Sunday, May 15, 2011

250: is teaching an art or a science?

Is teaching an art or a science? I think this centers around the idea - are there natural teachers? can you learn to teach? how does one become an effective teacher.

Is teaching an art or a science? Both. Now can it be summer vacation?

No, I'm kidding. Totally kidding, though I do think the answer is both, to varying degrees. To call teaching an art is compelling, because it elevates a profession that I think is incredibly important to a respectable, even honorable level. It's an art. It's a calling. Which can be true. Certainly there are people who, due to a combination of dedication, charisma, intelligence, patience, etc., are gifted practitioners of this important work.

But to call teaching an art, I'm afraid, relegates it to people who are naturally gifted at it, and removes some accountability for teacher training, professional development, etc. Can anyone be a teacher? Probably not. Can a lot of people learn, through education and practice to become better teachers? Absolutely. Frankly, I think we need all of the committed, devoted, intelligent, reflective teachers we can get, so best not to single this profession out for only those whose innate abilities prevail.

Put it this way: Is there such a thing as a gifted piano player? Yes. Am I a gifted piano player? No way. But if I practice, learn, observe, reflect, and try, can I get better? Sure. And are there some people who, try as they might, will never learn to play the piano? Probably. And it's that way with teaching too.

The question of "How does one become an effective teacher?" is an important one, and one that implies that this is a profession where we should always be growing. Being an effective teacher requires responding to the students before you, and efficacy may look different depending on who your students are and what they need to learn. In addition, effective teachers are reflective about their practice and are willing to learn and try new things, rather than getting set in one specific mode and sticking with it. Effective teachers ask questions and examine their own biases. Whether we come to teaching via the "art" or "science" route, it is important to continue to try and grow as teachers.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

250: collaboration

What is the role of collaboration in understanding? This question reveals my social constructivist nature - how much do we build understanding through collaboration, interaction, etc. And if it helps increase understandings and knowledge then what is the responsibility, and how do we build in collaboration in learning particularly in virtual environments? And if it helps in learning, how can it help in teaching? As librarians we are often collaborators in teaching, so it helps to understand or at least considered its role in teaching and learning.

Collaboration is critically important to understanding, I believe. Even if a learner is able to grasp new information on her own, the understanding of the information becomes enriched as we encounter other understandings, see how they bump up against our own, and think more deeply about information. In a traditional face-to-face environment, building learning activities that involve collaboration seems like a no-brainer. (Perhaps that's because I work with elementary school students who can't help but "collaborate" with each other all the time.)

In an online environment, I think the same principles hold true but the logistics are a little different. As we've discussed in earlier blog posts, there is a notion that online learning is a solo activity, devoid not only of collaboration, but of community of any kind. I think we've all experienced something different, though, in this class and others. The key is, how do we use the online tools available to us to create learning situations that give rise to collaboration?

How does collaboration help with teaching? Such an important question. In my experience, some teachers like to close their classroom doors and do their own thing. They may not want to collaborate because there is a worry that doing so may take too much time or be less efficient than going it alone. Some teachers may not want their ideas or methodology challenged; others might worry about colleagues observing holes in their understanding of a topic. As librarians, though, I think we have a unique opportunity to open up avenues for collaboration with-- and among-- colleagues.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

250: online vs. face to face learning

In what ways is online learning qualitatively different than face to face learning? In this instance you get to pull on your own experiences as well as the readings, and answer as well as critically contribute to the debate surrounding online learning.

When I first started the MLIS program "here" at SJSU, I had my recurring comment I would make when people would ask about school. "The program is all online," I would say, "which is probably a ridiculous way to really learn anything."

So I've changed my mind, and have been surprised. Far from ridiculous, I think there are some incredibly practical, useful ways that online learning is at least as effective as face to face learning, if not more so. While there are obvious differences between mediums, there are useful components of each, from both a teaching and learning perspective.

The two most notable differences that come to mind between online and traditional learning are the lack of face to face interaction with instructors and classmates online, as well as a different relationship to time. If learning can happen when its most convenient for you, as opposed to learning happens only when a class is scheduled, that's a huge difference. And while the lack of f2f interaction has for me felt lacking at times, the reality is that I get to interact with a more diverse group of people online than I probably would in a classroom setting. There's tremendous value in that.

