Category Archives: Information Literacy

A Conceptual Model for Interdisciplinary Collaboration

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Laura MacLeod Mulligan, M.L.S., Information Services Librarian, and Dr. Adam J. Kuban, Assistant Professor of Journalism, both at Ball State University.

Academic buzzwords such as “interdisciplinary” and “collaboration” get paid ample lip service in university administration strategic plans and current scholarship, but practically speaking it can be difficult to begin or sustain such a partnership. With strong faculty support, public services librarians can become embedded in courses, revise assignments, review student output, and assess student learning—playing a more meaningful role in the physical and virtual classroom. We wish to reveal our methods of interdisciplinary collaboration—specifically what has given it longevity and made it successful. From evidence grounded in aggregate literature and personal anecdotes, we have developed a conceptual model for effective collaboration that could apply to any interdisciplinary partnership.

Our conceptual model

Our own collaborative efforts began in January 2012 in order to revise the curriculum of an introductory journalism research course for undergraduates in the Department of Journalism at Ball State University. This ultimately led to the creation of an innovative, technology-based capstone exercise that exemplified the nexus of screencasts with library database instruction. We have also embarked on a research study that assesses the same students’ comprehension of information literacy concepts à la ACRL’s new Framework for Information Literacy. One of our current projects is a practical consideration of interdisciplinary collaboration (in particular between library professionals and faculty in the disciplines).

Scholars who collaborate rarely read literature about collaboration before they begin endeavors. Even if you wanted to brush up on best practices for successful collaboration, you would have to wade through case studies and data surrounding discipline-specific scenarios. We began this project with a conceptual model based on personal anecdotes (i.e., a “model-first” approach) simply because it is natural to begin with “what has worked for us.” Please see our full paper from the 2014 Brick & Click conference for a full literature review where we discuss trends and themes in the literature and make recommendations for further reading. As we read others’ stories and studies and noticed patterns in what led to successful collaboration, we looked for areas of support as well as additional attributes that ought to exist as elaboration to the initial model presented.

We identified and organized a non-discipline-specific conceptual model outlining the (1) workplace conditions; (2) qualities/attitudes; and (3) common goals that have enhanced our collaborative, interdisciplinary experience and could thus serve as a model for any faculty-librarian partnership. To help unpack the importance of these three facets, we sketched a visual depiction of it (see figure 1) and also shared personal anecdotes from our experiences (see table 1).

Conceptual model
Figure 1: Our conceptual model for successful interdisciplinary collaboration

Two of these elements can be controlled: (a) favorable attitudes and personality qualities toward interdisciplinary engagement and (b) common goals determined between the involved parties. The third element—(c) workplace conditions—is largely out of the collaborators’ control but still impacts the partnership. When all three facets come together, we believe successful collaboration can occur. In the event that one facet is absent or lacking, we believe that collaboration can still function but may be difficult to sustain.

Table 1. Qualifiers for a three-faceted conceptual model for successful collaboration

Workplace Conditions Qualities/Attitudes Common Goals
  • Regular communication
  • Standing meetings
  • Physical space
  • Administrative support
  • Cooperative—able to compromise
  • Equitable—respect for roles
  • Trust—perceived competence
  • Shared vulnerability—safe setting to explore, inquire & critique
  • Enthusiasm—desire to continue collaboration
  • Identify individual strengths
  • Select conference & publication venues that “count” for both, or alternate
  • Establish research “pipeline” & philosophy
  • Articulate/update timelines

Workplace conditions

Essential to our collaboration has been regular communication. Keeping a standing meeting throughout the year has given us at least an hour per week to touch base, bounce ideas off one another, strategize, delegate, and debrief ongoing tasks. Booking a conference room in the university library gave us a neutral space in which to talk, think, and work without distraction. Having a coffee machine, audio/visual equipment (including a projection screen and speakers), and a large table made us feel comfortable and well equipped for any task—whether it be critiquing student screencasts, sketching out a four-foot-by-eight-foot poster, drafting correspondence to journal editors, or working side-by-side on separate computers.

Arguably most important in this facet is apparent administrative support. We are fortunate to have current supervisors who embrace our collaborative endeavors, valuing it in subsequent reviews and evaluations. Without it, the interdisciplinary collaboration would likely end, as one or both would deem it too high-risk to continue.

Qualities/attitudes

We have found that if there are common emotional qualities, a collaborative relationship can remain collegial and productive. In our experience, the following stood out as ideal qualities: a cooperative and compromising attitude; respect for and equitable treatment of individual collaborator roles; trust in one another’s competence; ability to be vulnerable, open, honest, and willing to learn; and an enthusiasm for the projects pursued.

