On the Theory/Practice Divide in Academic Libraries

One of the major complains about library school is that it’s too much theory, too little practice. In many cases, I felt this, too: there’s a lot of outdated theory, a lot of stuff that doesn’t really seem to be deep enough to be theorized about, and, consequently, I learned the most doing practical things, like field experiences, working in various academic libraries, or writing a master’s paper with a really great adviser. So I’m certainly behind the general sentiment that we’re practitioners, and that as practitioners, ideas only matter insofar as they can be put into practice.

That being said, I sometimes notice what I take to be an unfortunate trend in academic libraries, that people don’t have any interest in theory at all. This is unfortunate, for it’s from creatively applying good theories and research that we’ll be able to do interesting things in our libraries. Here is an example of what I mean.

When I was at LOEX, I enjoyed Terry Doyle’s keynote on cognitive science. Indeed, I recently finished reading his book, The New Science of Learning, as part of a Faculty Learning Community on pedagogy that I’m part of at my university, so it was neat to hear him in person. And, the keynote was especially interesting, since, for a long time now, Dani and I have been working on how to apply principles of cognitive science to information literacy instruction, and we were finally ready to present our ideas.

At the beginning of his talk, Doyle made the point that, as educators, it’s our responsibility to understand the research about how students learn, and to apply that to our teaching. This is something I couldn’t agree with more (it is, indeed, the entire premise of this blog): if you’re an instruction librarian, you need to know about more than just libraries; you need a deep understanding of how students learn, and you need to be able to put it in practice. But I think interesting questions arise around the question: how are we supposed to figure out to put these (sometimes abstract) principles into practice?

For example, during the question and answer period of Doyle’s talk, an instruction librarian asked a really good question, something like: Given this understanding of how students learn, what are some practical things we can do in the classroom? Now, this is a really great question: if there’s something specific Doyle can answer for us about that, then that’s awesome. But, more than likely, all the literature in education can do is give us general research conclusions (e.g., students need to practice concepts to retain the information you’re presenting; students in autonomy-supportive environments are more engaged and learn more than students who do not have control over their schoolwork, etc.) and not necessarily specific applications to information literacy instruction. Now, what I want to say here, is that this is fine. This is, in a sense, how it should be. And it doesn’t mean that the research, or the theory, is not relevant. All it means is that, as library educators, it’s our responsibility to understand what the research says about learning, and then to creatively transfer it to our own domain: information literacy instruction.

Think about it this way: as Dani and I have noted on many occasions before, we might say that there are two major measures of learning: (1) RETENTION – the ability to retain a piece of information to be able to recall it later, and (2) TRANSFER, the ability to take a piece of information, and be able to transfer it to other relevant contexts) – i.e., to think critically about what we’ve learned. What I feel like is sometimes going on when we criticize theory and research as being “too abstract” or “not relevant” isn’t that it’s not relevant, it’s just that we’re not willing to think critically enough about it. Too many librarians just lose interest when someone doesn’t immediately tell them how something is relevant to their jobs. But that’s not what learning, or being curious about something, is. Learning essentially requires transfer.

I think it’s an enormously difficult task to take research about student learning and apply it to info lit. But I also think it’s what we should be doing, and I think it’s important that we realize that it’s never going to be handed to us: it’s something we’ve got to work at figuring out for ourselves. We want, more and more, for librarians to be giving us the concrete stuff that we can just go ahead and apply. But as of right now, not too much of it exists. My hope for the future of our profession is that more and more librarians begin to interpret the research about how students learn for our own purposes. It’s how we’ll stay relevant, by continuing the important work librarians can do: contributing to student learning.


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Filed under Education, Library Instruction, Posts by Kevin Michael Klipfel

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