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CILIP 2015: learning points and reflections

Continuing my Epic Month of Conferences, on 2-3 July I headed to Liverpool for the CILIP conference. I was really excited for this one, largely because of the very high quality keynote speakers listed! I was also excited because it’s been a while since I attended a CILIP conference (my last Umbrella was in 2011 I think). And from the looks of the programme and all the pre-conference materials I’d seen, they’d made a real effort to make it relevant and responsive to the needs of information professionals across a wide range of sectors.

St George's Hall, Liverpool

St George’s Hall, Liverpool – a beautiful place for a conference!

There was a really positive, inspiring atmosphere at the conference – something which hasn’t always been present at UK library events, so it was good to see it here! I don’t know if I took quite as many practical things away with me to apply to my work as I did from SLA, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

What I did get from this conference is a real sense of the range of work information professionals are involved in, and the importance of this to society as a whole. It was great for reaffirming my commitment to the profession, as well as of course contributing to my knowledge of the wider professional context! (Why yes, I am chartering, how did you guess..?)

As with SLA, I live-tweeted the conference and have made a Storify of my tweets, retweets and favourites from each day, please see links below for detail of what was discussed:

Here’s my main learning points and reflections from the conference.

The keynotes

As mentioned above, the keynotes were initially my main reason for wanting to attend the conference! I was not disappointed: all the keynote speakers were engaging, inspiring, and made excellent points about the future and importance of the profession. As a general reflection, I really can’t top @bethanar’s heartfelt and eloquent post, which I urge you all to read!

It was great to see the keynote speakers tackling issues like information poverty, information security and privacy, freedom of information, librarians as educators, and the importance of access to information about our rights. These are all really key issues that should be at the heart of everything we do, but I’m not sure they’ve always had the attention they deserve in the UK library sector. (It’s telling to contrast this with the US, where ALA seems to take a much more active campaigning stance on information rights, for example on net neutrality.) It was heartening to see CILIP put these issues front and centre through its choice of keynotes, and I hope this focus continues.

My main learning points:

  • The work we do as information professionals is vital, and we need to ensure people know that.
  • If your work is the kind that is invisible when done well, make sure you tell people about it!
  • Librarians are not neutral, and we shouldn’t pretend to be. Access to information, literacy etc. are all political issues.
  • Libraries are not free! All our users have invested in the service, whether through taxes, student fees, or as part of a company’s overhead – that means everyone has a stake in the service, and we should make that clear.
  • Our role as educators and providers of information is crucial in an information society – whether that is providing information on our human rights, or signposting to other information providers such as fact-checking organisations.

The parallel sessions

Jan Parry’s talk about her work on the Hillsborough enquiry was a real eye-opener. I didn’t realise quite how much investigative work she did, for example in tracking down the families of the victims – right down to knocking on neighbours’ doors to track down people who’d moved away! As well as the general sense of awe at Jan’s compassion and professionalism in what must have been a very emotionally challenging job, I picked up the following points:

  • The importance of good record keeping – despite previous enquiries, there was no full list of all the victims’ families. The enquiry was very family-centric, which was why one of Jan’s first jobs was to track them all down – which took more than 2 years!
  • The need to promote what we do – Jan often got asked what she had to do with the panel, by people who didn’t understand what relevance a librarian had to the work. She explained that she was an expert in finding and recording information – which is not how people generally think of librarians! We are hugely vital to this kind of work though, which is why after Hillsborough, all independent panels are now going to have the involvement of information and records professionals.
  • The importance of knowledge management! There had been previous incidents and near-misses at Hillsborough before the tragedy but lessons weren’t learned – this struck me as a stark reminder of why open communication about risks and challenges is needed in every organisation.

Elizabeth Oddy and Anne Middleton’s talk about the pop-up library at Newcastle University was hugely impressive. This was a project undertaken to tackle the problem of overcrowding in the library. In response to student feedback about what they wanted from a library space, the librarians successfully argued their case to be given use of a conference building.

This was the really impressive part, to me: after first being offered just one room in the building, they managed to get permission to use the whole building, by using the data they’d gathered from door entry stats, student requests, and the other feedback they’d got from various means, to demonstrate the high demand for this service and prove that they could fill the building. This is a really good illustration of why you should back up your project ideas with data!

My other main takeaways:

  • Collect feedback everywhere – the librarians used everything from online surveys, ballot boxes, social media, to just stopping students in the library to ask what they thought. This ensured everyone could have a say!
  • Have a clear value prospect – they knew exactly what they wanted to achieve with this project so were able to articulate it clearly to decision makers.
  • Use the student voice! All of us in HE know how important the student experience is – we can make use if this if we are providing things we know the students want (see also: collecting feedback, above!)
  • Having a strong design/brand is important – I love the pop-art theme they came up with for branding, and the theme itself got them further exposure on top of the great response to the pop-up library itself.