Collaboration among faculty and librarians sometimes results in the librarian acting in a supporting role to help execute the vision of a faculty member. In our collaboration, the roles are refreshingly equitable, leaving each person feeling like a co-leader. For example, Adam would not finalize student grades in his introductory research course without receiving feedback from Laura regarding their capstone projects (i.e., screencast database tutorials) in case there were incorrect aspects related to the library resources that she, as an information professional, could identify. This arrangement sustains the momentum and collegiality longer than a leader-follower partnership.

Common goals

While research styles and philosophies differ from discipline to discipline, we discovered that we share similar interests in information literacy, critical thinking skills, student engagement, and assessment driven by qualitative data. Projects stemming from these research interests have been undertaken more easily because of mutual pedagogical interests and shared research methods. We have been able to identify professional development activities that “count” for both of us, and we alternate the focus of activities to make for an even distribution. For example, after presenting at a journalism educators’ conference in summer 2012, we took a derivative of the material to a state library conference in fall 2012 to share our work with that audience. We’ve come to call this our “research pipeline,” and it keeps our activities equitable and interdisciplinary.

What’s missing from the model?

Once we had consulted the literature, one noteworthy qualifier emerged that deserves mention in an ongoing effort to conceive an evolving model that reflects effective interdisciplinary partnerships.

It seems oxymoronic that literature acknowledges the benefit of interdisciplinary scholarship, advocating that “it likely yields more innovative and consequential results for complex problems than traditional, individual research efforts” (Amey & Brown 30), yet institutionalized traditions within academia continue to stymie interdisciplinary efforts. Amey and Brown explain that graduate students who identify with a specific discipline spend years being socialized into that culture, being taught to maintain a particular research identity lodged within the confines of their discipline. In a qualitative study by Teodorescu & Kushner, untenured junior faculty understand the theoretical benefit from interdisciplinary collaboration but feel compelled to abstain from it until after tenure, viewing it as a high-risk activity. KerryAnn O’Meara, an associate professor of higher education at the University of Maryland, issues a call to action via an essay written for Inside HigherEd: “Let’s not assume all candidates must make their case for tenure and promotion based on one static, monolithic view of scholarship.”

Similarly, LIS programs may not adequately prepare their students for interdisciplinary endeavors. Kim Leeder notes that “librarians are not initiated into [their] fields in the same way that faculty are: by reading scholarship, identifying [their] own specific area(s) of specialization, presenting at conferences, and building a network of colleagues whose interests overlap.”

This phenomenon could fit under the Workplace Conditions (resulting from administrative attitudes out of our control) or the Attitudes facet of the model (where it impedes expression of vulnerability in an attempt to solve problems and work together toward solutions).

Conclusion

Postsecondary educators want students ready for an integrated marketplace. Programs of study require students to complete coursework outside of their chosen major(s). Experiential, immersive, and/or service learning are topics of discussion at conferences about college teaching. It seems that, as educators, we recognize the globalization of society and the overlapping nature of most occupations, and we want our students to have diverse, interdisciplinary experiences—thus it seems prudent to adopt a similar mindset for our own scholarly endeavors. We should set an example for our students, valuing efforts to “reach across the aisle” and emphasizing interdisciplinary opportunities.

We believe our conceptual model could assist others as they begin to embark on interdisciplinary initiatives. In time, facets and qualifiers will evolve, transforming the notion of what equates to successful interdisciplinary collaboration.

Facilitating student learning and engagement with formative assessment

Information literacy instruction is a big part of my job. For a little context, I teach somewhere in the range of 35-45 classes per semester at my small liberal arts college. While a few of the sessions might sometimes be repeats for a course with multiple sections, they’re mostly unique classes running 75 minutes each. I’ve been teaching for some time now and while I’m a better teacher than I was ten or five years ago or even last year, there’s always plenty of room for improvement of course. A few months ago, I wrote a post about reflection on and in my teaching, about integrating “more direct discussion of process and purpose into my classes […] to lay bare for students the practice, reflection, and progression that complicates [information literacy] work, but also connects the gaps, that brings them closer to crossing the threshold.” Each year, I’ve been devoting more attention to trying to do just that: integrate process and purpose into my classes to improve student learning and engagement.

It didn’t start out as anything momentous, just a little bit all the time. Initially, it was only a small activity here or there to break things up, to give students a chance to apply and test the concept or resource under discussion, and to scaffold to the next concept or resource. I would demo a search strategy or introduce a new database and then ask students to try it out for their own research topic. I would circle the class and consult individually as needed. After a few minutes of individual exploration, we would come back together to address questions or comments and then move on to the next resource, strategy, or concept. This appeared to be working well enough. Students seemed to be on board and making progress. By breaking a class into more discrete chunks and measuring the pace a bit, students had more of a chance to process and develop along the way. Spacing out the hands-on work kept students engaged all class long, too.

