The Professional Imperative for Learner-Centered Teaching

This piece is cross-posted on the Facet Publishing blog, our UK publisher for Learner-Centred Pedagogy: Principles and Practice. Many thanks to Sinead Murphy for asking us to write this piece and publish it on our blog as well.

If only you’d remember before ever you sit down to write that you’ve been a reader long before you were ever a writer. You simply fix that fact in your mind, then sit very still and ask yourself, as a reader, what piece of writing in all the world Buddy Glass would most want to read if he had his heart’s choice. The next step is terrible, but so simple I can hardly believe it as I write it. You just sit down shamelessly and write the thing yourself. I won’t even underline that. It’s too important to be underlined.  – Seymour: An Introduction, J.D. Salinger

Four years ago last month, we walked across the stage in the Great Hall of the Carolina Union at UNC-Chapel HIll, freshly minted librarians, both about to move to California to start our first professional jobs, ready to lay some information literacy knowledge down on our future undergraduates. Those two years in library school were incredibly formative for us, as we tried to absorb everything we could about teaching, reference librarianship, and the profession as a whole. We became friends working together at UNC’s Undergraduate Library reference desk, chatting about how we could get students engaged in our instruction sessions and make sure they actually, like, you know, learned things.

The more we talked and read and taught, the more it felt like there was something missing from the information literacy literature we were reading: A focus on the individual learner, as a unique person with individual experiences, interests, and needs. While there are certainly exceptions to this statement, so much of what we read was about specific strategies for teaching specific content, while what we felt we needed was a step before that: What are the underlying principles that can make people invested in learning and able to learn, whether at the reference desk, in a one-on-one consultation, or an instruction classroom? Our experience as readers largely echoed that of librarian David Maxfield, who wrote in an article in College & Research Libraries in 1954 (!) that claimed that “conventional reference work does not always place so much emphasis upon the library patron as an individual person as it does upon library materials and bibliographic techniques.”

A year after graduation, we attended a LOEX conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Terry Doyle began his keynote presentation with the assertion that, as educators, it is our professional responsibility to understand how students learn and then apply this understanding to our work. This idea of focusing on the learner, and not the content, is known as “learner-centredness.” Doyle’s position that being learner-centred was not optional, but instead a kind of professional obligation, struck us as exactly right (see “Education Training for Librarians”). And we wanted to read something that was framed this way for librarians, focused on the individual learner, so badly that we…wrote a book like that.

Our central question in writing a book on learner-centred pedagogy for librarians was: How can we teach information literacy to real learners – embodied existential beings with passions, loves, hates, and sources of life meaning that extend beyond understanding Boolean operators – so that they are engaged with information literacy outcomes in an authentic way? How can we make information literacy really matter to learners?

We turned to literature in education, counseling, psychology, and (yes) library science where others grappled with similar questions, and ultimately concluded that the core aspect of learner-centredness is a practice of empathy: the question what is it like to be a person learning something? is central to our learner-centered approach. That also led us to redefine information literacy in a learner-centred way as involving learners using information to think well about questions that matter to them.

So, practically, how do we go about this? In our book, we point to five main aspects:

  • Engaging people’s curiosity, interests, and personal experiences in an autonomy supportive rather than controlling learning environment
  • Applying ideas about how people learn from evidence-based literature in learning science
  • Developing meaningful relationships with our users (even in the briefest of interactions!)
  • Providing learning experiences that help to develop a growth mindset about the research process
  • Using technology wisely as a potentially useful tool to help learners use information think well about things that matter to them

…with empathy as the overarching framework that connects them all. This central idea, that who we are as people matters as both learners and educators, is both based in the current scientific literature, but also has a timeless quality that we believe will make it relevant for library practitioners for years to come.

Indeed, we believe that this view of learner-centeredness is not a trend, but a way of approaching librarianship that can change over time, as our scientific and psychological understanding of what it means to be a person learning something evolves. While the specific answers to the central question of this book may not always be the same, as long as librarians continue to monitor and engage with the current literature on motivation and the science of learning and follow where the evidence takes us, the basic framework that we present here will continue to apply. As we strive toward a fully learner-centered practice of librarianship, we would consider a practical success to be expressing these interests and views to others, both within and without the library. Building community around this approach is a powerful way to transform our work and to practice an existential form of librarianship: we are learner-centered educators because we decide that is what we are. As you go forward and adapt these ideas for your own contexts, we hope that you will share your ideas and continue to enrich and expand the profession’s understanding that who we are as people matters for how we teach, how we learn, and how we engage with information and each other.