Finally, Leo Appleton and Andy Tattersall’s talk on harnessing the power of social media for the benefit of library users was a good overview of the opportunities social media presents for libraries and librarians. It was a pretty wide-ranging talk, covering social media for research, for enquiries, and for promotion. Here’s my takeaways:

  • Social media is part of your enquiry service, whether you like it or not! If you’re there, people will ask you questions, and will expect a quick response.
  • Social media accounts must be responsive. I would argue that having a dead account is worse than having no account at all. Don’t set up social media accounts if you don’t have time to populate them!
  • The University of Sheffield’s Research Hacks videos look great: nice short videos introducing different social media services and their uses.
  • Dissemination channels for research are changing (e.g. expanding from scholarly journals and conferences to blogs, social media and open access publications), therefore the way we measure impact should change too. Altmetrics (e.g. number of shares/likes, links back, conversations on social media) can supplement traditional impact and citation data.

The networking

Maybe it’s because I’ve got more confident myself in networking, but I found it much easier to strike up conversations with people at this conference than I have at previous UK conferences. A lot of this I think was also down to the hard work of the CILIP Fringe team, who put on some great unconference-style sessions and events – that really helped people get talking together! I also really enjoyed talking to the exhibitors (encouraged by the chance of winning an iPad for collecting a sticker from everyone!) – as @joeyanne points out in her blog post on the conference, the exhibitors help make the conference what it is.

Usually at conferences I talk to one or two exhibitors that I need to know something from specifically, and ignore the rest. This time I made an effort to talk to everyone, even those that didn’t have any relevance to my own job. This was really interesting, and I felt like I learned a lot more than I would otherwise about the kinds of suppliers and services involved in libraryland as a whole. Although I’m not in a position to buy anything from many of them, it was a good learning experience – and I picked u a couple of things to pass on to colleagues who may be interested too.

Final thoughts

I was hugely impressed by the conference overall. I was also interested to see the launch of the CILIP Impact Toolkit on the final day – although I did wonder if it would have given more opportunity for discussion and exploration of the tool if it had been introduced at the start, perhaps with a Fringe session to explore the toolkit and share ideas.

I’m glad I attended the conference. Although I didn’t take away quite as many practical ideas as I did from SLA, and some points felt slightly repetitive (but perhaps necessarily so – I feel like we’ve been told we need to get ourselves out of the library for years, but then I think there’s so many of us who don’t take this advice that it’s probably a useful reminder!), overall I left feeling inspired by and reconnected to the information profession. Which ultimately, I think is the mark of a good conference :)

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SLA 2015: key learning points

View of Boston from the aeroplane

Boston from above

The week before last I headed off to Boston, MA, USA for the Special Libraries Association conference. I’m lucky enough to have been able to attend in previous years, so this was my third conference (thanks to the Bonnie Hilditch International Librarian Award, from the Engineering and SciTech divisions).

I really got a lot out of it this year, I would say probably even more so than the previous SLA conferences I’ve attended. I think because I’m a little more developed in my own career, and have experienced a few different roles and sectors, I know a bit more about what I want to get out of conferences like this.

It was a fantastic few days. I was hugely impressed by the programme – there were some really good, meaty topics covered, and a good variety of topics and session styles.

Boston was also fantastic to visit! I stayed on for a couple of days afterwards and did some sightseeing, including of course the wonderful Boston Public Library, which is stunningly beautiful and exactly what all libraries should look like!

Boston Public Library lion

Boston Public Library lion

I live-tweeted my way through most of the conference, and have created a Storify for each day, if anyone wants to see details of what was covered: Day One, Day Two and Day Three. Rather than rehash all of that, I thought I’d just do a brief post covering my main learning points/takeaways from some of my favourite sessions.

Keynote: Leigh Gallagher

Leigh Gallagher is Assistant Managing Editor at Fortune magazine, and gave an impassioned speech about the value of skilled information professionals in the world of journalism. It was very inspiring and engaging, although I did have a slight moment of skepticism at how valued librarians really are in the media world, given that in the UK the media librarians association AUKML had to close a number of years ago due to lack of members, as so many media librarians had lost their jobs. This was confirmed later when Leigh, after waxing lyrical about how great the librarian at Fortune is, noted that his job is now the only info pro role at the organisation, where a few years ago they had half a dozen.

That was the only slightly sour note for me though, and otherwise it was an excellent keynote. Leigh gave the usual advice (which I’m a little sad to see still needs to be stated, but I think it does!) that librarians need to get better at shouting about our value, get out of the library and embed ourselves in organisations to become indispensable.

One point she made that I found very interesting, was about branding information services as a high-value, artisanal product. Leigh noted that when writing her book, she’d hired Fortune’s librarian to work for her personally as a researcher and fact-checker. This is a hugely valuable service that many people would pay a premium for – so why don’t librarians exploit this!

I thought this was a really good point, and it is one I haven’t heard made in this way before. I think it’s difficult because many of us work in non-profit sectors, and even those of us who don’t perhaps still have the same mindset. The history of librarianship is very much that of a social purpose public service, which could inhibit us from seeing opportunities like this.