For some time, I’ve started classes by reviewing the assignment at hand to define and interpret related information needs, sometimes highlighting possible areas of confusion students might encounter. Students expressed appreciation for this kind of outlining and the shape and structure it gave them. I felt a shift, though, when I started asking students, rather than telling them, about their questions and goals at the outset of a class. Less Here are the kinds of information sources we’ll need to talk about today and more What kinds of information do you think you need to know how to access for this assignment? What do you hope that information will do for you? What have been sticky spots in your past research experiences that you want to clarify? I wanted students to acknowledge their stake in our class goals and this conversation modeled setting a scope for learning and information needs. We then used our collective brainstorm as a guiding plan for our class. More often than not, students offered the same needs, questions, and problems that I had anticipated and used to plan the session, but it felt more dynamic and collaboratively constructed this way. (Of course, I filled in the most glaring gaps when needed.)

So why not, I finally realized one day, extend the reach of this approach into the entire class? While scaffolding instruction with small activities had helped students process, develop, and engage, I was still leading the charge at the pace I set. But what if we turned things around?  What if, essentially, they experimented on their own in order to determine something that worked for them (and why!) and shared their thoughts with the class? What if we constructed the class together? Rather than telling them what to do at the outset of each concept chunk, I could first ask them to investigate. Instead of demonstrating, for example, recommended search strategies and directing students to apply them to their own research, I could ask students to experiment first with multiple search strategies in a recommended database for a common topic in order to share with the class the strategies they found valuable. The same goes for navigating, filtering, and refining search results or for evaluating sources and selecting the most relevant or for any concept or resource for that matter. Why not, I thought, ask students to take a first pass and experiment? We could then share ideas as a class, demonstrating and discussing the strengths and weaknesses of their tactics along the way, collaboratively building a list of best practices strategies. Students could then revisit their work, applying those best practices where needed.

This kind of experiment-first-then-build-together-then-revise approach is simple enough, but its advantages feel rather significant to me. It makes every class exciting, because it’s—in part, at least—unique and responsive to precisely those students’ needs. Of course I have a structure and goals in mind, prepared notes in hand, but it’s a flexible approach. While it’s not appropriate for every class, the low stakes/low prep makeup is readily applicable to different scenarios and content areas. The students and I are actively involved in constructing the work of the class together. Everyone has a chance to contribute and learn from each other. In particular, more experienced students get to share their knowledge while less experienced students learn from their peers. The expectation to contribute helps students pay attention to the work and to each other. Its scaffolded and iterative design helps students digest and apply information. Its reflective nature reveals for students practice and process, too; it models the metacognitive mindset behind how to learn, how to do research. I don’t mean to get too ebullient here. It’s not a panacea. But it has made a difference. It’s probably no surprise that this kind of teaching has required a degree of comfort, a different kind of classroom leadership, and a different kind of instinct that would have been much, much harder to conjure in my earlier teaching.

While I wasn’t aware of it initially and didn’t set out to make it so, I now recognize this as formative assessment. Not only do these small activities increase opportunities for engagement and learning, they serve as authentic assessment of students’ knowledge and abilities in the moment. They provide evidence of student learning and opportunities for action immediately. With that immediate input, I can adjust the nature and depth of instruction appropriately at the point of need. All in a way that’s authentic to and integrated in the work of the class.

The informality of this approach is part of what makes it flexible, low prep, and engaging. It’s such a rich site for documentation and evaluation of student learning, though. I want to capture the richness of this knowledge, demonstrate the impact of instruction, document students’ learning. But I’m struggling with this. I haven’t yet figured out how to do this effectively and systematically. Some formative assessments result in student work artifacts that can illustrate learning or continuing areas of difficulty, but the shape my implementation has so far taken results in less tangible products. At the ACRL 2015 conference a few weeks ago, I attended a great session led by Mary Snyder Broussard, Carrie Donovan, Michelle Dunaway, and Teague Orblych: “Learning Diagnostics: Using Formative Assessment to Sustainably Improve Teaching & Learning.” When I posed this question in the session, Mary suggested using a “teacher journal” to record my qualitative reflections and takeaways after each class and to notice trends over time. I’m interested in experimenting with this idea, but I’m still searching for something that might better capture student learning, rather than only my perception of it. I’m curious to read Mary’s book Snapshots of Reality: A Practical Guide to Formative Assessment in Library Instruction, as well as Michelle and Teague’s article “Formative Assessment: Transforming Information Literacy Instruction” to see if I might be able to grab onto or adapt any other documentation practices.

Do you use formative assessment in your teaching? How do you document this kind of informal evidence of student learning? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Teaching with Big Ideas: How a Late Addition to the ACRL Framework Might Make Us Rethink Threshold Concepts

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Eveline Houtman, Coordinator of Undergraduate Library Instruction at the Robarts Library, University of Toronto.