My experience with the MLIS program has also given me a lot to think about in terms of designing instruction online. The weakest professors I've had in this program are the ones who haven't taken advantage of the many tools out there to make online learning interactive. The classes where it's been-- read the lecture, post on the discussion board, the end-- have been far less satisfying than classes which enable true interaction with classmates. As we as instructors become more adept at delivering instruction online, perhaps the differences between face to face and online learning will feel even smaller.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

250: assessment

What is the role of assessment in learning? Is assessment a tool for the teacher or student? How can assessment be both?

I am of the opinion that the more reflective the learning process is, the more effective it can be all around (for teachers, students, etc.). One of the roles of assessment, I think, should be to give rise to opportunities for reflection. There are assessments that are just designed to demonstrate what learners know (high-stakes standardized testing, for example), but not necessarily what they have learned. Assessment should be ongoing, in order to gauge student learning before, during, and after new information is introduced.

Assessment is an opportunity for students to demonstrate what they know, what they've learned, and misunderstandings they might have about new information. Teachers can then take that data and apply it to future teaching/learning activities. When assessment is ongoing and takes a variety of forms, I think it can lower the pressure on students. Having the opportunity to demonstrate what you know and what you're confused about as an ongoing part of learning is so different than a culminating, summative, standardized test. As with other areas of teaching, assessments need to be tailored to individual learners' needs.

Postscript: I wrote the above before I started reading my fellow bloggers' posts on this subject. So now I have new ideas...

Okay, now I'm really thinking about this standardized/not-standardized assessment issue. I realize that standardizing assessments make them more useful as a data collection tool, but are they useful to students this way? Or perhaps it depends on the age of students? I come at all of this with a K-12 lens but I know some of the other comments referred to university-level students and assessments, so perhaps that accounts for the difference. I'm curious about what you all think about this. If we take the learner into account when designing instruction, and agree that best practices involve individuating instruction based on our learners, do the same ideas hold true for assessment? I thought so, initially. but maybe not. What do you think?

Friday, March 18, 2011

250: teaching about information

What are the key understanding in teaching about information? Think about how information is conceptualized, both within popular consciousness, and academia. Using Bruce's informed learning, as well as standards what do we think is important in understanding information? This is a continuation of the IL discussion (and maybe this part should have come first) - does this change the way you conceive IL standards?

So many questions- I'm starting with the last one first, I think.

I actually love that this question came second, because now I have a chance to stop and reflect a little on my position up until now-- that teaching "information" itself isn't as important as teaching about how to interact with information in a personal, purposeful way. That's why I love the AASL standards- to me, they're as much about presenting perspectives as teaching skills.

But this week I think to myself, okay self, wait a second here. Without grounding all of these lovely ideas about information seeking and reflection in a meaningful context of information, they lose some meaning. I appreciate that Bruce's perspective encompasses both the importance of information literacy behaviors and skills, as well as their context and purpose.

When it comes to questions of "what is information?" and "how is information literacy best taught?" I still think that there's a divide between academics like Bruce and the people who wrote the AASL standards, and popular ideas. As a teacher, I see all sorts of ways that students (and especially their parents) expect teaching and learning to look in school, and a lot of it has to do with an outdated, hierarchical model of information transmission. They expect a sort of top down, teacher has the information and gives it to the students who take it in- model. In such a model, the information itself remains unchanged, even as different individuals work with it for different purposes. For me, the biggest piece of education that needs to happen for popularly held ideas about information and information literacy, is that learning is not just about having the right answer. It's about grappling with information, about selecting which information is most needed for a given situation, and finding it efficiently.

Friday, March 4, 2011

250: information literacy

What are the big ideas and unspoken assumptions of information literacy? Look beyond the skills - how are we conceptualizing information literacy (you may want to break it down). What are the unstated biases guiding the way we discuss information literacy - in terms of standards. If you were teaching a course that focused on information literacy what are the overarching understandings you would want students to have at the end of the course?

With the advent of the Internet, the explosion of digital media, and the increased accessibility to and reliance on these outlets of information, the nature of literacy has changed. When I think about literacy, or information literacy, I see a broadening of these ideas to include a whole host of new skills and strategies that didn't need to be taught before, because they simply didn't exist. As a K-12 person, I focused my thinking on the AASL standards (which I think Sir Ken would love, don't you?). I appreciate these standards because when we start talking about this big, expanded ideas about information literacy, it feels hard to me to distill those big ideas down into meaningful, applicable standards that can guide our practice as librarians.

I think it's notable that skills are only one of the learning goals outlined by the AASL standards. Not only do we want students to understand concepts at a basic level, or be able to repeat back information (perhaps this is the "knowledge" level we discussed in our last round of posts), but learners need to be able to think abstractly and critically about information, to be metacognitive and self-reflective, and to apply what they've learned to new situations (that's the "understanding" piece).