Of course, this is all a very neoliberal way of looking at it, which I’m sure wouldn’t go down to well at the Radical Librarians Collective I’m due to attend next week, so maybe I should leave this one for now!

Revolutionary Learning Organisations

This was one of my favourite sessions from the conference! It was a really interesting, case study-based and audience participatory session about successful strategies from and for revolutionary learning organisations. These were defined as organisations that:

  1. Are focused on advancing knowledge (e.g. all the case studies were from higher education institutions)
  2. Have a culture focused on people
  3. Are focused on continuing education (i.e. of staff) and change, and are supportive of both risk and failure.

There were some really interesting examples used in the case studies. One in particular I think horrified many of us in the room (and certainly many on Twitter, if responses to my tweet were anything to go by!): an organisation that shut down its library on a Friday afternoon every so often (I think they said about once a month?) for a four-hour “mega meeting”. Not only this, but the meetings are held at each team members’ house on a rotating basis, and the team members all cook things to bring to the meeting.

Just the idea of a four-hour meeting fills me with horror, not to mention the hostess anxiety I would get from having to invite my co-workers into my home and provide food! The presenters made a couple of good points though. The first was that they were aware this set-up wouldn’t work everywhere, and they wouldn’t expect us all to go off and try it – to which we all breathed a sigh of relief!

They then noted that the main point of the case study wasn’t about the mega-meeting itself: it was about getting away from the office, having an open forum where anyone could share ideas or concerns, and getting to know each other and bonding as a team. One staff member was quoted as saying that you couldn’t help but work with each other differently once you’d all met each others’ cats and dogs! The presenters suggested that many workplaces could aim for these goals in another way, e.g. by launching a workplace book group, or a sports team, or just meeting outside the workplace.

The other really great idea I picked up from this session was the 15five tool. This involves everyone spending fifteen minutes every Friday afternoon to answer five simple questions about their week. These answers are then shared with the management team, who use them to keep in touch with their team, identify any upcoming problems, or new great ideas, and set goals for development. The presenters gave an example set of questions:

  1. What challenges are you facing?
  2. How are you going to address these, and what help/support will you need?
  3. How are you feeling, and what are you doing in your area/team to build morale?
  4. What one thing would make the biggest improvement in your team or organisation? (This could be as big or small as you wanted)
  5. What is going well for you, and did you have any big wins this week?

I really like this idea, and I love the reflexive questions! I particularly like that it ends on a positive. There is a paid-for tool that organisations could use to implement this, but I think it could just as easily be done just via email, or even just as personal reflexion. I am going to start doing this myself at the end of each week, and will suggest it to my colleagues to see if anyone else has an interest.

Success in Knowledge Management: the anti-revolutionary approach

Katherine Schopflin’s session on KM was a real eye-opener. I’ve sort of stopped reading about KM since I left the law firm world – KM is a huge deal in commercial law firms, but I get the impression it’s not really on the radar in academic libraries. What this session made me realise is that it really should be! Knowledge needs managing everywhere, but particularly in large organisations with lots of separate departments with a tendency to keep everything in discrete silos.

I won’t go into masses of detail here – I would urge anyone with an interest to read Katherine’s paper, as I don’t think I could really do it justice with a summary! One of her main themes was the idea that KM has to come from the bottom and be internally-led and driven, rather than being imposed externally as is often the case. That really struck a chord with me, and  I’ll be giving some thought as to how this applies to the academic world.

Trends in Open Education and Open Access

This session, on an Open Education Resources (OER) initiative at the University of Massachusetts, gave me some good food for thought. I don’t actually know to what extent OERs have been explored at Huddersfield, but the speaker, Marilyn Billings, gave some compelling arguments in their favour, including:

  • Saving money for students (and the library?) on textbooks
  • More engaging resources created
  • Improved student engagement and performance (grades went up!)
  • Aiding innovative teaching methods e.g. flipped classroom
  • Opportunity for lecturers to raise their profile within and outside of the institution
  • Opportunity for librarians to raise awareness of topics like Open Access, copyright, Creative Commons, etc.

The programme at UMass was very ambitious, but had some impressive results. I’d love to know how much this sort of thing is being explored in the UK.

How to select the best databases for your community

Speaker Giovanna Badia gave a great, engaging and practical presentation on methods for comparing subscriptions databases. This was probably the most practically useful session I attended, and was also very entertaining – no mean feat given the potentially very dry topic! I’m actually writing up this session for the Engineering Division, so I won’t go into detail here. If you’re interested though, Giovanna has made a short YouTube video summarising her key points:

Those were all the main learning points I wanted to share, although I attended many other great sessions! My not having mentioned a session here shouldn’t be taken as indicating I didn’t get as much out of it, I just wanted to pick out a few highlights and the ideas that I am going to act on here.

