Public Libraries, and a Pedagogy for Lifelong Learning

Recently, Library Trends released its latest issue on the core values of librarianship. I haven’t yet had time to read through all the articles, but I did start with Elmborg’s piece, titled Tending the Garden of Learning: Lifelong Learning as Core Library Value. It’s a philosophical read that got me thinking about what a pedagogy of lifelong learning might look like in the public library (from a practical standpoint).

First of all, what is lifelong learning, really? One of the best descriptions I have come across appeared in an editorial in the November 1975 issue of Educational Leadership. Wilbur J. Cohen wrote that “learning is a continuous, permanent, lifelong pursuit. It is a process which commences with birth and only terminates at death and is then carried on by others in a never-ending continuum.” (On a side note, Wilbur Cohen was one of the pioneers of our social security system. You can read more about how he got into education here. Pretty interesting).

I love that definition because it describes what I think most public libraries currently aim to do: support learning through the lifespan. However, I do think they are better at supporting some parts of the lifespan better than others. Certainly, early literacy efforts are a standard of practice in virtually all public libraries. Many public libraries do a great job with educational programming and resources for the families in their communities. Senior citizens as well. And now, with growing trends like maker spaces and gaming in the library, public libraries are supporting new literacies with the youth in their communities (whether they recognize this as learning or not).

Where I see public libraries faltering with supporting lifelong learning are the parts of the lifespan where formal learning (including professional learning) takes place. In the Library Trends article, Elmborg made this same observation when he stated that “the public library has lagged far behind in pursuing a pedagogically progressive version of information literacy as a central part of its mission” (p.548).

The question is, do public libraries really need to pursue a “pedagogically progressive version of information literacy”? I don’t think so, at least not in the sense of public libraries needing to design and implement formal information literacy programs within their walls. I say this because information literacy is both contextual and situational, practiced both formally and informally (just like learning). Also, because I see the public library’s role in formal information literacy as peripheral (not to be taught, just to be supported — at least in most cases). So for public libraries, I propose a less formal approach to information literacy, one found within the pedagogy of lifelong learning.

What does a pedagogy of lifelong learning look like for a public library? I envision a pedagogy of partnerships that allows the public library to play a role in learning (and information literacy) across the lifespan. A pedagogy that includes the following partnerships (when relevant to the community’s needs):

  • Preschool partnerships (e.g., story times, early literacy initiatives)
  • K-12 partnerships (e.g., supporting curriculum needs and gaps when possible, homework clubs, tutoring, after school programming)
  • Community college / university partnerships (e.g., transitional programming that exposes high school students and adult returning students to the expectations of college level research, online learning support)
  • Local business partnerships (e.g., supporting professional learning)
  • Partnerships with local organizations (e.g., social services and resource support, ESL and adult literacy programming, senior programming)
  • Patron partnerships for personal learning (e.g., teen advisory boards, but also other interest groups such as families, single adults, senior citizens, special needs populations, etc…) What groups in your community are under served?

For a public library to truly address learning across the lifespan, a pedagogy of partnerships is crucial for both assessing unmet needs and for providing the right learning support to the community. However, before that can happen, public libraries need to recognize themselves as legitimate learning institutions, albeit informal learning institutions. That means being able to articulate the learning value of the services they already provide that many see as purely recreational. For example, gaming and tinkering (maker spaces) support the problem solving and critical thinking skills that are required to be information literate. And it stands to reason that recreational readers become self-regulated readers who become self-regulated learners.

10 Tips for Making the Most of a One-Shot Session

It’s back to school time! You’ve probably hit the ground running with library instruction, and most of that instruction probably falls into the one-shot category. We all know the limitations of one-shots — no matter how well-prepared the instruction is, there is only so much that you can accomplish in a single class period. So, today I’m sharing 10 tips that will help you squeeze as much learning as you can out of a one-shot session. Here they are:

#1 Prepare your learners. Walking in cold turkey to a class full of students who aren’t expecting library instruction, forgot about it, or have no idea of its purpose is a recipe for disaster and pretty much a guarantee that little to no learning will take place in that time period. Let students know ahead of time (don’t rely on the classroom instructor to do this) what you want them to learn and why it is relevant to their coursework. There are many ways to do this. Here are a few ideas: make an announcement on the course page, create a video message that the course instructor shows the students prior to your session, or show up to the class the week before and briefly introduce yourself. You’re only limited to your imagination on this one.

