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.