How do we know we’re teaching effectively?

This week’s readings (How People Learn by the National Research Council and Put Understanding First by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe) discuss teaching for meaning and transfer. According to Wiggins and McTighe, instruction too often focuses on acquisition of facts and skills rather than how to use these skills in multiple contexts, or transfer them. While learning facts and skills may be beneficial in the short term, on tests and quizzes, for example, learning in a vacuum defeats the purpose of long-term education. This also penalizes already lower-achieving students who have difficulty learning, because when there is no context to make material relevant to the students, there is little motivation to actively learn.

The majority of the readings for this class so far have been for educators, and as librarians-in-training, it has been our job to transfer readings for educators to be relevant in the context of librarianship. One advantage that librarians have over teachers in this regard is that the majority of our patrons are self-selecting, whereas K-12 students are required by law to attend classes. The advantage of this self-selection is that the majority of our patrons are motivated to be at the library. Our job differs from that of the teachers because we rarely impart the knowledge itself, but teach strategies for the acquisition of knowledge.

Wiggins and McTighe argue that teaching methods used in the classroom promote acquisition, meaning, and transfer. So which of these do librarians teach? We hope to teach transferrable knowledge, because that indicates that the patrons at the reference desk or a workshop have listened to and comprehended our words and successfully took the knowledge that we imparted to them by using it in a different context. With instruction seeming to overtake reference in importance in the minds of many professional librarians, we should certainly think about teaching for transference of knowledge. In some ways, reference librarianship, (especially ready reference questions like “What’s the capital of Minnesota?”), is similar to teaching for acquisition alone. We tell the patron the answer in one instant, and have no way of knowing if they will remember that piece of knowledge or even how they will use it. On the other hand, with workshops where we teach knowledge acquisition skills, we only can rely on the participant’s answers to questionnaires to determine how effective the workshops were. There is not the same concern with long-term development as there is with teachers who get to know their pupils over the course of an academic term.

Because I do not have experience teaching in a classroom setting, I have some difficulty seeing exactly how to transfer what I have learned from these readings to an academic library setting. In fact, How People Learn brings up a point that I think is interesting, namely that if knowledge is over-contextualized, there is less likelihood of knowledge transfer. For me, this may be the case with the Wiggins and McTighe reading. Conversely, How People Learn also argues that the more abstract that the information to be learned is, the more easily transferrable it is. It seems therefore that the best strategy to ensure that major concepts stick in the minds of learners is to teach abstract concepts and then provide several different examples of these concepts in action. I understand how our work in library instruction can support a thorough understanding of search strategies and even metacognition, but without steadily serving the same people, I am unsure of how we can effectively ensure comprehension when we may never see the same patron again.


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One response to “How do we know we’re teaching effectively?

  1. “I am unsure of how we can effectively ensure comprehension when we may never see the same patron again.”

    This is, admittedly, a problem that is largest in huge research university libraries!

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