Tag Archives: information literacy standards

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.

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.

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.



  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.

“Sunrise, Sunset”: A Reflection on Assessment and the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Donna Witek, Associate Professor and Public Services Librarian at the University of Scranton.


Photo by Moyan Brenn on Flickr

When I first learned about assessment at the very beginning of my professional work as a librarian, there was one aspect of the process that made complete sense to me. I was instructed that an assessment plan is just that–a plan–and that it is not only OK but expected for the plan to change at some point, either during or after it’s been put into action.

Now, the specifics on how these changes happen, what are best practices in altering an assessment plan, and the relationship between the integrity of the assessment data gathered and any changes made, are all complex questions. I am in my seventh year working as an instruction librarian in an academic library, and I consider myself at best an engaged learner-practitioner when it comes to assessment–I am by no means an expert, and I offer this as a disclaimer as I share some thoughts on assessment and the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education [pdf].

In the years since I was first trained in basic assessment practices, I still find the recursive, cyclical nature of assessment to be the aspect of the process that legitimizes the rest. Learning is a messy process, and as instructors we understand that there are multiple ways to reach the same goal–or learning outcome–and that different learners learn differently. It could mean our approach to teaching (i.e., our pedagogy) needs to be adapted–sometimes on the fly!–to meet the needs of the students in front of us. Or, maybe the way I articulated one of the learning outcomes for an instruction session turns out to be way too ambitious for the scope of the instruction, and ten minutes in I realize I need to change the formulation of the outcome in my mind in order for my teaching and the students’ learning to harmonize.

What I love about the principle that an assessment plan is meant to be changed (at some point) is that it means the above scenarios are not failures, but part of an authentic teaching and learning process. This is empowering for teachers and students alike.

Now, it is my understanding that all assessment plans change eventually. In the case of an assessment plan that from the outset is harmonized perfectly to the learning context to which it is applied, it isn’t changed until the end of the assessment cycle, but it still changes and develops in response to the information (call it data if you’d like) gathered throughout the process.

At the end of this week and after almost two years of development and review by the profession, the Framework will be considered for adoption by the ACRL Board of Directors during ALA Midwinter. The Framework is not conceived as an assessment document, as it “is based on a cluster of interconnected core concepts, with flexible options for implementation, rather than on a set of standards or learning outcomes or any prescriptive enumeration of skills” (Framework [pdf], p.2).

This begs the questions: What is the relationship between the Framework and assessment? And how does this in turn relate to the revision task force’s recommendation that the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education be sunsetted in July 2016 (Board of Directors Action Form [pdf], p.3)?

Before I share some ideas in response to these questions, Megan Oakleaf offers to the profession “A Roadmap for Assessing Student Learning Using the New Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education” [pdf] (JAL 40.5 2014). I highly recommend reading Oakleaf’s roadmap, as my own ideas touch on many of the same points found in her “Ok, So Now What?” section, though I want to fold into the discussion the relationship between this process and the proposed sunsetting of the Standards.

Here I offer just one of many possible paths toward incorporating the Framework into your local information literacy instructional practice. It is a theoretical model, because it has to be at this point: the Framework is not yet adopted. As will hopefully be made clear, not enough time has passed for this model to have been fully implemented, though some libraries have begun the process. (1)

The first step I would recommend, based on evidence from libraries that have taken this approach and found it fruitful and impactful on both student learning and programmatic practices, is to read the Framework, both individually and as a group with colleagues in your instruction program, and through reflection and discussion identify intersections between the Framework and the information literacy instruction work you are already doing. (2) Rather than feel pressured to overhaul an entire instruction program overnight, instead use the Framework as a new way to understand and build upon the things you’re already doing on both the individual and programmatic levels.

If your current practices are heavily situated within the Standards, I think this exercise will surprise by unearthing the connections that do in fact exist between the Standards and the Framework, even as the latter represents a significant shift in our collective approach to teaching and learning. (3)

The next step would be to review your learning outcomes for individual instruction sessions in light of the Framework, to be inspired by the connections, and to be challenged by the gaps–and to rewrite these outcomes based on both your engagement with the Framework and your recent assessment of your own students’ learning using these outcomes. The cycle of assessment for learning outcomes tied to individual instruction is short–these outcomes can and should be reviewed and revised in the period of reflection that immediately follows each instruction session.

