Build Your Own Instructional Literacy
Librarians can shape ourselves into educators by devising our teacher identities
Posted Fri, 04/30/2010 - 11:10
Face it: Teaching is hard. It’s hard from any angle, using any technology, to any learner. Even for those enviable (and few) “natural teachers,” being an educator is as at least as challenging as it is rewarding. Not only does teaching take skills, preparation, and diligence; it demands bravery, humor, and self-awareness.
Now more than ever, librarianship has an instructional slant: From school library media specialists to academic librarians, we increasingly embed ourselves in curricula and classrooms, lead workshops and training, and create digital learning materials as a matter of course. Moreover, the librarian-as-teacher is beginning to enter the popular zeitgeist: Marilyn Johnson’s widely publicized This Book is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All (Harper, 2010) portrays today’s librarians as connected and techdactic, and a library-supported Digital Literacy Corps was among the provisions of the National Broadband Plan recently proposed by the FCC. These developments help bring the educational work we have been doing for decades—helping individuals navigate and thrive in the information society—into the limelight.
There is some irony in the timing of this development: a national debate about teacher training and effectiveness is raging, yet most of the country’s go-to digital literacy educators—e.g., librarians—were not systematically trained to teach in the first place. Sparked by the transition from Bush’s No Child Left Behind to Obama’s Race to the Top, the impact of instructor skills on student performance is an area of growing contention among scholars, instructors, and policy wonks. The economic crisis and resulting cutbacks, closures, and layoffs directly impact the digital-literacy load of all K–12, academic, and public libraries, making the education we do all the more critical as our users struggle to sharpen their skills in the face of higher stakes.
Despite this reality, most library instructors and trainers (with the exception of school media specialists) are ourselves self-taught and struggling to varying degrees with a teaching role we did not necessarily expect. How can librarians shoulder the growing teaching load we face and the range of skills and abilities it requires? The answer: by building our instructional literacy.
The untrained masses
Librarians are educators by default. From the quickest reference interaction to the most in-depth information-literacy initiative or staff-training program, librarians and library staff teach, train, present, and design learning materials in every aspect of our jobs, all the time. Through instruction, assistance, and mentorship we help individuals in every corner of society develop personal learning environments, find and evaluate the information they need to thrive, and empower themselves to be lifelong learners. We work with people outside the formal education system, for whom networks of learner support are often unavailable. We also support learners inside the system with research-skills instruction, assignment triage, and help navigating digital learning environment. Not only are we personal research coaches, information mentors, and technology consultants to the vast majority of society, we constantly train ourselves and our colleagues to stay one step ahead of this ever-changing landscape.
It’s likely that teacher training was not a programmatic aspect of your library education. Beyond a token information-literacy instruction class or public-speaking training here and there, most working library instructors pick up teaching and training up as we go. Other educators spend years learning pedagogical theory, instructional approaches, and assessment strategies; yet by comparison librarians are pushed into the ring with relatively shallow skills.
According to survey research among teaching librarians I conducted in late 2009, only about a third (N=398) completed any education-related coursework during their LIS training, and only 16% indicated that it was required. The revised 2008 ALA accreditation standards for LIS programs did not include instructional design or teaching methodology as part of the curriculum, underscoring a systemic lack of awareness of the extent to which we teach and train. Perhaps not surprisingly, two-thirds of respondents felt that their that LIS education did not adequately prepare them to design and deliver instruction; less than 5% felt strongly that it had.
Fashioning my identity
If I was drawn to librarianship, I was thrown into teaching. When I started library school some years ago I was completely unaware that my career choice would require me to design learning materials and teach or train on an almost daily basis. I face groups of (virtual or analog) students and/or colleagues and attempt to make one idea or another stick at least 20 times more frequently than I ever imagined.
I am, unfortunately, not one of those aforementioned natural teachers. Whereas I went into my career with my self-conception as librarian perfectly fashioned, I had to carve my teacher identity out of cold, unforgiving rock. Through this process I discovered that effective teaching is not one but many things: theories, methods, conviction, and experience. After years of work I can now think of myself as a library educator, or a librarian who constantly works towards knowledge-building among my users and colleagues as well as in myself.