We see the Framework draft as a part of an ongoing conversation and an attempt to nudge our profession in a positive direction toward conceptual teaching. Threshold concepts gave the Task Force one starting place to think about big ideas in information literacy. As we all know, many librarians already take a challenging, big picture approach to content and have been teaching that way for years without threshold concepts or the new Framework.

From What’s the matter with threshold concepts? ACRLog Jan. 30, 2015

The notion of threshold concepts is at the heart of the new ACRL Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education, and has been since Draft 1. The notion has also been problematic to many librarians since Draft 1. (For an overview of the discussion, see Ian Beilin’s recent Lead Pipe article. For an earlier, in-depth critique, read Lane Wilkinson’s take on the topic.) I’d summarize my own position as a big yes to conceptual teaching, big reservations towards threshold concepts.

In the face of questioning and opposition, the Task Force did in fact soften the language around the threshold concepts in subsequent drafts – the original six threshold concepts became “frames” in Draft 2, for example, though each frame still contained a threshold concept. When I recently came to take stock of the final approved version of the Framework, I discovered the language was softened even further. Each frame, for example, now contains “a concept central to information literacy” (p. 2) rather than a “threshold concept.”

I also discovered this statement:

At the heart of this Framework are conceptual understandings that organize many other concepts and ideas about information, research, and scholarship into a coherent whole. These conceptual understandings are informed by the work of Wiggins and McTighe, which focuses on essential concepts and questions in developing curricula, and on threshold concepts. (p. 2) [I’m pretty sure that should read “informed … BY threshold concepts.”]

But wait, what? Conceptual understandings are now at the heart of the Framework? And when did the work of Wiggins and McTighe (2005) become a second major influence on the Framework, along with threshold concepts? Did I miss something? (Actually, yes, because it turns out the the changes occurred in the November 2014 draft and and I just didn’t notice. I blame a combination of busyness and Framework fatigue.) Was there any discussion of this late addition? Shouldn’t there be? After all, the threshold concepts were talked nearly to death.

Wiggins and McTighe’s book, Understanding by Design, focuses on the importance of drawing on core concepts or “big ideas” in order to teach for understanding. I suspect it’s been brought into the Framework at least partly in order to bolster the argument for teaching with threshold concepts (that’s how I see its use in the ACRLog post quoted above), though possibly also to signal the usefulness of their design approach in implementing the Framework. But are Wiggins and McTighe’s “big ideas” actually the same as threshold concepts? Do all our big ideas really need to be threshold concepts? What do Wiggins and McTighe have to say to us now that they’ve been placed in our Framework?

To start with, here are a few things they say about big ideas:

  • “A big idea is a concept, theme, or issue that gives meaning and connection to discrete facts and skills” (p. 5).
  • “Individual lessons are simply too short to allow for in-depth development of big ideas, explorations of essential questions, and authentic applications” (p. 8).
  • “Teaching for understanding must successfully predict potential misunderstandings and rough spots in learning if it is to be effective. Central to the design approach we propose is that we need to design lessons and assessments that anticipate, evoke and overcome the most likely student misconceptions” (p. 10).
  • “Teaching for understanding requires the learner to rethink what appeared settled or obvious” (p. 11).

These are all things that could be/probably have been said about threshold concepts. Here’s the thing though: in 370 pages, Wiggins and McTighe never once mention threshold concepts.

So the first big takeaway is that we can engage in conceptual teaching — we can teach with big ideas, we can address students’ stuck places, we can challenge students’ assumptions — without having to invoke threshold concepts. There are many librarians who have already been arguing this, and now their argument is bolstered by a work whose importance has already been recognized in the Framework. I don’t want to suggest that we need the Framework’s “permission” to teach without threshold concepts. At the same time, it means something to have the ACRL’s main pedagogical document acknowledge, if indirectly, that threshold concepts are not necessarily the be-all and end-all of conceptual teaching.

A second big takeaway is that if we’re wondering how to implement the Framework, we could do a lot worse than consult Wiggins and McTighe. In fact their design approach is likely to be very helpful in redesigning our instruction, learning outcomes and assessment around our big ideas. There’s a lot in their book to digest, and I’m only going to point out a few things that struck me.

