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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Pulling Back the Curtain on Libraries as a Teaching Tool

The mantra in 21st-century teaching in a nutshell is inquiry-based, experiential learning with scaffolding and modeling built in to structure the learning experience. These strategies and approaches can be better implemented in library instruction to improve media literacy.

I think one way for us to better tackle information literacy is to better explain and allow others to experience what it is that librarians do. User experiences in libraries have been improving dramatically thanks to the serious exploration into how users are searching for and utilizing information and library spaces. But while we think a lot about how users engage with librarians, library webpages, library resources and databases, we think less about these interactions as teaching moments. The reference librarian used to be able to guide patrons to databases and show them the steps needed to access sources. Now much of that has been turned over to always-accessible Libguides and similar "How-To" resources. None of these tools, though, really teach those skills in the ways that educational research and psychology reveal to be the most effective.

So the challenge remains, particularly for school librarians but also for public youth-service librarians, how can we better teach good media literacy practices and research skills and effectively incorporate them into an inquiry-based curriculum. Luckily, libraries tend to start with the advantage of having the computers and technology that can engage students and continue to operate as essential cognitive tools. Certain media activities and tools, such as photography, videography, social networking, even powerpoint, can be easily be utilized in active learning environments. 

Other skills, such as responsible researching, can be harder to maneuver. I could not agree more with Frances Jacobson Harris' critique of the worksheet as a largely ineffective tool for teaching students about source authority and evaluation. I do not believe that many of these "check-the-box/proceed-to-the-next-step" approaches improve student practices. While slightly more advanced than the "just say no" approach of telling children what is right and wrong, it ultimately lacks much application and engagement by the students. In her book I Found It on the Internet: Coming of Age Online, Harris has some great active-based learning examples that better engage the student. She incorporates quasi- and non-academic sources into a fuller discussion about the ways different news stories are covered in different outlets and platforms and asks students to discover these nuances. The most collaborative assignment she describes asks students to take the evaluation skills they learned and practiced in class back home to guide parents through a website, a great example of how far-reaching an effective collaborative assignment can reach.

I think more can be done, though, to be transparent to students about the research process today. As Harris notes of search engines, "the search process itself can mask authorship." A common assignment that I have seen asks children to find out how google works. Many are shocked to find out that few people really know due to the protected algorithm. But librarians can do more than just provide these "aha" moments. As Next-Generation Catalogs become more prevalent, it is important that librarians build in active assignments that help students better understand not only how google.com works, but also how the library OPAC works, and what exactly students may be finding through these sources, and the linked databases available to libraries.  We have lots of "how-to" guides, but fewer resources that engage the mechanics and finding structures of such tools.

One assignment I have been brainstorming is to allow children to choose and contrast a variety of different sources--either from a controlled list or open-ended--and then ask them to track the steps necessary to get that source from its initial production (writing, recording, creation, etc) to the computer screen the student now views. The teacher and librarian can model a few of these paths for students first and perhaps discuss some of the traits of search engines as well. By looking at the steps needed for a blog to reach the user, versus mapping the steps for an academic journal all the way through the library database subscriptions might help clarify the authorship component of evaluation. Furthermore, such assignments could be easily linked to other class components like student web publishing, and/or student-edited literary or research journals as well, making it interdisciplinary and collaborative. I think an important follow-up could be to ask students to turn that critical eye back upon their own publishing. How would another user see their publication through a critical evaluation lens? and are there ways to improve that authority?  These are important questions and concerns that can improve how students utilize the library and research.

There are some great ideas for teaching media literacy out there, and numerous media literacy toolkits. These can be valuable tools, but it is important to be sure that these tools are effectively reaching students. If we want students to be more media and research savvy, we have to trust that they can learn and understand the ways librarians incorporate and structure those media and research tools. As Harris notes: "We know from educational research and our own experience that such learning is most successful when it is built into activities that occur over time, across the curriculum, collaboratively, and in the context of application. It makes a great deal of sense to put students more directly in the driver's seat" (176). Lets try to pull back the curtain on library practices as much as we can, not only for our adult users, but also for our children and students.

Cover of: I found it on the Internet by Frances Jacobson Harris

Harris, Frances Jacobson. I Found It On The Internet: Coming Of Age Online. Chicago : American Library Association, 2011. Print.

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