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5 Comments

Filed under Education, Posts by Dani Brecher, Posts by Kevin Michael Klipfel, The Library Game

5 responses to “The Professional Imperative for Learner-Centered Teaching

  1. Hi Dani,

    Once again, & I’m sure that it will be no surprise given my previous comments, FABULOUS post 🙂 I love the description of how you came to be interested in learning-centredness. Hearing how various librarians go on this journey is a great help for making our own big professional development decisions.

    I found myself in a similar situation but took a slightly different route. After years of disillusionment with the shallowness of the info lit literature, I finally realised that I didn’t know what questions to ask myself when I was trying to make sure that I offered students really sound learning opportunities. So, I went off & did a Graduate Certificate in Teaching & Learning in Higher Education. That was sensational, I was then able to identify the questions that I needed to be asking myself, & I was much happier with the info lit learning the students & I were experiencing in our work together.

    But, after I while my brain started to get itchy again. I realised that I didn’t have enough answers for all the questions I could ask. So, I went back to the university handbook & decided that a Master of Education was the go. It was brilliant. I was always the only librarian in classes full of teachers (primary, secondary, vocational & university) & workplace trainers, so I got to learn from classmates with a far superior “teaching” knowledge & experience base than me. Also, being the only librarian, I sat on the ontological margins of each course. That turned out to be even more brilliant because I really had to reflect deeply to turn all the learning activities (including assessment items) into meaningful learning opportunities for my circumstances whilst meeting learning objectives & assessment criteria largely designed for people who spent all their working days teaching or training. Some of my classmates & teachers even started to think differently about how they might work with their librarians.

    There was a catch though, & I think that this is really important to remember for some workplaces. You say, “we are learner-centered educators because we decide that is what we are”. I chose to be a learning- & learner-centred librarian but a number of people in positions of authority &/or in positions of power felt that I should stick to behaviourist instruction type work & were very upset that I didn’t use the library’s generic learning objects for things like info evaluation & publication cycles. They worried about outputs rather than outcomes for learners. At the time I couldn’t understand why they were so upset & I didn’t have the smarts I needed to navigate the disagreement without unpleasantness. Now I’ve come to see that I was rejecting fundamental aspects of a professional status quo that was really, really important to them. And some personalities also had a problem because taking a progressive approach gave them less control over what I was doing in “their” library.

    I’d like to share another couple of experiences that may be useful to some people. Congratulations to anyone who has made it this far into my comments 😉

    As I explored learner- & learning-centredness more & more, I got great value from the work of Athabasca Uni’s Terry Anderson. His focus is on distance learning but, in my experience, it’s also great for those whose focus is on face-to-face environments.http://cde.athabascau.ca/faculty/terrya.php

    And last, empathy. Couldn’t agree more with what you say about it – it is everything!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I have found using “teaching” anecdotes a great way to unpack how empathy works or should be working when students & I are learning together. If anyone is interested in trying this out, I have an example @ https://reflectionsoflib.wordpress.com/2015/01/07/personal-pedagogy-and-its-influence-on-my-info-lit-teaching-work-an-anecdote/

    Well I hope that, if you got to this point, you’re not feeling too sleepy. If you have, I’ve given you a great excuse to find the best cup of coffee nearest to you right this moment – mmmmmmm 🙂 Sandra

  2. Kevin Michael Klipfel

    Hi Sandra,

    Thanks for your comment. I wanted to highlight something you said because I both agree with it and wanted to add to it, and specifically add some words of encouragement to folks of a learner-centered bent. In the blog and in the book we say that: “we are learner-centered educators because we decide that is what we are.”