  • Wiggins and McTighe connect their big ideas to core tasks, which is likely to be helpful as we connect the skills we still need to teach to the ideas in the Framework.
  • They connect their big ideas to essential questions that get students thinking about the big ideas. Here’s a Faculty Focus article that provides more information. And here’s Nicole Pagowsky with examples of essential questions related to the Framework.
  • They connect their big ideas to a purpose, such as understanding or connecting to other concepts. I occasionally get the sense in discussions around implementing the Framework that the purpose is to teach the frames. “How can we teach scholarship as conversation?” for example. Shouldn’t we also be thinking past learning the concepts to what students can do with the concepts? Maybe the scholarly conversation metaphor could help students think about their own writing (as in “They say/I say”). Maybe it could help them think about disciplinary discourses, or the effect of different academic cultures, paradigms and epistemologies on the conversation, or the role of social media in the scholarly conversation, or the effect of power relationships and gatekeeping on the conversation….

spiralA third takeaway (it’s part of design but worth pulling out on its own) is the idea that students will need to revisit the big ideas, not just over the course of a class but over the course of their curriculum, each time deepening their understanding of the ideas. This is the concept of the spiral curriculum (which Wiggins and McTighe explicitly invoke) advocated by John Dewey and Jerome Bruner. So elementary students can learn about information literacy at a level appropriate to them.  They can be taught to use Creative Commons licensed images. Students will spiral back to information literacy instruction at various points in their academic life, hopefully gaining a deeper understanding of the concepts each time. So early undergraduates can begin to learn about the scholarly conversation but their understanding will inevitably be limited because they just haven’t seen very much of it yet. Graduate students, who have begun to identify as scholars, who need to map who is talking to whom for their lit reviews, who want to figure out their own niche, will have a much richer conception of the scholarly conversation.

The spiral curriculum is a very different metaphor than the threshold that’s crossed once. I think it’s the more useful metaphor. While it doesn’t address all the diversity of our learners, it does take into account students’ growing knowledge, experience and abilities over their college years.

My fourth big takeaway comes out of Wiggins and McTighe’s assertion that “answering the “why?” and “so what?” questions … is the essence of understanding by design…. Without such explicit and transparent priorities, many students find day-to-day work confusing and frustrating”(p. 15-6). This reminds me of the challenge in a great Chronicle of Higher Education article (unfortunately paywalled) that I still go back to: “I am asking instructors to see the two questions that the new epistemology emblazons across the front of every classroom — ‘So what?’ and ‘Who cares?’ — and then to adjust their teaching accordingly” (Clydesdale, 2009).

The Framework is a pedagogical document meant for librarians. Obviously (to us) it contains big and important ideas. But it’s sadly lacking in answers to the “so what?” and “who cares?” questions. In much of our teaching, the answer to “so what?” has been “this will help you with your assignment.” But if we’re teaching with big ideas we need a bigger answer. Something along the lines of: “You need to be able to use information to learn, now and after you graduate. This involves ways of thinking as well as skills…. Here’s how this core concept will help you….” Okay, this needs work!

To go back to my beginning: after so many months of discussion, we all “know” that threshold concepts are at the heart of the Framework. But if we look at the final version of the Framework with fresh eyes, we can see they’ve been moved to the side, at least in part, opening new possibilities for the ways we teach with big ideas. I suggest we seize those possibilities and run with them.

Clydesdale, T. (2009). Wake up and smell the new epistemology. The Chronicle of Higher Education, 55 (20).

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. 2nd expanded ed. Alexandria,, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Reflections on the Job Hunt: Writing a Teaching Philosophy

As an LIS student graduating in May 2015, the job search is on my mind a lot these days. One of my more recent applications required a one-page teaching philosophy, in addition to a letter of interest and resume. Like many people that write a teaching philosophy for the first time, I have years of varied instructional experience but I often don’t take the time or space to do intentional, deliberate reflection of my teaching.

I think that ACRL’s recent decision to move forward with the proposed Framework, while simultaneously making a conscious stand not to rescind the Standards is more than relevant to this post. With that being said, I think there has been a multitude of brilliant blog posts on this topic, some of which have taken place on ACRLog. (For some of my personal favorites, see Meredith Farkas’ post, a reflection from Donna Witek, and a resource that Nicole Pagowsky shared).

Instead, I’d like to think more critically about why reflection is important, how it is often integrated into our daily lives (even if we don’t realize it), and what the construction of my teaching philosophy entailed. My hope is that this post might help other LIS students or recent grads in their journey to construct a coherent statement.

One of the reasons I like Twitter is that I am reminded daily about what other people in our field are doing, especially in relation to instruction. Many #critlib discussions have explored critical pedagogy and reflection. Now #moocmooc is exploring some of these topics in more depth while challenging participants to blog and reflect on their professional praxis. I’m personally hoping that these discussions will develop into a longer chapter on critical pedagogy and reflection or teaching assessment in an exciting work that’s still in progress.

