Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Teaching skills for librarians.

University Library, Cambridge Last week, the CDG East of England Group hosted an afternoon of presentations and workshops at Cambridge University Library, on the topic of Teaching Skills for Librarians.  I found it both enjoyable and really useful, so - this is going to be a long blog post! 

It may not always be obvious, but teaching is an integral part of many library roles. Every time we interact with library users or create spaces and resources that support learning and personal development, we're teaching. Many of us also teach in more formal sessions: whether it's as embedded librarian teaching colleagues how information management can transform their project, a formal class on referencing methods or information literacy skills, or basic orientation sessions for new students, we're teaching.

That said, teaching skills weren't on the curriculum when I went to library school, and I'm honestly not sure when I switched from thinking of library orientation sessions as "presentations" and student's asking about how to research their assignments as "reference interviews" to thinking about both of those sorts of interactions as teaching, but somewhere in the past mumble mumble years, that change happened. "Teaching" is often the frame I use now, and it's a skill set I'm always looking to improve.

Chris Powis's session at Umbrella last year was one of my favourite sessions of the conference, and certainly the session which had the most immediate practical applications for me, so when I saw the opportunity to spend a half day thinking, hearing, and talking about teaching with fellow librarians, I jumped at it (even before I saw his name on the program!) 

Fortunately, it fell on a Friday and in a relative quiet spot in the semester, so I was able to take a day away from my students in good conscience, so I took the train up to Cambridge, and joined in.

The first session looked at Honey and Munford learning styles, and how thinking about the four different learning style preferences we might be able to enrich and improve teaching opportunities. Having a slight bias towards Pragmatic learning styles, I found Susanne Griffith's case study of changing the delivery her thesis support workshops really helped make this concrete for me, along with the exercise thinking about our own experience through the lens of each of the four styles.

I look forward to reading the collected notes from the whole group on the challenges and good practise that everyone identified there, but already have some ideas about how I might make some changes to my sessions as a result of Clare Humphries clear explanations, and my fellow group-members' experiences. I'm also wondering what working through a similar exercise using the different subsets of learning styles proposed by other psychologists would reveal – something for my inner Reflector to follow up on!

Clare and Susanne set a high bar for those who followed them, but Isla Kuhn and Clair Castle met the challenge, with a very elegant example of the Cephalonian Method in practise (think Greek island tours, not squids). Rather than telling us about the advantages of this question driven technique, they demonstrated it in action, and to excellent effect – we covered a good amount of material in a short space of time, and the process seemed to energise and engage us, despite their having the tricky just-before-the-break time slot.

This is a technique I'm definitely planning to incorporate into my future library orientation sessions – I have two cohorts coming in in May which might even give me the chance to trial one round of more structured questions, akin to what we experienced, and one round of "seat of the pants" student-lead questioning, as described by Isla, to see how both modes work in close succession.

Chris Powis's workshop also helped me reach this conclusion. His session was well placed to build on what had come before, and set up to draw on the diverse experiences of the delegates. After a review of one element of the theory of teaching, and enumerating 10 roles that teachers need to play, we were asked to work in groups to suggest one good concrete activity or approach for each, which prompted a really interesting conversation and a flurry of ideas for the practical applications.

The question that Isla had mentioned as her spur to students to invite her to spin them a student-led orientation was "What do you expect to find at a library?" This seemed to my workshop group like it could be a fantastic way to both audit a group's existing understanding, and motivate the group members to feel confident asking questions, by setting them up for a win with a phrasing that emphasises their experiences, rather than asking for something with a right or wrong answer that might feel riskier to answer in public.

A couple of our group members came up with the suggestion of further motivating our students, whilst simultaneously reinforcing the lesson that their librarians are their to talk to by rewarding students who speak up and answer that question with sweets. If my next orientation session seems me tossing mini packets of sweets at people, my students will know who to blame. (It's reassuring to know that chocolates seem to be effective rewards for all student groups from 11-year-olds to post-graduates!)

I'm thinking about some ways I might be able to use some of the suggestions brought up by other groups, as well, such as colour-coding priority information (essential, good to know, nice to know), following up on formal sessions with emails and websites, and asking faculty for specific feedback on how they'd rate students information handling skills after their first class assignment, and offering targeted follow-up sessions where they might be needed. It was also reassuring to discover that I'm not the only one who has identified the key take-away from a library introduction session is essentially "we're here for you – come back to us".

[One of the topic areas Chris Powis raised was that of "Demistifying the reading list" which is making me think – I suspect that could be a really interesting conversation to have with my faculty, who I suspect have a range of expectations of what they intend by their reading lists, which may or may not map to what students take away from them.]

It was useful, not just to hear examples of good practise for manifesting each of the teacher's roles, but also seen how people approached the activity, and how their wide range of experiences contributed to the pool of ideas. 

For example, discussing how you might get your students to explore both the library and the idea of the classification systems brought up different manifestations of the 'use this information to solve the clues' mystery approach, each appropriate to the different age ranges and learner goals that we're working with.

CambridgeThis sort of librarian-to-librarian sharing of experience and experiments is exactly what Jo Harcus was talking about in her closing session, introducing the group to TeachMeets, and the experiences of the Cambridge Librarians TeachMeet Team over their first two events. Having heard her presentations, and come away from this afternoon's conversations with teaching librarians enthused and energised, I'm so frustrated that the next London Librarians' TeachMeet event is on a date I am already booked solid on.

All credit to the organising team at CDG East of England, for putting together a really engaging program, and a really well organised event. Overall, it was absolutely worth the time (and the modest cost) – I've come away full of new ideas to try out, and new perspectives to think about, as well as with an expanded CDP reading list.

1 comment:

katthyt said...

Thanks Alice for sharing your blog post. I enjoyed reading it and am sure others will too, especially those couldn't attend. Thank you for your high praises, I'll pass it on the committee.