#2 Don’t assume, assess. We all make assumptions about what students know or don’t know. Classroom instructors do it. Librarians do it. It’s time to stop doing it! Making assumptions is probably the biggest barrier to learning that anyone can create when it comes to one-shot sessions because you end up with one of two results: 1) students who learned nothing because they lacked some prerequisite skills that it was assumed they had OR 2) students who learned nothing new because they already understood the concepts and skills being taught. The easiest fix for this is to assess your students, preferably prior to the session. It doesn’t have to be formal. Something as simple as a survey would suffice. And instead of assessing abstract skills, assess experience. How many research papers have they written? How familiar are they with library databases? Do they understand the expectations of academic research? If you have a class full of students who have little to no experience writing research papers, jumping into database searching or evaluating sources will not be a valuable learning experience. They need to start with an orientation of the research process, beginning with how to select a topic, narrow it down and identify their information needs.

#3 Be flexible. This tip goes with tip #2. So, you prepared to teach students how to find articles in databases, but you assessed them and found that they don’t even have topics selected yet. It’s time to exercise your flexibility because when you go into that classroom, you’re going to have to back up a ways and work with them on topic exploration and identifying information needs (although you can integrate database searching into that)  I think the easiest way to do this is to think of library instruction as modular, with each module representing a discrete skill or concept. If you keep modularity in mind when you develop the presentation of materials, you’ll be able to pull any number of tricks out of your hat on the fly. You’ll always be prepared to teach students at their point of need.

#4 Less is more. Throw 1000 concepts at students and how many will they remember? Likely, none. Too much content leads to cognitive overload. Focus on a limited number of concepts or skills and your students will remember far more. Check out my post on the ‘Rule-of-One’ in One-Shot Sessions. The ‘rule-of-one’ reflects a modular approach to instruction.

#5 Take a multimodal approach. Multimodal presentation of information means that you are presenting the same information in more than one mode (e.g. visual, auditory, tactile). This may remind you of learning styles, but it’s not quite that. The purpose of a multimodal presentation of instruction is not to teach to individual learning styles (learning styles are really more myth than fact). What the multimodal approach does is reduce cognitive load and improve comprehension. Nobody learns best from a single mode of presentation (though they may have preferences). Everybody benefits from multimodal presentation. Keep this in mind when you develop your instructional materials and activities. For example, you might present the concept of primary vs. secondary sources with actual examples (tactile) and with a Youtube video (audiovisual).

#6 Try the workshop model. The workshop model is an approach that is used heavily in K-12 language arts, and sometimes in math. I think it’s an ideal approach for the one-shot session because it helps you plan instruction within a limited timeframe. The workshop model has four primary components: opening, mini-lesson, work time and debriefing. Opening (~5 minutes) is where you set your expectations and identify your objectives for the session. The mini-lesson (~10-15 minutes) is the direct instruction component of the workshop model, and may include demo and/or lecture. The work time (~30 minutes) component is where students are practicing what was taught in the mini-lesson. This may be through case-based learning, or they may be working on their own projects. Varying levels of guidance will occur during this time, depending on students’ needs. The debriefing (~10-15 minutes) component is where students reflect on their work. What did they learn? What questions do they still have?

#7 Use worked examples. Worked examples are an incredible instructional aid. You’re probably familiar with them from math, but I think they serve an important function in library instruction. In order for students to be good researchers and good writers, they need to see what “good” looks like. That’s where worked examples come in. A worked example of a research paper for library instruction purposes should include annotations of the bibliography and parenthetical citations. Why was the source selected? How was it found? Why did it need to be cited in specific locations? Better yet, make it an interactive worked example where each annotated item links to a pop up box with more information. Pop up boxes visually declutter and reduce cognitive load.

#8 Make real life connections. Not every student is a research scholar in the making. Most aren’t. Most don’t enjoy the academic research process. But someday they will be using those information literacy skills in some capacity. So they need to be able to transfer that knowledge beyond academia. That’s why making real life connections is vital for information literacy instruction. How do you make real life connections to research in the middle of a classroom in the middle of a campus in the middle of nowhere? Problem-based learning that is career-related or life-related in some future point of time (they need to be able to transfer beyond school, so make sure the cases reflect some future event). If the students already have a paper they are working on, it’s better to focus on that. However, making connections between school-based learning and lifelong learning is an element of 21st century learning, so libraries should consider integrating this type of problem-based learning into freshman orientation courses or something similar.

#9 Incentivize library use. Nothing is more aggravating than students who are proud to admit they never set foot in a library. They should be embarrassed by that. Success in school requires library use. And regular library users are probably more successful beyond school (I don’t know if this is true, but it sounds good). How do you get students in a one-shot session to go to the library later? Whatever it takes. Extra credit, if the classroom instructor agrees. Food. Prizes. Even a digital badging program if developed well. The most important thing is that students go to the library beyond the session and connect with librarians and library staff.

#10 Follow up. How many library sessions have you taught where you lost track of the students? Or didn’t follow up with the instructor to find out how the students fared on their assignments? Follow up is as important as preparing the learner (tip #1). Student surveys with questions directly related to their course might be useful, but in-person follow-up with the classroom instructor will probably yield the most valuable information and help you improve future library instruction.