One of the more recent #critlib conversations was about critical reference. Somewhat unsurprisingly, a lot of the conversation about how to do good critical reference also applies to instruction. Here’s one of my favorite tweets from that conversation:

critlib conversation

I understand that potential employers want applicants to write a teaching philosophy so that they can make sure the person is well suited for their institution’s teaching culture and set of values. But what I learned is that it does so much more than that. It makes your teaching more intentional and nuanced. When you have to sit down and really ask yourself questions like “Why do I care about or place value on this instructional method?” or “What are the big questions I ask in my classroom?” you become a more thoughtful teacher.

This might seem really obvious but I’m not sure I realized the true value of reflection until I actually did it. As librarians face more and more time constraints, I think that this is something good to keep in mind. Yes, it might take a few hours to hash out how you teach and why, but if it improves your practice and your interactions with students isn’t it worth it?

I’d like to give a tangible—albeit cheesy—example to illustrate what I mean. I try to attend a yoga class at least once a week. It gives me a space to decenter and relax while stretching and improving my posture and strength. One of my favorite yoga classes is a hot yoga session at a swanky yoga center in town. There are a few reasons I like the class. The heat intensifies my stress relief, they let you borrow equipment, and it’s a fairly small, close-knit space. But to be honest, the biggest reason I go out of my way to attend the particular session is because of the instructor. He starts every class by telling students that the session isn’t about replicating the exact pose he is doing. It’s more about how your individual body feels in the pose. In other words, he empowers students to do what they can without feeling shame about not being as flexible as their neighbor. He also solidifies the expectations of the class by saying upfront what the goals are and then he reiterates those expectations by giving modifications for each pose and talking about how your body should feel instead of how it should look.

I am, of course, living on a graduate student budget and I can’t afford to go to this expensive class every week. I decided to compromise by going to a much cheaper yoga session sponsored by the student recreation center every now and then instead. I went to my first session last week and quickly learned that the instructional techniques used there are very different. This instructor scolded students for looking at their neighbors’ pose for guidance instead of looking directly at him. He made students stop the flow they were moving in so that they could move to one side of the room and watch him demonstrate exactly how poses should be done. He never talked about modifications for those with limited flexibility or injuries. In short, he made the practice tedious and maybe even discouraged newcomers from practicing yoga again.

There are many things I learned from these two very different experiences (besides the fact that you get what you pay for):

  • Teachers are not the keepers of knowledge. They are there to facilitate, mentor, and encourage. Being a guide can often be more productive than being an “expert”. And why can’t teachers be both?
  • If both of these instructors would have reflected on not only their respective sessions but also their teaching philosophy and their goals when teaching yoga, there would undoubtedly be some improvement. (Maybe this is me being optimistic or naive, but I don’t think anyone intentionally tries to be discouraging).
  • Teachers reflect on teaching even when we don’t mean to. If that one experience informed my teaching, I know that reflecting more consciously would be even more beneficial.

This brings me to constructing my actual teaching philosophy. I tried to keep all of this in mind while doing so: what is important to me as a student, what good (and poor) experiences I have had with past teachers and why, and how a reflection might inform and represent my teaching. I searched for examples in many different places and asked my mentors to share their teaching philosophies with me. A quick Google search brings up an overwhelming amount of resources. There are many sample philosophies, checklists, and rubrics. If I had to simplify and just give a few pieces of advice, they would be the following:

  • Use examples from fields like rhetoric and composition. Sometimes it’s hard to find good library examples because our field is so diverse. Graduate students writing statements in these areas often have similar goals to our own (facilitating critical thinking, putting information in context, etc.) and I think we can learn a lot from them.
  • Be yourself! More than anything else, your energy should shine through. Think about how your lived experiences have guided your teaching practices and philosophy. Reflect on your role and why you believe in the importance of that role.
  • Give examples. Most of us can write all day about what we want to do in the classroom. But what do we actually do? How do the activities we create embody the concepts we want students to understand? This might seem harsh, but if you can’t give a practical, tangible example of how you teach a particular concept or philosophy, it might not be as important to you as you claim.

My philosophy is in no way perfect. I actually think of it as a living, developing document that I hope will continue to grow and change as I grow and change. Still, I think that sharing parts of it might help others are they are thinking about their own philosophy. Here are a few excerpts:

As an educator, my goal is to foster personal exploration, challenge critical thinking, and frame students’ experiences within larger societal issues. Multiple teaching experiences have taught me that this process only happens if students develop a sense of autonomy and accomplishment. My role, then, is less about being an expert who dictates content and authority and more about being a leader who guides students through learning in the context of their lived experiences.

 I am also an information expert with a tangible agenda for my classroom. The students of today are swimming in information, all of which differs in format, reliability, and means of production. Thus, today’s librarian teachers are facing a very different obstacle than the librarians of even twenty years ago. The challenge is not in teaching students how to find information, but instead in teaching them how to be critical, contextual consumers of the information they already have access to. Therefore, my role as an information expert shapes the way I teach the skills needed to understand the complicated relationship between knowledge, information production, and power.

