks, but it does not serve 21st century purposes. The day-to-day realities of librarianship require “transferable skills”, such as the ability to collaborate with others, solve complex problems, deal effectively with patrons, and manage resources – the very skills that make an MLIS so flexible and useful.
Now, to a point, it’s our own responsibility to make sure that we acquire these skills. An MLIS is a packaged educational commodity that by virtue of its flexibility cannot be “one size fits all.” If our programs don’t suit our needs exactly then it should be our responsibility to hack them until they do. That’s why Hack Library School exists, after all! But at the same time, the library schools that provide this commodity also have a responsibility to ensure that their curricula strive to reflect the current demands of the profession.
I’d like to open up a dialogue with all of Hack’s loyal readers about teaching methods used in library school. My experience is limited only to my own program, and I am certainly not a professor. But nonetheless, I have strong feelings about this topic, as well as some ideas that might be effective. I’d also like to hear from you about aspects of your programs’ pedagogies that have worked especially well for you – or haven’t. So, without further ado…
Powerpoint Killed the Lecture Star
Now, I hate to bash the lecture format because I enjoyed lectures immensely during my undergrad and I still think that a well-delivered lecture is a thing of beauty. However, I did my undergrad in the days before students were checking Facebook and texting all through class. Not to mention the rise of Powerpoint, which in my opinion has had a disastrous effect on the lecture format.
Although Powerpoint has a lot of potential to augment lectures if used creatively, I can attest from my teaching days that it becomes all too easy to use it as a crutch. Instructors simply plug in their content and recite it word for word…and wonder why their students are playing Tetris on their iPhones. Another pitfall is that many instructors have a tendency to load Powerpoint slides with down with huge blocks of text. When students see this, they don’t read it, they just disengage.
Powerpoint also takes away all impetus for students to take their own notes; what’s the point of copying out a Powerpoint when the prof’s just going to upload it to Web CT anyway? But as it turns out, when students write notes by hand, they better retain the content. There’s something about the physical connection of hand to pen to paper.
An effective Powerpoint presentation uses minimal text (only for key points) and images that are relevant to the content. If a slide with a block of text is absolutely necessary, intersperse it with slides that have very little text to ensure variety. An instructor should then use the Powerpoint only as a jumping off point. I used to try to make my own presentations as bare bones as possible and just riff on them. Not having everything on the Powerpoint forced me to stay fresh and spontaneous in my speech. It also had the added benefit of making students pay attention to my voice (not just the screen) to get that necessary information.
Besides, why use Powerpoint at all? There are other, more engaging tools out there, like Prezi! And, low tech though it may be, sometimes a good old-fashioned whiteboard allows for the most spontaneity of all.
Length of the Lecture, Length of the Lab
Again, I can only speak to my program, but many of my courses last semester were structured so that we had two or three hours of lecture followed by an hour of lab work during which we were expected to apply the lecture’s principles. Although the professor would cover the important points in the lecture, I usually zoned out about halfway through – and I wasn’t the only one. Combine sitting for hours at a time with information overload, and you’ve got yourself a perfect recipe for student boredom. By the time I got to the lab, I was often stupefied – and lost. I figured it out in the end, but only after going back and teaching myself what I needed to know.
In the educational field, new developments in brain based learning show that students do better in subjects they struggle with when they do physical activity prior to studying those subjects. Obviously I do not expect a professor to install treadmills in the classroom, but it is easy to build simple causes for movement into a lesson. One way to do this would be to integrate the lecture and lab. Lecture a little, let the students try it out, lecture a little more, let the students try that out. Let them talk to each other as they work to figure it out together. That not only gives the students a chance to move around, it will help them to retain information and encourages them to collaborate, a skill they are going to need far more than the ability to memorize.
Which brings me to my last point: assessment.
“Congratulations Batch of 2013!”
As Jeff Jarvis points out in his Ted Talk, another issue with lectures is that they are very much based on the industrial model: “Turning out students all the same, convincing them that there is one right answer — and that answer springs from the lectern.”
When planning assessments, instructors need to take a step back and ensure that their assessments are meaningful. Are they assessing students in a way that measures their ability to do the interactive, collaborative work that lies ahead of them…or are they just looking for the “right answer?”
For example, there is no call for students to memorize facts and dates for a final exam in Reference Services that is closed book. If students do eventually become reference librarians, it will be highly unlikely that they will ever be in a situation where they can’t consult outside sources, check the Web, or ask another librarian for help when they are stuck. So why create an artificial test-taking environment completely divorced from a real-life context? Mostly because it adheres to the industrial model of education. An exam room of students all churning out the same exam answers bears a strong resemblance to an assembly line of workers all turning out the same product.
But what do such exams actually assess? Only a student’s ability to memorize and regurgitate. There are far better ways to tell if students know how to come up with creative, innovative answers to reference queries. Scrapping midterms and exams in favour of project-based instruction is one option. Or, if there must be an exam, make it a take-home exam. That way, it is the student’s process rather than their product that is assessed.
To Wrap Up…
Library schools aren’t the only ones trying to cope. Educators at the pre-school through graduate school levels are all trying to figure out how to address the issue of outdated educational paradigms. But in library school more so than in other contexts I have seen an antiquated system struggling, and often failing, to address 21st century educational needs. Fortunately, I have also seen library students taking the initiative to fill in the gaps and learn what they need to know. We can take it upon ourselves to create new methods of best practice in librarianship and information literacy instruction.
I’d love to hear from you. Which aspects of library school instruction have worked well for you in your own programs? Which haven’t? Feel free to respond in comments or tweet me at laurainthelib. Until then…happy hacking!