I was a bit overwhelmed by the end of the conference to be honest, hence taking this long to write it up! I had an absolutely brilliant time though, met some fantastic people and got some great ideas to take back to work – which I understand is the purpose of these things :)

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Pedagogy for Librarians Day Five: Assessments and Evaluation

By the final day of the course, we were all pretty wiped out! I think the Big Teaches on Day Four took quite a lot out of us. At the same time though, I felt incredibly energised: I couldn’t wait to get back to work and put some of what I’d learned into practice (This was slightly tempered by the knowledge that I don’t really do any teaching over the summer, so it’ll be a few months before I actually get to use any of my new ideas… I just need to keep up the enthusiasm until then!)

Friday was a shorter day, so we didn’t cover quite as much as in the previous days. We spent most of it going over assessments and evaluations. We started with an activity to explain initial, ipsative, formative and summative assessments. We were split into four groups and each had to take one of the four and explain the How, What, Why, When, Where and Who of each assessment type. Below is what we came up with…

Initial Assessments

Ipsative Assessments

 

Formative Assessments

summative

We went on to discuss Assessment for Learning, a technique used to incorporate formative assessment throughout a learning session, aimed at improving learning by having frequent checks and adjusting the teaching accordingly. We watched a video by Dylan Wiliam, one of the theorists behind the technique, discussing it – it was originally introduced as a technique to use with children in school classrooms, so a lot of the literature focuses on its use in this setting, however it is applicable to learners of any age in any setting. I can’t embed this one unfortunately but I urge you to click the link and give it a watch – it’s only a few minutes, and well worth your time.

A couple of points really struck me from this video:

  • The startling claim that students can learn at double the rate with this technique!
  • The point that teachers learn most of what they know about teaching before they turn 18, as most of us teach in the way we were taught at school. It’s incredibly hard to change this habit – Wiliam notes that most teachers, when told about the benefits of assessment for learning, are already aware of them, they just aren’t implementing them. He posits that this is because traditional teaching is “good enough”, so as nothing is going disastrously wrong, there’s not as great motivation to change some very deeply ingrained habits.
  • Teachers typically wait less than one second to allow a student to answer a question, whereas 3-5 seconds is far more effective at promoting dialogue. I’m definitely guilty of doing this – leaving silent space for an answer is slightly terrifying, it always feels like you’ve gone quiet for much longer than you actually have!

We then went on to use the jigsaw technique (as discussed on Day Two) to investigate and explain to each other various elements of assessment for learning, including effective questioning techniques, peer and self-assessment, and effective feedback.

What struck me most is that many of these techniques seem really common sense – of course it’s better to ask someone a question that actually requires them to demonstrate their learning, rather than a yes/no, “do you understand” question! However I must admit, that hasn’t been the way I teach, probably because (as Wiliam noted) it isn’t the way I was taught.

Finally, we talked a little about evaluation, i.e. seeking feedback on learning experience, whether via external feedback, formal or informal, or self-evaluation (reflection). The key points to remember here:

  • You must act on evaluation! There’s no point collecting feedback forms and then sticking them in a drawer and doing nothing more with them.
  • Evaluation criteria should be integral and tailored to purpose, rather than one size fits all.

And with a little more form-filling and a final thinking round, we were done! I felt quite emotional when it was all over, and I know I wasn’t the only one! It was such a fantastic week. Jill, our tutor, was wonderful – knowledgeable, encouraging and supportive. And I learned so much from everyone else on the course as well – as I said in my first post, librarians are just such a wonderful bunch!

So, onwards and upwards. My next steps involve completing the assessments for the course (a couple of short essays and reflexive journals), reading some of the interesting materials we were pointed towards during the week, and of course, planning some of my teaching for the Autumn term to incorporate some of the great ideas I’ve picked up!

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Pedagogy for Librarians Day Four: Big Teach!

I spent all of Wednesday afternoon and evening preparing for the Big Teach, to be delivered on Thursday morning. I chose the topic of “finding health information with PICO” – this is a topic I have taught once before as part of a longer lecture to a multidisciplinary group of health students. PICO is a framework for picking the relevant information out of a real-world health problem, to identify knowledge gaps and formulate a search question. I won’t go into a huge amount of detail about what it entails here, but if anyone is interested, there’s a good explanation on the University of Huddersfield’s libguides.

I created a detailed session plan using the Northern College template (if anyone wants to see the template, let me know!), then spent the rest of the evening putting together a PowerPoint and producing some handouts and case studies for the activities in the session.

I think I probably spent longer on the PowerPoint than I actually needed to – I’m a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to presentations! I don’t think any of my other materials suffered as a result, but I probably made it all a bit more stressful than needed by working on it until so late. Here’s my slides, if anyone is interested:

I really learned a huge amount from this process. Starting with the planning side: I had never used (or even seen) a session plan before so found it a bit tricky to use at first, however once I’d got the hang of what to include I actually found it really useful. I’ve never really planned my teaching sessions before, beyond a “back of the envelope” list of topics I want to cover, so the session plan was a bit of a revelation. I’m a pretty organised and logical person in general so having a structured session plan really appeals to me. I could see straight away that having come up with learning objectives and a full outline of the session improved my actual teaching immeasurably!

