The Importance of Instructional Literacy


What is instructional literacy?

When I set out to write this post, I had no idea if the term had ever been used formally. So I googled it out of curiosity. And to my surprise, an article from American Libraries popped up, titled Build Your Own Instructional Literacy by Char Booth (April 30, 2010). My first thought: leave it to a librarian to come up with this kind of terminology. My second thought: great minds think alike!

Booth developed a four-part instructional literacy framework as follows (and taken directly from the article):

Reflective practice is the process of understanding and shaping your skills and abilities throughout the entire process, not just assessing your performance at the end of an interaction. Metacognition is the internal element of reflection, while collaboration is its external element.

Educational theory is evidence-based insight into teaching and learning, which consists of learning theory (how people synthesize information and create meaning from instruction), instructional theory (teaching methods in on-site and e-learning contexts), and curriculum theory (content knowledge specific to subjects and audiences).

Teaching technologies are the tools and media that facilitate learning in face to face, online, and blended instruction, as well as methods for evaluating and selecting them effectively.

Instructional design is a systematic and learner-focused method of integrating reflection, theory, and technology into the teaching and training process.

Educational theory, teaching technologies, and instructional design altogether form the basis of what is instructional design and technology. I believe reflective practice can only be done in the context of understanding those other parts of the framework.

While this framework does a good job of articulating instructional literacy, across the field of education, instructional practice often fails to reflect instructional literacy.

Examples of Where Instructional Practices Fail to Reflect Instructional Literacy
Example 1
Did you know that the widely popular and heavily used SAMR model has no basis in educational research? Read Dr. Jonas Linderoth’s open letter to Dr. Ruben Puentedura. Dr. Linderoth is a professor in the Department of Education, Communication and Learning at the University of Gothenburg. To be honest, the first time I heard of SAMR was in a webinar I was presenting on IDT skills in librarians. Dr. Linderoth’s criticism puts into words exactly how I feel about it.


Example 2
Generally speaking, MOOCs defy many of the design principles of good learning environments. Self-directed learning requires a level of motivation that many learners do not innately possess. That is why we are finding that a good number of MOOC takers are already degree holders. (I do think MOOCs hold promise in areas such as corporate training, professional development, informal learning, and as supplementary material for high school and college courses. But, they are quite expensive to develop, so it remains to be seen what will happen with them.)


Example 3
To date, much of the research on flipped learning has examined student perceptions rather than learning outcomes. That doesn’t mean flipped learning is bad per se, but the best instructional design for it is uncertain. Unfortunately, flipped learning is often limited to video lectures outside of the classroom and Q & A inside the classroom (that’s still pretty traditional in terms of learning, and does not reflect strong instructional literacy).

For me, instructional literacy goes beyond the four skill sets of Booth’s framework. Information literacy underlies instructional literacy. And librarians, being the information literate gurus that they are, should strive for evidence-based teaching practices. That means:

  • Becoming familiar with the language of instruction (the educational theory component of the framework).
  • Learning how theory looks when put into practice. Outside of formal education or professional development, there are research journals, such as Theory Into Practice and TechTrends that do just that.
  • Evaluating the qualifications (and authority) of professional development speakers. For example, a training course on instructional design should be taught by someone who is professionally trained as an instructional designer. I see a lot of peer training that is primarily based on the premise of “this is cool and it worked for me.”
  • Recognizing and utilizing the disciplinary specialties of different organizations. For example, AECT and ISTE are the authoritative organizations for instructional design and technology. ASCD is the authoritative organization for curriculum development. AERA is the leading organization for education research. That means that technology integration advice from ASCD might clash with technology integration advice from AECT (and knowing that AECT is more authoritative in that instructional area is essential).
  • Researching for evidence-based support of best practices in teaching and learning.

The Power of Peer Learning (and How to Promote It)


Peer learning can be defined as the acquisition of knowledge and skill through
active helping and supporting among status equals or matched companions. It
involves people from similar social groupings who are not professional teachers helping each other to learn and learning themselves by so doing…many schools might think they are implementing [peer learning], when all they are really doing is putting children together and hoping for the best (Topping 2005, 631-32).

Last week, I had the privilege of witnessing the power of peer learning firsthand in my daughter’s math tutoring session. It was the first week that she was being tutored with a fellow tutee (a classmate). By sheer luck, perhaps, the two appear to be a perfect match for learning together. With the expert guidance of their tutor, I look forward to the progress that both girls will makes this year in school (believe me, this is a relief, as math has been a mostly tearful experience up to this point).

Peer learning does work, but as Topping infers, it must be well-designed and well-implemented to be successful. There are also a variety of ways in which peer learning takes place.

Peer tutoring is a formal approach, where a more advanced student serves in the expert role as tutor to a tutee. In the library world, a good case study of this comes from Grand Valley State University, where qualified students become peer consultants, helping their fellow students with academic research. I think this is a great idea that solves the problem of limited reference staff (not to mention freeing up librarians for the many other duties that are demanded of them today). However, I do wonder how this method impacts the social dynamics between peers. Does social status change when a peer is designated as an expert (and often trained and paid as such)?

The other common way that peer learning takes place is the collaborative learning so common in classrooms today. This is where Topper’s criticism comes in of “putting children together and hoping for the best.”

So, what does well-designed and well-implemented peer learning look like? That’s really beyond the scope of this post, but I do recommend taking a look at Peer Learning in Higher Education: Learning from and with Each Other (Boud, Cohen, and Sampson 2014). There’s plenty of good information in that book that is equally applicable to K-12.

I am going to talk about the basic elements that are needed to design environments (e.g., classrooms, libraries) that promote a culture of peer learning, so that formally implemented approaches to peer learning can be successful.

First of all, what factors might cause peer learning (as collaborative learning, for example) to fail? Here are my thoughts:

  • Forced participation. Some students are loners when it comes to learning. Some students don’t want to look “stupid” in front of their peers. Some students are really shy. Some students are going to rebel against anything that does not include choice. Bottom line, you can’t force participation and you can’t force peer learning.
  • Mismatched peers. Mismatched teaching and learning preferences. Mismatched personalities. Mismatched levels of knowledge or expertise. The right dynamics make peer learning successful.
  • Lack of guidance. Scaffolding is a crucial component to peer learning, otherwise you may end up with “the blind leading the blind.”

Logic tells me that by designing environments opposite to the problems above, a culture of peer learning will naturally emerge, creating a greater chance of success at formalized peer learning. So:

  • Instead of forced participation, offer choice in participation. In any given classroom, opportunities and spaces for individual learning are just as important as opportunities and spaces for group learning. With both quiet study and group study spaces, most libraries already promote a culture of choice. Classrooms should do the same. Over time, you may find that by promoting a culture of choice in the participation of peer learning, more students will eventually gravitate toward groups (after all, learning is a social activity).
  • Avoid mismatched peers by letting peers match themselves (with a little help). There are many ways to go about doing this. Surveys that help students get to know each others’ learning preferences, personality quirks, and strengths and weakness can help them self-match. An app, like Classkick, allows students to discreetly communicate with their teachers and help each other anonymously. An app, like ClassAction Study Partners, allows students to locate other students (like in the library) who are currently studying for the same class.
  • Scaffolding, scaffolding, and more scaffoldingPeer learning is student-centered learning, and student-centered learning requires scaffolded instruction. Scaffolding is also an important element in the Universal Design for Learning framework.