Not About Technology, Not About Teaching

Sometimes things I’m reading via RSS feeds evaporate as soon as I’ve read them. Others linger a while, and sometimes they strike up conversations with each other.

Not long ago, a columnist at AAC&U’s Leap project blog, liberal.eduation nation, complained about the increasing crowd of literacies clamoring for our attention and suggesting that apart from the problem of all the newcomers – digital media literacy, spacial literacy, diaspora literacy – most new kinds of literacy have a short shelf life.

The “literacy” that seems most to vex educators and students alike is the one that takes aim at the moving target of technology. Indeed, the very terms used to name this elusive yet much-coveted literacy—computer literacy, information literacy, technological literacy, digital literacy, etc., etc.—are no more stable than the knowledge, skills, competencies they’re meant to describe.

Er, but . . . this seems to me to confuse information with information technology, learning how to think with learning how to use tools. Sadly, the only reference to an exploration of what we mean when we use the term “information literacy” is Stanley Wilder’s complaint that it is useless and misses the point. (ACRLog included the storm of debate it kicked up as a top story of 2005.) Given that most of us involved in teaching and learning in libraries thought Wilder didn’t actually grasp the concept he was criticizing, it’s kind of sad to see an organization that mostly wants to do what we are trying to do give him the last word.

The other big problem is linking information literacy with technology. Somehow once the techies took on the name “information technology” people forgot that information also resides in technologies that are centuries old. And they lose sight of the fact that it’s not about technology, it’s about what the student does with what he or she encounters. True, we get sucked into explaining how the library works, but the ultimate aim is to get students working in the library so that they can become part of the process of making knowledge, not just absorbing it as a finished product.

This morning I read Robert J. Nash’s essay in Inside Higher Ed, “Resist the Pedagogical Far Right” where he argues (as does AAC&U and as do most libraries serving a student population) that our focus should be on learning, not teaching, and on how the student can learn to as her own questions and solve problems rather than be exposed to a body of core knowledge in the hope some of it sticks. I’m not entirely sure why he characterizes this as a “far right” pedagogy – unless he’s thinking of ACTA, which, among other things, wants to return to basics and defend students from David Horowitz’s dangerous academics.He also seems to be taking a dig at those who feel youth have had their brains stolen by Web 2.0 and turned into ignorant and shallow-minded zombies. Or perhaps he’s thinking of the funding cuts and business strategies that have turned the professoriate into work-for-hire temps paid by the course. Whatever he means, he doesn’t really make a strong case for why this has a left-right dimension. What he says afterward, though, is a good defense of liberal (as in “liberating”) learning that focuses on the student.

The key is to remember that the most important part of the word evaluation is value. The best way to evaluate the outcomes of meaning-making learning is to ask students themselves what the value of their experience has been. According to [Ken] Bain’s research, the best evaluation stresses learning rather than performance. Performance means living up to others’ expectations and requirements. Learning means that students take full responsibility for their own intellectual, emotional, kinesthetic, and personal development. Performance is mainly about acquisition, storing information, and taking tests. Learning is developmental and an end in itself. . . .

So much of what I’ve learned about teaching in the academy for over four decades can be summarized in this way: often when I teach less, I find that I actually teach more. I call this a “pedagogy of ironic minimalism.” Whenever I take the time to call forth what it is my students actually know, and whenever I intentionally minimize the “endless breadth and depth” of my own “vast wisdom and knowledge,” then my students learn the most. This, dear readers, is why I keep coming back to the classroom — for lo these many years.

I think that’s actually our best argument for academic libraries and for giving students a chance to learn in them. Not learn about them, not learn how to manipulate the tools, but to be actively seeking, sorting, sifting, and making meaning as a central part of their education. If we want to define information literacy, we need to make it clear that practicing it – exploring ideas independently – is a big part of the high-impact practices that we know make learning stick.

And in the meantime, maybe we can also reflect on our own teaching practices. Can we teach less to make more room for learning? Do we do some of the things that Stanley Wilder believes is information literacy (information-seeking training done exclusively by librarians)? Can we put the focus on not just learning how the library works but learning where knowledge comes form and how it’s made? Can we work with faculty to make this happen more often?

Maybe if we can do that, Stanley Wilder will figure out what we mean when we talk about information literacy as a critical habit of mind and the AAC&U will realize it’s not about technology that will change next week.