I tried out a few new techniques in my session. At the start, I asked everyone to hold up a red, yellow or green “traffic light” card to indicate their existing level of knowledge of PICO (red for never heard of it, yellow for know what it is but not sure how to use it, and green for know what it is and how to use it). This allowed me to instantly see that I had four learners who had never heard of PICO, and two who had heard of it but didn’t know how to use it. I used this information to get a couple of my learners to swap places, so that the two “yellow” learners were seated next to “red” learners, and could share their knowledge and support those who knew less in the group activity stages.

I started off the session by outlining what PICO is and how it is applied. I then asked a few questions about how and why people thought it might be a useful tool, to generate a bit of discussion. This worked really well, which I was pleased by: I’ve always been a bit nervous of trying to start off discussions in my teaching, largely out of fear that no one will say anything!

I still think this is a legitimate worry – I knew that within the course, it was “safe” to try out techniques like this, as I was among supportive friends who would all join in with my discussions and activities. Sadly that is not always the case when addressing students! Seeing how well this went though has given me a bit more confidence to actually try this with students.

I then introduced an activity: I gave everyone a written case study, and asked them all individually to pick out information under the four PICO headings. I gave them a few minutes to do this, then asked people to pair up, and compare what they had picked out with what their neighbour had identified, and have a go as a pair at writing a clinical question based on their case study. Finally, I asked each pair to read out their clinical question to the group, and discuss what they had identified and why.

I’ve heard this technique referred to as “think-pair-share” before, and I was delighted with how well it went! It’s such a simple technique, but it does get learners to think about things to a much greater extent than if I was just talking at them. It’s also pretty well scaleable – one of the difficulties I find with teaching in libraries (and I’ve heard this a lot from others too) is that we’re often teaching massive groups, because we only get to see each cohort once so often have to teach them all together. It’s very difficult to organise activities for such large groups, but think-pair-share could be done pretty easily with even the largest groups, with a bit of careful planning of the “share” stage.

To round up the session, I asked my learners to feedback about how they had found the activity, and asked a few questions to prompt a bit of discussion about how they would see PICO being used in practice, and whether they thought they might find it useful themselves (most did – yay!) Finally, I asked everyone to hold up a traffic light card again, as at the start – and was pleased to see four green cards and two yellow/green (two people felt on the fence so held up two cards!).

There were a few things that could have gone better in my session. For example, I had meant to put the PICO definitions back on the screen and reiterate them verbally before setting the learners off with the individual and pair tasks, but forgot to do so. I also felt like I spoke too much at the start – the initial explanation of PICO was quite lengthy – so I think I could have started with an activity to engage the group before launching into my explanation. It was also noted in my feedback that I could have put my learning objectives up on screen at the start and end of the session – I agree this would have been useful, I’d actually intended to do this when writing my slides but forgot about it!

I also learned lots from participating in everyone else’s sessions! Observing the ways everyone else taught was very informative. For example, I was impressed at what a difference it made when in some sessions we had to actually get up and move around the room, e.g. to stand in areas denoting our feelings/thoughts on a subject, or to write ideas on flipchart paper.

A couple of people used props, which were great: one used folded “fortune tellers” to illustrate the CRAP test (I am totally stealing this idea, as well as the fantastic video she also showed!), and another handed out food items with various use by/best before dates to illustrate information literacy. I would never have thought of using props this way, but they were really effective so I’d love to give this a go (with the caveat that I think you’d need quite a small group to be able to use props like this).

I came away at the end of everyone’s Big Teaches with several new ideas to incorporate into my practice. I am going to start using session plans, as I found this enormously helpful in outlining what I was going to do and why. I plan to include many more interactive activities in my teaching, in particular think-pair-share and using traffic light cards to gauge initial knowledge.

I would like to try to incorporate activities using the physical space, for example contributing to ideas on flipcharts, however this may be more difficult depending on the size of the group and the layout of the room I am given (both of which I have no control over!).

Finally, on a personal level I have learned that a lot of my anxiety over teaching was unfounded. I came to realise during the week that almost everyone else on the course had the same worries and concerns as I did and that although many of my fellow learners had been teaching for much longer than I have, that didn’t necessarily mean they felt any more knowledgeable or prepared than I did.

It seemed a fairly common experience on the course that many of us were thrust into teaching without any real training – which made me wonder, is teaching ever covered in Library School? It certainly wasn’t at City, and none of the people I spoke to on the course about it remembered it being covered at their library school either. This seems a massive oversight to me, as teaching is something that so many of us end up doing.

It would make sense to me for there to be an optional module on the basics of teaching as part of library school – optional because it’s not necessarily something that all of us will do (I’ve worked in several library roles where teaching didn’t feature at all), but should at least be there so people can explore it if it’s something that appeals to them and that they think they may want to explore. I’d be interested to hear others’ thoughts on this.

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Pedagogy for Librarians Day Three: Planning learning, and radical librarians!