My greatest calling as an instructor is to help students realize their responsibilities as citizens, consumers, friends, mentors, and ethical human beings. Teaching them not only how to be more information literate but also why it matters is the constant objective behind my instruction.

Have you written a teaching philosophy? How often do you revise it? What advice would you give to new librarians going through this process?

 

 

What’s the Matter with Threshold Concepts?

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Lori Townsend, Learning Services Coordinator at the University of New Mexico; Silvia Lu, Reference and Social Media Librarian and Assistant Professor, LaGuardia Community College, CUNY; Amy R. Hofer, Coordinator, Statewide Open Education Library Services, Linn-Benton Community College; and Korey Brunetti, Librarian at City College of San Francisco.

Recent conversations about ACRL’s draft Framework have raised questions about both the theoretical value of threshold concepts and their usefulness as applied to information literacy instruction. This post responds to some of the arguments against threshold concepts and clarifies why the authors believe that the model can be a productive way to approach information literacy instruction.

Threshold concepts aren’t based on current research about learning
Au contraire: threshold concepts are grounded in research on teaching and learning. The theory initially developed from qualitative research undertaken by education faculty as a part of the Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses project in the UK. The references for Meyer and Land’s initial series of papers on threshold concepts represent a well-rounded list of important thinkers in education.

That said, we understand why some might see threshold concepts as “old wine in new bottles” (as Glynnis Cousin puts it) (1). If you have a background in educational theory, threshold concepts may seem like a repackaging of other theories. Threshold concepts might even be understood as a shortcut through the theory thicket for those who don’t possess an advanced degree in education.

It’s also helpful to note that the threshold concept model works well when used alongside other pedagogical approaches. To provide just one excellent example, Lundstrom, Fagerheim, and Benson (2) used threshold concepts in combination with Decoding the Disciplines and backward design as a frame to revise learning outcomes for information literacy in composition courses.

Everything is a threshold concept
Another common objection has to do with the fuzziness of Meyer and Land’s definitional criteria (transformative, irreversible, integrative, bounded, troublesome) and the hedging language Meyer and Land use to articulate the criteria (probably, possibly, potentially). We see the use of these qualifiers as Meyer and Land’s way of saying: just because a proposed threshold concept doesn’t meet X criterion, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not a threshold concept. Along these lines, Wiggins and McTighe’s work is highly respected as a now-standard approach to curriculum design, but if you look at the chapter on “big ideas” in their classic work Understanding by Design, you’ll see similarly fuzzy, but still useful, language.

However, regarding these fuzzy definitional criteria, some have asked “How can probable characteristics be defining characteristics?” (3) Let’s look at a furry example: dogs. Do dogs bark? Do all barks sound the same? Are there dogs that don’t bark? Yet somehow, we can still identify dogs as dogs for practical purposes. Likewise, instructors can still identify threshold concepts because we possess professional and disciplinary expertise.

Arguing for the existence of threshold concepts that meet none of the definitional criteria is a rhetorical device, not a practical concern. Librarians are just not going to waste precious instructional time on nonsensical learning objectives that aren’t real teaching content.

Threshold concepts are unproven
Threshold concepts are an emerging theory. However, many disciplines have used them to effectively re-think curricula, including Computer Science and Economics. We maintain that much of the value of threshold concepts lies in encouraging instructors to re-engage with and re-examine teaching content. They are a wonderful catalyst to spark discussion among colleagues and encourage deep and creative thinking about instruction.

Nevertheless, some librarians are bothered by an approach that isn’t supported by a certain kind of evidence. There are many possible pedagogical approaches out there and we don’t have a stake in people adopting threshold concepts if the model doesn’t work for them. At the same time we can also ask, how much of what librarians do effectively in the classroom is supported by positivist proof?

To take one example, we don’t need a double-blind study to know that the Cephalonian method works in our classes. We know it works because students who came in slouching and checking their email are paying attention, sitting up straight, and asking their own questions. This is a form of evidence. Other kinds of evidence are forthcoming for threshold concepts (for example, we are slowly writing up the results of a Delphi study on threshold concepts for information literacy), but that does not mean we cannot use them now to improve our teaching.

Threshold concepts don’t address skill development
We want our students to demonstrate new skills and abilities based on our instruction. Which is to say, we want them to learn. Threshold concepts help us think about where students may encounter stumbling blocks in understanding difficult or transformative concepts that underlie skill development. Wiggins and McTighe’s big ideas share a similar aim:

What we are claiming, based on both common sense and the research in cognition, is that no skill can be integrated into a powerful repertoire unless the learner understands the big ideas related to using the skill wisely. (4)

We find it nearly impossible to teach a skill-based learning objective effectively if we don’t have a firm grasp on why it’s important because of its connection to an overarching concept. Students can smell busywork a mile away. And transferrable skills are the ones anchored in conceptual understanding.