In many ways, this makes individual instruction the most immediately fertile context in which to use the Framework to be inspired and to transform your instructional practice, keeping in mind the complex concepts that anchor the frames require learners to engage them in multiple learning contexts throughout the curriculum in order to be fully grasped. Still, even a one-shot can incorporate learning outcomes that will help learners progress toward understanding of these concepts in a manner appropriate to the learner’s current level of training in a discipline or disciplines.

But what of your programmatic information literacy learning outcomes? What about the places where information literacy has been integrated into curricular programs within or across the disciplines? And what about those (fortunate!) institutional contexts in which information literacy is integrated explicitly into the learning outcomes for the institution as a whole?

The beauty of assessment, as I suggest above, is that it is cyclical. Just as all ACRL guidelines and standards undergo cyclical review, so too do our local assessment and curriculum plans–or at least, they should. As each assessment plan comes up for review, librarians who have been engaging the Framework in their individual instructional practice can share “upwards” their experiences and the impact on student learning they observed through that engagement, and so fold the concepts underpinning the Framework into each broader level of assessment.

In this way, the Framework’s influence will cascade upwards within a local institutional context according to a timeline that is determined by the review cycles of that institution. While the revision task force’s recommendation to the ACRL Board is for the Standards to be sunsetted a year and a half after the Framework’s recommended adoption, I would argue that it is in the spirit of the Framework for local timelines to necessarily trump ACRL’s: as long as librarians are engaging the Framework, both individually (in instruction) and collaboratively (as local assessment plans and curricular documents come up for review), and doing so in light of the information literacy instruction work your library has been doing since (or even prior to) the adoption of the Standards fifteen years ago, (4) then the worry associated with sunsetting the Standards on the national level will be eclipsed by the particular, robust influence the Framework is having on your own campus, with your own students.

And anyway, we do our best work when we’re focusing on the students in front of us. So, let’s get to work.



(1) Nicole Pagowsky shares the first steps of a similar process underway at the University of Arizona.

(2) The first example of this I’ve encountered is at Trinity College; librarians leading in different areas of Trinity’s information literacy instruction program presented at the 2014 Connecticut Information Literacy Conference their success with this initial approach to implementing the Framework (video and prezi).

(3) Amanda Hovious has created a helpful series of Alignment Charts for ACRL Standards and Proposed Framework, which represent one practitioner’s approach to connecting these two documents. I would argue that there are as many potential charts/models for connecting the Standards to the Framework as there are practitioners interpreting the meaning and content of each. It is for this reason I believe it was prudent for the revision task force to abstain from developing a model for alignment themselves, as such a model would run the danger of being wrongly interpreted as “canonical” because of its association with the task force that developed the Framework. That being said, Hovious’ charts are informed by her training as an instructional designer, and coupled with her notes for interpretation at the beginning of the document, represent a valuable perspective on how these two approaches to information literacy instruction relate. Another example that is equally compelling, in this case because the alignment is anchored to locally developed core competencies, is offered by Emily Krug, King University. It is compelling because it models (literally) the notion that information literacy is locally situated, by using King University’s core competencies as the concrete bridge between Standards and Framework.

(4) Barbara Fister offers an historical perspective in which she recalls the anticipated reception of the Standards when they were first adopted in 2000, and the remarkably similar conversations we are having now in relation to the Framework.

Scholarship as Conversation: The Response to the Framework for Information Literacy

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Jacob Berg, Director of Library Services at Trinity Washington University.

The Association of College and Research Library’s (ACRL) Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education (pdf) has gone through three drafts, and was sent to the ACRL Board of Directors for approval earlier this month.

It was possible to do an excellent job of teaching information literacy (IL) under the old Standards, and that remains the case. It was also possible to do a lousy job. Nothing has changed. The same is true of the Framework; some campuses will thrive under it, while others will not. In all these instances, neither the Standards nor the Framework was or is sufficient or necessary to successfully teach information literacy.

And yet the discourse around the third and final draft should make many academic librarians pause. Conversations in blog posts, listservs, and social media reveal straw men, ad hominem attacks, and a lack of understanding of educational psychology and pedagogy, among other issues. Observing these discussions, we should reflect on how we interact with each other to create knowledge regimes and epistemic communities (1). Here I will focus on blog posts.