As my Day Two post was getting a bit long, I’ve shifted my notes on the last activity of the day to this post instead, to balance my posts out a little…

On Tuesday evening, we got together for a group discussion led by Andrew Walsh, about the definition of information literacy. Andrew got us to discuss our own ideas of what an information literate person looked like. We came up with points including:

  • Someone with an understanding of how and why information is produced, and who by – identifying and differentiating sources
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Adaptability, lifelong learning
  • On a continuum – you don’t reach a point where you are definitively information literate, any more than you can have a cut off point for when someone is literate or numerate!
  • What is meant by information literacy will vary according to context

We felt the last two points were particularly important, but as Andrew pointed out, it’s one that’s rarely considered in official frameworks for information literacy: the people who write those tend to be looking for something that is finite, standardised, and measurable!

We agreed that it is important to teach students generic IL skills that can apply to any context: i.e. don’t teach the best way to do something, teach how to find the best way for them. We discussed the need to move away from teaching mechanics (e.g. teaching how to use a specific database, that will invariably change its interface immediately after your session!) and towards teaching critical thinking, how to ask the right questions and identify what they need to know, etc.

However we all found that it was difficult to find teaching time to do this when the pressure is on us to just teach the mechanics. We also wondered if there would be push-back from students on this: it’s difficult to get past the assignment/exam-focused mentality! Many students tend to only want to be taught what they know they will be tested/assessed on. The challenge for us is to try to make a difference in students’ lives rather than just teaching how to find a few references to support one essay!

Library fireplace, Northern College

Any excuse to share the photo of the beautiful library fireplace again!

Wednesday started with a talk from the “radical librarians” at the Northern College, who are a pretty awesome bunch! They talked about their service ethos, and some of the award-wining projects they’ve run. I won’t go into detail about everything they talked about, but here’s a couple of my takeaways from their talk:

  • Important to get out and get involved in the running of the college, e.g. the librarians deliberately put themselves forward for the inspection process, which had historically paid only token attention to the library.
  • Personality is considered more important than skills when hiring new librarians. Skills can be taught!
  • Important personality traits for librarians at Northern College: sense of humour, resilience, adaptability, competitive (as in for the service, not competing with each other!), loyalty
  • Seeking extra roles can help demonstrate your skills and value, e.g. librarians at Northern College now take on personal tutor roles, as this was something they were doing informally anyway.
  • Service delivery is the key priority. Gave example of a lecturer who had broken the screen of an iPad loaned by the library: it was decided that spending the £25 to fix the broken screen and apologising to the lecturer for not providing decent transporting equipment (it had fallen off a wobbly trolley) was worth infinitely more than losing goodwill and potentially jeopardising the whole iPad programme by blaming them for the damage and chasing them for payment!
  • Reputation is key, need to be known for providing excellent service.
  • Staff at all levels are empowered to get involved in management decisions – this is key to sharing good ideas, as well as ensuring staff feel engaged and valued.

After the librarians’ talk, we went on to discuss how to plan teaching sessions. We spent some time going over how to create a scheme of work (an outline for all sessions in a course) and a session plan (a detailed outline of what will be covered in one session). I’d never used a session plan before, but having gone through them and then used one to plan my next day’s teaching (more on that later), I am a convert!

Using a session plan made it so much easier to set out what I was going to cover and (crucially) why, how I would get my points across (i.e. what learning activities to use), and set a timed schedule for the session so I’d know I could definitely fit everything in. I’m not so sure I’d use a scheme of work again, as I’m generally delivering one-off sessions rather than part of a series, but the session plan is definitely a useful tool I’ll continue to use.

We then talked about differentiation. Differentiation refers to recognition that not all learners will learn at the same pace or in the same way, and putting things in place to ensure everyone is stretched – so fast learners don’t get bored, and the slower learners don’t get left behind. It also refers to ensuring that you’re covering a range of learning preferences.

So differentiation could mean introducing extra activities for people who have finished early, or it could mean thinking of different levels of probing questions to ask people based on how well they seem to have understood so far. One of the other librarians on the course shared this really useful diagram showing levels of questions that can be used for shallower or deeper questioning, which I found quite useful in planning my next session:

Reflective questions

Finally, we talked about ways to structure a session. Jill explained that regardless of length, teaching sessions should always have four distinct components:

  • Connect – connect with prior learning (if session is part of a wider course), with previous learning (external), or with learners themselves. This stage either makes links with existing knowledge (e.g. a short introductory quiz), or finds out expectations and shares learning outcomes.
  • Activate – input of knowledge (not necessarily from teacher, could come from group work, research, etc)
  • Demonstrate – making use of knowledge, demonstrating understanding.
  • You can often move backwards and forwards between activate and demonstrate – doesn’t have to be a linear process!
  • Consolidate – hugely important, Jill warned us not to skip this step! Bring everyone back together, check and consolidate learning.

That was it for Wednesday, because the rest of the day was left to us to prepare for our Big Teach the next day! The Big Teach was the name given to our task on Thursday (to distinguish it from the Little Teach on Tuesday). For the Big Teach, we each had to prepare and deliver a 30 minute session on the topic of our choice. We were advised to make it something work-related, so we could use our plans when we returned to work. This was a pretty big piece of work for all of us, so I’ll give it its own blog post next!