    Your response to this is important. You said there may be a “catch” in some workplaces when one adopts a learner-centered approach, adding that:

    “I chose to be a learning- & learner-centred librarian but a number of people in positions of authority &/or in positions of power felt that I should stick to behaviourist instruction type work & were very upset that I didn’t use the library’s generic learning objects for things like info evaluation & publication cycles. They worried about outputs rather than outcomes for learners. At the time I couldn’t understand why they were so upset & I didn’t have the smarts I needed to navigate the disagreement without unpleasantness. Now I’ve come to see that I was rejecting fundamental aspects of a professional status quo that was really, really important to them. And some personalities also had a problem because taking a progressive approach gave them less control over what I was doing in “their” library.”

    I want to second that librarians, especially ones just coming out of library school, are almost CERTAINLY going to be met with a similar response, at some point, by some person, by someone in authority or just a regular old colleague, precisely because such an approach challenges a long-dominant status quo. I have DEFINITELY experience this.

    And to this I’d like quote Miles Davis: so what?

    Meaning, yeah, people might challenge you, and yeah, you might counter some difficulties, and this is precisely why being learner-centered is an existential attitude in contemporary librarianship: it’s a CHOICE you have to make about how you want to take responsibility for conducting yourself as a professional. Do you want to conform to others’ expectations of what you’re supposed to be, or do you want to follow the evidence and do what’s right by your students? You can do either, but it’s important to remember it’s a choice.

    So my advice? Do your absolute best to explain, compassionately and calmly, the evidence for what you’re doing that favors the learner-centered approach. Be an unbearably wonderful, empathic, compassionate, supportive colleague at all times.

    But also … so what?

    -Kevin 🙂

  3. Hi Kevin 🙂

    I’m not quite with you on this one, though I did listen to Miles Davis & enjoyed every second of it. I have experienced enormously positive, mediocre, negative & incredibly negative responses to bringing learning- & learner-centredness into the academic library environment (but only positive experiences in the hospital & health service library environment).

    I reckon that you’re quite right about choice but I think that you oversimplify the response. Many people are influenced by things other than just what they want or what they think or who they are; they work hard to accommodate the various views & approaches & feelings in their environment (just as they do when they learning- & learner-centred “teachers”), & doing this is as much a part as who they are as being learner- & learning-centred or client-centred.

    Some people are, or become, particularly sensitised to environments where extremely or constantly negative responses to progressive client-centred practice are common. Not everyone in power &/or authority responds to strong well-presented evidence, calmness, etc. Sometimes that just makes things worse. As I read & talk to colleagues, I get the impression (& I acknowledge that it may not be accurate or representative of general experience) that, as libraries come under increasing pressure related to their survival, there can be a response to shut down conversations & change in favour of increased conformity & control. I actually had two conversations about this very thing last week with a librarian friend & a former colleague. In Australia, we have a wonderful radio program (Best Practice) where researchers are regularly canvassing organisational behaviour, workplace & leadership issues related to these very things.

    I also have a sneaking suspicion that because the conventional form of librarianship is largely a theoretical vacuum, we can sometimes find ourselves in environments where an unproductive personalising of things happens when, if we had more thinking tools (Giddens) at our disposal, we could respond with deeper & more objective discussions.

    So, just as it’s important that we share & encourage the progressive approaches to practice that improve outcomes, I think that we also need to acknowledge where the difficulties could &/or do lie, as that will help each of us deal with them to the very best of our ability (should we be the kind of person who needs to or find ourselves in a situation where we need to).

    This is also important as it will help us (especially if we are new to librarianship or new to our workplace) find encouragement, support, new ideas & productive challenging conversation in all the places they might be. For example, in academic settings we are incredibly lucky. Just as we are working to improve our learner- & learning-centredness, so are many of our academic clients in their own teaching roles & environments. These academics join our networks & we join theirs; allowing us all to be proactive in creating a wider & deeper network of learning & practice. Coincidently, we also open up more opportunities to show clients what the library & the librarians can be, things that they may not have realised.

    “So”, I think that the “what” is about being human & about taking a holistic approach when times are great, when times are good, when times are OK & when you or a colleague face times when you are struggling with morale.

    Great to converse on a point of difference – especially when you come from the land that brought the world Donald Trump & I come from the land that brought the world Rupert Murdoch – it gives my soul hope for us all 😉 Sandra

    • Kevin Michael Klipfel

      One last thing: I agree and think being a good colleague often involves compromise with others while still maintaining and advocating for our standards of excellence.

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