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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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