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Pedagogy for Librarians Day Two: Barriers to learning and learning styles

Origami butterfly

Origami butterfly

On Tuesday, we had our first practical teaching sessions. We each had to deliver a “little teach”: a 10-minute session on the topic of our choice. There was a great variety of subjects covered, including how to play the ukulele, care for orchids, say a few phrases in Malay, prune plants, fence, and play some chords on the ukulele! I did mine on how to make an origami butterfly.

We all observed and took part in each others’ sessions. We used quite a nice feedback mechanism: Jill put us all in pairs, and asked us each to feedback to our partner by giving them three “stars” – three pieces of positive feedback. Jill then gave all of us three stars and one “wish” – a piece of constructive advice. This was a good way of maintaining the positive, supportive environment in the group – especially given it was only our second day! Having only one person each to provide feedback for also meant we were able to spend more time engaging with everyone else’s sessions.

I learnt a few useful pointers for my own teaching: for example, checking the skill level in the room before beginning, and encouraging more able/knowledgable group members to assist anyone who may be struggling, rather than making that entirely my responsibility.

I was interested to see the different ways people used handouts (e.g. at beginning or end of session, how much detail on them, pointers to further information, etc.) and ways to check knowledge (e.g. quizzes, activities) as these are areas I haven’t explored much in my own teaching. I had quite a collection of handouts and props by the end of the session – most people had used simple paper handouts, but a couple used other props such as twigs (to demonstrate where to make a cut when pruning)!

Handouts and props from little teaches

Handouts and props from little teaches

The little teaches took up all morning. In the afternoon, we started with a really good group activity to introduce the idea of barriers to learning. Jill gave us a picture on a flipchart of “Katy”, a woman pursuing an adult education course. Jill then read out Katy’s story of trying to access education. We each took Katy’s picture in turn and, as Jill was reading, tore a strip off Katy every time we identified a barrier to learning that Katy had come across (e.g. her family were unsupportive, the library where she asked for information didn’t know anything about the course, her childcare issues made her late to arrive, etc.) By the end of the story poor Katy was in shreds! We then went round and explained why we had each torn a strip off Katy. Then, Jill gave us some tape and asked us, together, to put Katy back together again, which we did with a bit of teamwork!

I really enjoyed this exercise: it was a vivid depiction of how difficult accessing education can be for many people. Katy’s story wasn’t particularly unusual, and none of the individual barriers should have been insurmountable, but it was the cumulative effect of them all that gave them a far greater impact (if anyone is interested in this exercise by the way, I have Katy’s story in a Word doc).

It led to a very productive group discussion, where we identified some of the barriers we may have been inadvertently putting in the way of our learners. I thought it was notable that in Katy’s story, several of her barriers involved her finally plucking up the courage to ask for help, only to be turned away by someone being unhelpful, rude, or simply not knowing what she was asking about.

Katy torn into strips

Our attempt at putting poor Katy back together again

We briefly discussed Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and the fact that some of our learners may be missing the most basic needs, such as sleep and food (it’s pretty common for university students to not be getting enough sleep, or decent meals!), which will severely impact their learning. Obviously we as librarians can’t ensure all our learners are well-fed and rested before they see us! But we can do things like plan for refreshment breaks in longer sessions, and plan short bursts of activity to allow for the possibility that sleep-deprived students won’t be able to concentrate for long periods.

We also discussed the role we play in “putting people back together again” after they’ve had strips torn off their self-confidence: things like providing a supportive environment, and acting with respect and encouragement, harking back to the values discussion on Day One. However, as illustrated by Katy, you can try to put someone back together, but they’ll never be quite the same.

We went on from here to talk about learning styles. I hadn’t been looking forward to discussing these, as I’ve always found the classic Visual/Aural/Kinaesthetic model rather simplistic and unrealistic. I was pleasantly surprised therefore to go into much greater depth than this: Jill mentioned the VAK model, but noted that it’s now widely disputed in the field, largely due to a growing understanding that there are far more than 3-4 learning styles (Gardner identifies 9!), and that your learning style or preference will usually adapt according to circumstance.

We discussed the way active learning techniques turn the traditional model on its head, changing our role from imparter of knowledge to facilitator and guide. This can be very nerve-racking for teachers (myself included!) and can also be disconcerting for students – someone mentioned that some students complain when they are taught using active methods, as they feel like they’re having to do the teacher’s job for them! On the teacher’s side, active methods require far more time to prepare, but less “on” time in the classroom – which can itself be a challenge, as for many teachers this will feel like ceding control of the classroom.

We agreed that whatever your opinion of learning styles, a mix of activities designed to appeal to different preferences would be the best way to keep learners stimulated and interested. We did a group activity involving matching types of learning activities to different learning preferences. My group struggled a bit with is (our attempt is below) as we actually thought that most of the example activities could appeal to several learning preferences, depending on how they were introduced and facilitated. This was apparently part of the point though: we went on to discuss as a group ways to adapt activities to ensure they appealed to and incorporated a range of different styles.