Information literacy is about connecting with information. Information literate people can locate information they need using a variety of tools, can critically evaluate that information for accuracy, bias, and relevance to their learning needs. They can "read" a variety of information, in a variety of formats (by "read" here, I mean not only reading in a traditional, decoding sense, but decode, take it in, understand it, ask thoughtful questions, and think abstractly). There are so many new technologies to learn to read (I still can't read twitter. What's up with all of those #s?).

This week I thought a lot about how we teach students to navigate different sources of information. I think there's much less of a divide in young people's minds between "good" or legitimate information (textbooks, peer reviewed articles, reference sources in a library) and "bad" or less legitimate information (websites, their friends' Facebook page, etc.). Our job, I believe, is not to adhere to a rigid hierarchy about "good" and "bad" sources, but to help students learn to choose and evaluate sources appropriately, given the learning task at hand. To me, that is true information literacy.

A short example: last night, I was reading my daughter the book The House That Jack Built. There's that line, "This is the malt that lay in the house that Jack built." My husband and I started wondering what malt is, exactly. After activating our prior knowledge ("Malt is in Whoppers, right? Those are tasty), I googled "What is malt?" and landed on a definition-- at everyone's favorite questionable source, Wikipedia. My husband said, "But is Wikipedia real information? Can't, like, anyone just get on there and write whatever?"

My feeling is, yes, it's real information (I'm hoping Bruce would back me up here), and it's a reasonable source for our information needs. If I wanted to write a dissertation, or any sort of academic paper about malt, I wouldn't use Wikipedia- I'd find a more reliable source. But in the moment, for a quick answer, it worked fine.

That's a long, rambling story, to illustrate the point that I think one of the biggest ideas in the world of teaching information literacy is that the information is out there, and students need to learn how to match the appropriate information with the task at hand.

Monday, February 14, 2011

250: what does it mean to learn?

What does it mean to learn? Include thoughts on the definitions and conceptualizations of knowing and understanding.

As I began to reflect on what it means to learn, I decided to try and asses my own prior knowledge about the learning process before I read and listened to what the experts had to say in this week’s readings. Here’s what I started with:

  1. Learners start by bringing their own perspective (culture, previous experience, prior knowledge, learning style, etc.) to new learning tasks. The personal nature of learning means everyone’s process is different. There is a social context to learning; it doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

  1. As new information is presented, learners seek to understand it though their unique lens. Often there is a period of uncertainty or grappling with the information (what Piaget would call “disequilibrium”), as a learner tries to assimilate new knowledge with what s/he already knows.

  1. Knowledge leads to understanding. That is, a grasp of the facts can lead a learner to hook those facts onto what s/he already knows, and make meaning out of the new information.

  1. It is only when a learner has made new information (or knowledge) meaningful to herself by interacting with it in a meaningful way, that true understanding can occur.

Post-reading, my initial thoughts are mostly the same, but a bit more clear.

(Also, I want to marry Sir Ken. Don’t tell my husband. Brilliant.)

I agree with Wiggins and McTighe (2006) that “knowledge” constitutes the facts, and that knowledge leads to “understanding,” or the deeper meaning of the facts. I would add that knowledge might also include what a learner already knows or assumes as they encounter new information. Wiggins and McTighe and Bloom all put a higher priority on understanding over just knowledge, as does one of my favorite educational thinkers, Eleanor Duckworth. In her fabulous book, The Having of Wonderful Ideas, she states: “Knowing the right answer requires no decisions, carries no risks, and makes no demands. It is automatic. It is thoughtless” (Duckworth, 2006). I believe what Duckworth is saying (and I think Bloom, etc. would agree) is that providing learners the opportunity to interact with information—to experiment, to predict, to explore assumptions and test out theories—is a key link in the chain of understanding. Without the chance to construct meaning out of knowledge, the knowledge is sort of useless. I appreciate also Wiggins and McTighe’s point about incorrect knowledge or a misunderstanding of the facts as useful tools in helping learners gain a deeper and truer understanding of new material.

If you believe Sir Ken (and I do), it seems that this critical process of using knowledge to give rise to understanding in a personalized way is not happening in our schools, in general. With an emphasis on standardization (of curriculum and assessment) and un-differentiated learning, it’s no wonder students are turned off. As a school librarian, I am excited about the opportunities I have to interact with students a bit outside of that standard paradigm, and help support them as they learn about what they’re interested in.