In the last few months, we’ve seen an Open Letter from some New Jersey academic librarians, since signed by others, ask the ACRL to not sunset the Standards, as well as a fierce rebuttal from two academic librarians in New York City, among other works.

The former accuses the ACRL Framework Task Force of being “tone deaf to the politics of Higher Ed.” It also lacks any evidence of information literacy “success,” however defined.

  • What did information literacy look like in New Jersey academic libraries prior to implementing the Standards, and how have the Standards helped?
  • Who did these Standards work for? Librarians? Professors? Administrators? How, and why, or why not?
  • What would change in New Jersey under the Framework?

The answers to these questions go unmentioned.

In addition, the Open Letter mentions the political stakes for a shift from Standards to a Framework, but fails to show what those stakes are. I would very much like to hear more about this. (For what it’s worth, at my place of work I will spend my meager political capital elsewhere, as the administration prefers the American Association of Universities and Colleges IL rubric, and I believe there are many roads to information literate Damascus.)

Maybe the Framework is “tone deaf to the politics of higher education.” But maybe the politics of higher education are tone deaf to what educators, librarians included, are trying to accomplish in classrooms and on campuses. No doubt that politics is powerful, more powerful than academic library and information science (LIS) professionals, but given what I see of said politics, I’d much rather be against it than with it, and some push back is healthy.

Meanwhile, Ian Beilin and Nancy Foasberg mount a powerful defense of the Framework in a rebuttal to the Open Letter:

The Standards understand information as a commodity external to the student; something that can be obtained and subsequently “used.[i]” When we look at information in this way, we are thinking of information literate students as consumers who must choose among many options, like shoppers selecting goods from among those placed before them in the market. The Framework instead aims at a more social understanding of information and information literacy. Most notably, it uses the explicit metaphor of a conversation, but it is also interested in the ways that authority is constructed and the ways that information artifacts are produced. Research is thus framed as an interaction among people rather than a choice among artifacts.

Yet their article maligns standards everywhere with the specter of Common Core, a case of guilt by association (though to be fair, the Open Letter mentions Common Core first). To Beilin and Foasberg, the move to return to the standards is “a conservative, backward-looking disposition,” never mind that one reason Common Core is so reviled in some circles is how radical it is.

Writ large, their defenses of localized learning and the role of theory in library and information science inadvertently expose Threshold Concepts (TCs), mentioned only once in their article, for what they are: a loose collection of pedagogically unsound and empirically untested practices. To wit:

  • If localization is a worthy goal of the Framework why do Threshold Concepts come from a Delphi study as opposed to individual institutions?
  • To what extent are these Threshold Concepts like, and unlike, Standards?
  • Theories gain acceptance when tested. What are the tests for Threshold Concepts? Where are they? (2)

It is interesting that an article so focused on theory should ignore the theoretical issues that make up the bedrock of the Framework.


Responses garnered from the most recent feedback form (pdf) that accompanied the third draft in November showed that, of the 206 surveys received,

  • 91% were satisfied with the opportunities to provide feedback to the Task Force on drafts of the Framework
  • 67.4% support the new Framework
  • 63% were satisfied with the proposed definition of information literacy
  • A majority of respondents were satisfied with the new frames (satisfaction ranged from 71% for Information Creation as a Process to 83% for Scholarship as Conversation).

I do not know if 206 responses is a good number or not, but one jarring realization to emerge from this process is that while many academic librarians are faculty and/or instructors on their campuses, we lack a grounding in educational psychology and pedagogy. (3) How else would we have come to either embrace or tolerate Threshold Concepts?

“What do you wish your students were able to do?” “What kind of work do you think they could create?” “What do they come to this school being able to do?” “What does a graduate of X college look like?”

Those are questions one library director asks faculty at her place of work. They are good questions, but neither Standards nor a Framework makes those questions possible. If the current discussion has enabled or validated one to ask them at a place of work, that is excellent, but as I see it, those questions were always there for the asking. There is nothing in LIS education that prevents this discursive formation under the Standards, or before their adoption in 1999.