Threshold concepts ignore the diversity of human experience
Threshold concepts have been characterized as monolithic dictates that impose one linear path to one correct understanding. In fact, threshold concepts leave room for variability for instructors as well as for learners

In applying the anthropological concept of liminality to learning, Meyer and Land imagine and explore a liminal space that learners pass through in the process of crossing a threshold. They write about how individuals will move through this liminal space in different ways, spend more or less time there, and experience affective dimensions of learning there. (5) As Silvia’s diagram below shows, some people encounter a learning threshold and walk right across; others will take a few steps forward and a few steps back before crossing; others will sit down in one spot for weeks when the threshold comes into view.

threshold
Learners do not start a course in the same place, nor do they learn at the same pace.

On the other hand, to suggest that student experiences are so fundamentally different that there are no common points of confusion is anathema to the possibility of curricular design. Moreover, what then would be the point of teaching and learning in communities? We can focus our teaching efforts by pinpointing the places where students are most likely to get stuck, without ignoring their differences.

Threshold concepts are hegemonic
Threshold concepts are not tools of oppression. Or at least, they may be so, but only to the extent that an individual practitioner using threshold concepts is oppressive.

Threshold concepts expose the tacit knowledge that we expect our students to absorb along with our stated learning objectives. This approach forces us to consider the implications of asking students to look through our disciplinary lens. For example, if a student wants to search the catalog using the keyword “drag queens,” you can imagine how well the Library of Congress subject headings reflect the current thinking on respectful ways to talk about this topic. Ignoring such an issue would implicitly validate the problematic subject terms. It is paramount to acknowledge the language problem and explain that the subject terms reflect the point of view of a certain group of people. We run into trouble when we don’t acknowledge our particular lens and act as if it’s the natural way to see the world.

Our disciplinary lens has scratches, deformed areas, and blind spots — all rich fodder for teaching and exploration — and yet it still offers something of value to our students. Admitting that we are asking to students to risk their identity and take a leap of faith with us as teachers is only being honest.

Threshold concepts require us to agree on all the things
Do we all agree on what constitutes our disciplinary content? Does every discipline share a unified body of knowledge? Threshold concepts don’t claim so. However, we all make choices when teaching. If you consider your content with the threshold concepts criteria in mind, it helps identify some things that might prove problematic for students and stall their learning, yet that are needed in order to move forward in their understanding.

Individual subject experts will have differing perspectives on their disciplines and will thus choose to teach different content, but there are transformative, irreversible, troublesome, and integrative moments along many strands of knowledge. Your curriculum doesn’t have to be identical to mine for both of them to include threshold concepts that challenge our students and enlarge their perspectives.

In conclusion
We see the Framework draft as a part of an ongoing conversation and an attempt to nudge our profession in a positive direction toward conceptual teaching. Threshold concepts gave the Task Force one starting place to think about big ideas in information literacy. As we all know, many librarians already take a challenging, big picture approach to content and have been teaching that way for years without threshold concepts or the new Framework.

Nobody asserts that the frames are The Only Frames forever and ever. So please, engage with them. Think of new ones. Rewrite them to fit your context and your students. Think hard about what you teach and how you teach it. We have interesting, transformative, transferrable content to teach and it is grounded in our own disciplinary area — threshold concepts or no.

And finally, it’s useful to think of threshold concepts as a model for looking at the content we teach in the context of how learning works. “…(A)ll models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be not to be useful.” (6) We’re less interested in breaking down the model and examining its component parts exhaustively than in trying it out and seeing if it’s useful. And then maybe tweaking it. For us, despite its flaws, the threshold concepts model continues to be useful. Your mileage may vary.

 

Notes:

  1. Cousin, G. (2008). Threshold concepts: Old wine in new bottles or a new form of transactional curriculum inquiry? In R. Land, J. Meyer, & J. Smith, (Eds.) Threshold Concepts within the Disciplines. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.
  2. Lundstrom, K., Fagerheim, B.A., & Benson, E. (2014). Librarians and instructors developing student learning outcomes: Using frameworks to lead the process. Reference Services Review, 42(3).
  3. Wilkinson, L. (2014, June 19). The problem with threshold concepts [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://senseandreference.wordpress.com/2014/06/19/the-problem-with-threshold-concepts/.
  4. Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  5. Meyer, J.H.F., and Land, R. (2008) Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (5): Dynamics of assessment. 2nd International Conference on Threshold Concepts, Threshold Concepts: From Theory to Practice, Kingston, Ontario, Canada.
  6. Box, G. E. P., & Draper, N. R. (1987). Empirical model-building and response surfaces. New York: Wiley, p. 74.