This week’s readings dovetail nicely with my very first post on this blog. They focus primarily on formative assessment in education and designing educational spaces. Both readings focus on mindfulness in instruction, both in taking a holistic view of educational spaces and instilling mindfulness in students through formative, rather than summative, assessments. In this post, I will consider how these readings relate to library instruction in an academic setting.
In the National Research Council’s How People Learn, the four major learning environments are defined as learner-centered, knowledge-centered, assessment-centered, and community-centered. It is difficult to categorize academic libraries as just one of these learning environments, although some elements of these environments exist in most libraries. The learner-centered environment, also referred to as a “culturally responsive” teaching style is perhaps best reflected in library reference services. In these instances, the teacher builds on “the conceptual and cultural knowledge that students bring with them.” This is an obvious function of the reference interview, wherein it is important for the librarian to gauge the patron’s baseline level of knowledge and work from there. In library instruction, this is a bit more difficult due to the heterogeneous nature of patrons. In my experience, online instructional materials such as screencasts often assume a minimal level of previous knowledge. This brings up an interesting question: in our efforts to be egalitarian with instructional materials, are we potentially losing patrons who have already attained proficiency in their given area of interest? Would they have used our services in the first place?
The knowledge-centered environment is focused on building true understanding of the curriculum that the learner can then transfer to others. I believe that all conscientious librarians are concerned with passing along genuine knowledge, and view the attainment of knowledge as a multi-faceted thing rather than “a rutted course.” In practice, academic librarians often assist patrons who need additional information to help with a class. We should therefore be well aware of the potential shortcomings of traditional instruction and be innovative in creating instructional materials that pass along knowledge. After all, what would be the point of creating instructional materials that didn’t?
Assessment-centered environments are concerned with assessing whether students have learned from the materials. This may be one category in which libraries lag behind classroom instruction. Those who enter the library do so of their own accord, and their research efforts are largely self-directed. They may receive instruction from librarians if they seek it out, but they are not obligated to learn the materials in the same way they are in a course for which they are being graded. While tutorials and instructional sessions that I have participated in often ask for feedback to judge whether they were helpful, they are more concerned with assessing the effectiveness of the librarians and their instruction than what the patron learned.
Libraries are certainly community-centered in the macro sense: our holdings are determined by the demands of our users. The University of Michigan has a large heterogeneous collection because it serves a large heterogeneous academic community. This is great for the patrons, but the heterogeneity of community expectations within the library can at times be confusing. We have, for example quiet areas, areas for socializing, areas to eat, areas where no food is allowed, cutting edge technology, rare papyrus, the list goes on. At times it seems that we librarians try to be everything to everybody, and while this is not necessarily a bad thing to strive for it is, of course, impossible.
D. Royce Sadler’s Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems reminded me of this year’s Quasi-Con put on by the ALA Student Chapter at the University of Michigan. The article defines feedback as (I’m paraphrasing) informing the user about the gap between their knowledge and the desired level of knowledge in the hope that this information will be used to bridge said gap. The theme of Quasi-con 2013 was “minding the gap,” and this article made me think of the gap as the space between being a novice and an expert. As facilitators of expertise, we strive to help patrons make this transition, but this article points out that mindful self-assessment on the part of the learner is essential to achieve expertise. This “subsidiary awareness” is a character of virtuosity, and it is important for us to develop an intuitive grasp of how we interact with our patrons if we hope to become expert librarians.