The upcoming ACRL meeting at the American Library Association Midwinter meeting in Chicago will have a spirited discussion on the Framework, featuring the Board of Directors and a question and answer session. Because scholarship is indeed a conversation, at least part of the time, it is my hope that the discussions provoked by the above links, including those in the footnotes, shed some light on how librarians and information professionals interact to create knowledge and knowledge practices in the profession. I think we can do better. I will not be able to attend Midwinter, and I hope it’s free of some of the discourse we’ve seen leading up to this point.

Meanwhile, absent a set of Standards, or a Framework, strong work in information literacy will continue to take place.



(1) “Knowledge regimes are sets of actors, organizations, and institutions that produce and disseminate policy ideas that affect how policy-making and production regimes are organized and operate in the first place.” John L. Campbell and Ove K. Pederson, “Knowledge Regimes and Comparative Political Economy,” 2007 (pdf).

On epistemic communities, see Wikipedia.

(2) The Women and Gender Studies Section of ACRL will be the first to test this Framework.

Again, I point to Darrell Patrick Rowbottom’s “Demystifying Threshold Concepts,” Journal of Philosophy of Education (2007), in which he argues that one can test for abilities, but not concepts; that it is empirically difficult, if not impossible to show multiple conceptual routes to the same ability; and that thresholds differ from person to person, among others.

See also, Lane Wilkinson’s “The Problem With Threshold Concepts,” Sense and Reference, (2014), and Patrick K. Morgan’s “Pausing at the Threshold,” portal: Libraries and the Academy (2015).

A similar critique can be applied to Task Force committee member Troy Swanson’s defense of the Framework; instead of shoehorning Standards into lesson plans and learning outcomes, we can now do the same with Threshold Concepts.

(3) Again, see Dani Brecher and Kevin Michael Klipfel’s “Education Training for Instruction Librarians: A Shared Perspective,” (2014) and Kimberly Davies-Hoffman, et al.’s “Keeping Pace with Information Literacy Instruction in the Real World,” (2013), both in Communications in Information Literacy.

For a good example of how educational psychology can effect academic librarianship, see Jessica Olin’s “Not Mutants nor Ninjas nor Turtles, but Teenagers,” Letters to a Young Librarian, (2015).

Moving Beyond Standards: A Response to the Open Letter Regarding the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Ian Beilin, Instruction Librarian and Assistant Professor at New York City College of Technology, CUNY, and Nancy Foasberg, Humanities Librarian and Assistant Professor at Queens College, CUNY.

We would like to answer some of the points made in the widely distributed Open Letter Regarding the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.

The main argument of the letter, that the Framework should be used in tandem with the Standards, is based on a misconstrual of the basic theory upon which the Framework rests. It is important to acknowledge that one of the main stumbling blocks for the Framework has been the confusion generated by the language and theory of threshold concepts. But one of the clearest messages that the Framework drafts have conveyed, in our view, is that the use of common standards is problematic and prevents the kind of deeper, active and potentially critical learning that the teaching of information literacy demands. This critique applies to all standards, not just the ones enshrined by ACRL in 2000. So it doesn’t make sense to suggest, as the letter does, that the Standards can be used in tandem with the Framework or that they can be “mapped” on to the Framework. The two documents rest on wholly different foundations. As Troy Swanson recently has argued quite emphatically and eloquently, “The IL Standards and the IL Framework Cannot Co-exist.”

The open letter refers to the Framework as a “theoretical document.” In fact, both the Framework and the Standards are theoretical in nature, as is any document that sets out the kinds of teaching that we value and the outcomes we desire for our students. The difference between the two documents is not in their theoretical nature but rather in the theories to which they subscribe. The Standards understand information as a commodity external to the student; something that can be obtained and subsequently “used.[i]” When we look at information in this way, we are thinking of information literate students as consumers who must choose among many options, like shoppers selecting goods from among those placed before them in the market. The Framework instead aims at a more social understanding of information and information literacy. Most notably, it uses the explicit metaphor of a conversation, but it is also interested in the ways that authority is constructed and the ways that information artifacts are produced. Research is thus framed as an interaction among people rather than a choice among artifacts.

