Build Your Own Instructional Literacy

Librarians can shape ourselves into educators by devising our teacher identities

April 30, 2010


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.

In library school we are taught what information literacy (IL) means, but we are not necessarily shown how to teach it well. Furthermore, IL theory barely scratches the surface of the educational work we actually engage in, from basic computer-skills education to advanced informatics workshops, much of which occurs in the digital environment or to our peers at conferences and professional-learning events. Different contexts require different strategies; there is no one-size-fits-all approach to educating.

We know we should ground our efforts in pedagogy and design knowledge, but without an instructor-development background or a structure of ongoing accreditation, we are left wondering how to actually go about it. I do not mean to imply that we are unskilled, dispassionate, or without resources: Library educators train on the job, pursue continuing education, work with mentors, and engage in professional learning until our on-the-ground errors eventually become less vexing. We are simply too often thrown in headfirst and blindfolded.

Learning in the trenches

Learning in the trenches is to some extent inevitable, and teaching anxiety is a very real thing. I began my career as a library educator facing rooms full of undergraduates with nothing but terror in my heart and mumbly confusion on my lips. My introduction to instruction was so difficult that I challenged myself to become a stronger and more confident library educator, or else. I spent the last several years searching out a route to pedagogical skills and confidence, from experimentation in the classroom to informal mentorship to an instructional technology degree. All of this brought the extent of what I didn’t know into sharper relief, and, apropos to librarianship itself, helped me understand instructional skills as their own type of literacy.

Recognizing that these skills are widely sought in our field, I developed a practical four-part instructional literacy framework to help library educators engage with the teaching aspect of their identities:

  • 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.

Building hands-on skills in these four areas can lead to more effective and enjoyable teaching, training, and digital-learning design. Moreover, it helps you cultivate the all-important abilities of thinking on your feet and learning as you teach.

The USER Method

Reflective practice is an attitude of constructive self-awareness during the teaching process; educational theory helps you bring evidence to your instructional practice; teaching technologies are a means to engage learners and adapt to shifting opportunities and expectations; and instructional design is a step-by-step approach to creating effective learning experiences.

The last element of instructional literacy, instructional design (ID), is a very practical method for the madness of educational planning. I am a visual learner as well as someone who appreciates maps, frameworks, and guidebooks of all kinds, and I find that ID models are like blueprints for teaching with impact. They lay out best practice schematics that help you build a solid teaching structure, from foundation to weathervane. Not all models are created alike, however: Over years of trial and error I have found that many established ID approaches can be cumbersome in the resource-scarce environment of the library educator. As a result I created the USER Method as a rapid and adaptable means of design thinking in library-focused teaching and training, from the smallest one-shot workshop to the most ambitious programmatic IL initiative.

The USER Method

The components of USER are Understand, Structure, Engage, and Reflect. Each step has two parts, which can be followed in order or simply kept in mind as elements of good teaching practice. USER codifies common teaching sense: before you design your content, learn something about the students you will be teaching. Throughout a learning interaction, build in assessment whenever possible. Evaluate teaching technologies for their ability to solve problems and extend the learning interaction rather than on face value. The steps and phases of USER are more than a method to support the step-by-step development of responsive, tech-smart, and student-centered learning experiences; they also help you triage your own practice and develop a mindset for reflective teaching.

The following is a brief description of each step of the USER process. As you read, think about a learning scenario you have been involved in recently or are in the process of planning: Did you progress through any of these stages organically, even if you didn’t intentionally take an ID approach? If you were a learner in the interaction, were there any steps that might have been missed?

Understand. In the first stage, investigate the learning scenario.

  • Start by identifying a problem that instruction can solve by asking, “What is the challenge learners face, and how can I help them meet it?”
  • This is followed by analyzing the scenario, which involves considering the conditions and constraints of each element of instruction: learner, content, context, and educator. Listing these specifics provides insight into who your audience is, what they need to know and why, the resources you bring to the table, and how the learning environment can be shaped to facilitate a positive learning experience.

Structure. Next, define what you want learners to accomplish and outline the strategies you will use to present active and learner-focused content.

  • Begin by creating targets—goals, objectives, and outcomes—that help you streamline your content and activities and evaluate whether learning has occurred.
  • Identify methods to a) involve learners using delivery techniques, technologies, and activities; and b) extend the interaction by supporting students along the continuum of learning.

Engage. Subsequently, create your instructional objects and participate in the learning interaction:

  •  Develop the materials of instruction, e.g., the syllabus, outline, handout, lesson plan, and/or course guides in a live interaction; or the storyboard, game, website, or tutorial in a web-based interaction. This begins with creating prototypes, gathering feedback, then revising and finalizing your learning objects.
  • Deliver instruction by developing an implementation plan, then capturing and sustaining learner attention through engaging delivery.

Reflect. Finally, consider whether learning has occurred and how you might improve your instructional product.

  • Assess your impact by determining whether participants have met the desired performance targets.
  • Consider how you might revise and reuse your content in the future.

You can progress through the USER model as a series of steps, focus on one area in particular, or jump around to suit your needs. The approach is not exactly sequential, and steps can often overlap; for example, as you define targets you are also to some extent thinking through activities and assessment strategies. The most important thing is that each step should be considered before the learning interaction occurs.

As some of the most visible representatives of our profession, library educators are instrumental in shaping the way information is perceived and used in an increasingly digital world. Raising our profile as educators is our opportunity to demonstrate our dynamic value to our users and communities and diffuse the many literacies required of us all, from visual to media to technology. The motivation for this is simple: Librarians are redefining our identities in a changing information paradigm, and it is essential that we perceive the role of education in this process—for ourselves and our users. No matter whether they are public, academic, school, or special, libraries are and will remain communities of learning. When we cultivate stronger, more grounded relationships to teaching, we sharpen our ability to advocate as well as educate.

Char Booth is e-learning librarian at the University of California at Berkeley. She was named a 2007 Emerging Leader by the American Library Association. This article is adapted from her book Reflective Teaching, Effective Learning, to be published by ALA Editions in fall 2010.