Constructivism-exercise

I got some great ideas for learning activities from this session, that I’d love to make use of: e.g. jigsaw, which involves giving groups of learners part of a topic to discuss between them, then splitting up and reforming into new groups with one member each of the original group, and asking them to explain their part of the topic to the rest of their new group. We all thought this could work great in a library context, for something like evaluating different source types, or even a library induction!

 

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Pedagogy for Librarians Day One: Values and Professional Practice

On the first day of the course, after arriving and going over the various admin bits we needed to cover first thing, we started off the course with a “thinking round”. This is based on Nancy Kline’s work on “the Thinking Environment”, and involved us going round the room and each replying in turn to a prompt question. I must admit, when Jill first said that was what we were going to do my heart sank: it reminded me of what usually happens in courses, that I’ve heard referred to as “the creeping death”: where you all have to go round and say something about yourselves, and everyone watches the creeping death approaching them with a sense of dread, and no one really listens to what everyone else has said.

However, it actually worked really well – throughout the course we started and closed every day with a thinking round, and I ended up really looking forward to it! That first day, we started by just saying our names and where we were from, and Jill then started the first thinking round with the question “what’s going well for me” (that might not have been the exact wording, but that was the gist). She left it completely open, so we could interpret for ourselves whether to take that as work-related or otherwise – I think most people said something about our personal lives rather than work (I talked about the potato plants I am somewhat successfully growing in my new garden!).

Afterwards Jill asked us all how we’d felt about it, which led to a really interesting group discussion about sharing in a group environment, fear of embarrassment, fear of “getting it wrong” (Jill hadn’t explained anything about the question or how we were to respond, so we all found it slightly nerve-racking to start with as we didn’t know what was expected) – all of which we linked back to early experiences in education, which gave us a useful framework to start talking about teaching and learning.

As we went throughout the week, the thinking rounds included some slightly more probing questions, and we all opened up a bit more. I think because we’d started with a very low-pressure, innocuous question, and gradually worked up to discussing more personal issues, this helped foster a supportive group dynamic, so it didn’t feel uncomfortable to do. I don’t think this could be made to work in the one-shot sessions most librarians get with our learners – I think you need to be seeing the same group over a period of time, and developing that relationship – but it’s an interesting technique to bear in mind nonetheless.

After this, we went on to discuss our values and how these inform our professional practice. We were each asked to think about what values we held, and an example of a practice principle we embody based on each value we identified. This was surprisingly challenging: I’d never really thought about how my values affect what I actually do at work. However, once we got into it we all came up with quite a lot. Below are some of my own values and related practice principles, plus some that came out of the discussion afterwards that particularly chimed with me:

  • Supportiveness – approach every enquiry with patience and encouragement. There are no silly questions!
  • Inclusion – allow for differences in abilities and experience when planning a session
  • Respect – listen rather than interrupting, turn up on time (or early!) for appointments, thorough planning
  • Equality & fairness – try to treat all enquiries/requests as equal importance, whether student, staff, researcher, etc.
  • Authenticity – being enthusiastic, friendly, e.g. saying hello and goodbye to learners who come along to a session
  • Empowerment – enabling lifelong learning, instilling confidence
  • Empathy – verbal acknowledgement of difficulties, body language
  • Acceptance – setting up ground rules to incorporate inclusivity (e.g. allowing people to exit and come back in if needed)
  • Independence – facilitate learning, don’t just tell!

To close off the day, we watched a great video from the RSA on “Changing Education Paradigms”.

We then had a wide-ranging discussion around the video. We talked about the people that we knew or had worked with who had been harmed by the specific, limiting model of what “intelligence” means, as used by schools – people who have brilliant, creative minds but spent their school years being told they were stupid, and came to believe this. I’ve seen this too many times, and it’s heartbreaking.

We also talked about the changing world we live in, and the point that children and young people (in fact, I would argue people of any age) are being educated for jobs in the future that don’t actually exist yet. This means that the best thing we can do is teach them to learn, rather than teaching them a set of skills that will be out of date by the time they’re working. However, as librarians we’re often expected to just teach the mechanics of searching various databases, rather than teaching “soft skills” such as information literacy – something we discussed a lot more later on in the week.

We got into quite an impassioned discussion about the pressures placed on teachers in the current education system, and how quickly teachers are now burning out and leaving teaching. One large problem seems to be that teachers are expected to spend so much of their time on admin, inspections and meeting the government’s ever-shifting targets, which means less time to spend actually teaching and supporting students. I got a little emotional about this, as it’s a bit of a sore subject to me. I sent a couple of tweets about this later that evening, which I’ll leave here rather than going into further depth on this.

We concluded that it could feel a bit dispiriting, being on a course like this, because all we were really doing was tinkering around the edges of our own teaching, whereas the sense we were getting from the video and from our own discussions was that the whole education system needs a radical re-think. However that’s a little out of our control! We decided though that, although we couldn’t dismantle the whole education system and put it back together by ourselves, we could still do our best for the learners we came into contact with by teaching according to our values.

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