Because it hinges on the production of information within communities, this understanding of information literacy is inherently less friendly to universal standards. The open letter assigns great value and importance to the idea of generalized standards for education – partly because such standards have become commonplace and have been invested (both literally and figuratively) with great importance by educators, administrators, and perhaps most importantly, accreditors, politicians and funding sources. The letter claims that the word ‘standards’ “sets uniform goals and acceptable levels of achievement.” But for many educators and librarians, especially in today’s climate of forced austerity and cutback threats, the words ‘uniform’ and ‘acceptable’ are not ones we would choose to describe our pedagogical goals. Moreover, the letter claims that “Many states are adopting “common core” standards for K-12.  Our president & our governors are initiating conversation about curriculum change around the “common core standards” and major media outlets are covering this issue in depth.” And a little later, “The concept of standards is widely understood as a level of quality to be attained.” Again, these defenses, at least for a good number of academic librarians, read more like indictments. The idea of common core standards, much less their actual implementation, has come under intense scrutiny and critique as equally as it has been trumpeted and supported, and one cannot claim the existence of any consensus on their acceptability or appropriateness, either for K-12 or higher education.

The letter asks “Are we going backwards to insist that each locality ‘interpret’ the Framework according to their own standard?” This, it regrets, will mean the loss of a universal, prescriptive set of information literacy standards for all of US higher education. The letter seems to put forth the view that guidelines for information literacy instruction can be just as standardized as other aspects of library activity, such as collections. Indeed, this mindset was part of the philosophy of the Standards, in its claim that information literacy “is common to all disciplines, to all learning environments, and to all levels of education” (“Information Literacy Defined”). However, as this list of disciplinary standards suggests, librarians have long recognized that information works differently in different contexts. In fact, there is no universal skill set that comprises information literacy independently of disciplinary and local contexts.

The letter expresses alarm at the prospect of localized information literacy assessment, perhaps motivated by the fear that accreditation agencies and other higher education organizations will ignore libraries unless we can produce something fixed and solid like a list of standards that retain an aura of authority. A careful reading of the Framework and of the theory upon which it rests shows that a standardized approach does not reflect how learning actually takes place, or should take place, in libraries or any other learning environment. Instead of a set of skills which can be used under any circumstances, the Frames present several ways of becoming more attentive to the contexts of information and achieving a good understanding the communities in which the information was produced and will be understood. Under the Standards, “knowledge can be organized into disciplines” (Standard One, 2.a.), but the Framework understands knowledge as originating from various communities (which may include academic disciplines). These communities do not simply organize information but rather determine how it establishes its authority, oversee the processes through which the information is produced, and ultimately pass judgment on its contributions.

Thus, to insist that the Framework be interpreted locally is the only way to meaningfully assess the kind of information literacy in which this document interested. Rather than positing some universal skill set which applies to the use of all kinds of information in every conceivable community, we must be attentive to the needs and goals of students and faculty in our own local contexts, which are unlikely to align perfectly with the goals of a prescriptive document drawn up by a national professional association (even a very active one like ACRL).

Finally, the letter bemoans the presence of ‘jargon’ in the Framework, which is made doubly bad, it claims, because this jargon isn’t even taken from the LIS field, but from education and psychology. This problem is also presented as a threat to librarians’ alleged established respect and status within academia: forcing librarians to make themselves understood once again to colleagues beyond the library would set us back. Here again the letter expresses a conservative, backward-looking disposition which does not consider that our field and our practice, like the rest of academia, should be expected to move forward, to evolve and to put into action the results of research not only produced by ourselves, but throughout academia and beyond (and yes, that includes theory!). If we value intellectual curiosity and lifelong learning, we should not turn away from ideas that may improve our pedagogical practice. In fact, were we to avoid theory, we would lose one of the great opportunities of such a revision—the chance to carefully examine what we do and the philosophy that underlies it.

In other words, we really do need to acknowledge that ‘scholarship is a conversation’ and revitalize information literacy. The ambition of the Framework is to produce a more honest document reflecting the true beliefs – and practices – of instruction librarians. The Framework creates IL guidelines that can actually serve as an inspiration for creative, individual, yet carefully directed IL instruction – that is, just what most of us strive to do every day!

[i] Many writers have made this point before us. A review of critiques of the Standards can be found in Kimmo Tuominen, Reijo Savolainen, and Sanna Talja, “Information Literacy as a Sociotechnical Practice,” The Library Quarterly 75, no. 3 (2005): 328-345, doi: 10.1086/497311