on getting ready, slow thinking, and asking for help …

This is a cross post from the Association of Independent School Librarians: Independent Ideas Blog.

'slow' photo (c) 2009, super awesome - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

While meeting up with a whole group of really incredible and lovely librarians at AISL Dallas was wonderful, one of the challenging downsides for me has been writing this blog.  It’s one thing to sit down and tap out a blog post on some random thing tumbling about in the cavern that is my head for an audience that might “theoretically” exist someplace out there in the 3-D world, but for me, writing has suddenly become a LOT more difficult now that I’ve actually met you incredible and lovely, living and breathing human beings that are actually reading my random thoughts.  Oy!!!

Anyway, here’s one last post before I take my AISL blogging summer hiatus.

Part I – Getting Ready and All Things Debbie Abilock and Kurt Eichenwald

I have never been a great under pressure. In high school, I was on the volleyball team. You should know that “I was on the volleyball team” is a very carefully crafted turn of phrase.  You see, I went to practices. I had a uniform. I was a good volleyball team member, and I was fairly decent in practice. The statement is completely true! To say, “I played volleyball in high school,” however, would probably be a lie.  I was that guy that could execute in practice, but struggled with “choking” when it came time to put what I had learned in practice on the line in a game when people were watching and keeping score.

That’s probably more than you really ever wanted to know about my high school years, but please bear with me (by the way, did you know “bear with me” means to have patience, but “bare with me” is an invitation to remove our clothing? … This Internet thing is AMAZING!). Anyway … Please be patient with me, and we’ll come back around to the whole volleyball thing by the end …

In addition to not being good under pressure, I’m an incredibly slow thinker. It’s not that I’m a dolt or anything. I just need a lot of time for thoughts, ideas, and information to marinate and gestate in my head before something useful emerges.  I learned so much at the Dallas conference, yet, I really wasn’t able to do anything with the stuff that I learned until the very end of the year.  In her incredible presentation on Autopilot Thinking and Mindful Teaching, Debbie Abilock made a passing reference to the findings from The Citation Project that indicated that “77% of all the citations [studied] were to the first three pages of the source, regardless of whether the source is three pages or 400+ pages.” Later on in the presentation, Debbie put forth the notion that much of what educators brand as plagiarism in the form of “patchwork writing” is actually “incomplete synthesis.”

In his Skip Anthony Keynote, Kurt Eichenwald touched on the same idea with his statement, “information is not knowledge.”

Whoa!

Part II – Slow Thinking and Planning

I didn’t realize it at the time, but of everything that I saw and learned at the conference, those two ideas are the ones that have turned out to have resonance in my practice with teachers back here in the day-to-day life of the library and with the way we are shaping our information literacy instruction.

It took a month or two, but this is what emerged in my thinking on these two ideas–at the most basic level possible, student research cannot be successful until the student understands the context of his/her research within the broader topic.

Now, I don’t know about you, but this isn’t exactly new to me. It is all stuff that I’ve known all along. However, a lack of time, institutional culture, and short handing the collaboration and planning process with our teachers a little too much (“It’s the same Eastern religions project as last year …”) sort of all conspired together. The result has been research assignments and tasks that were more decontextualized than was optimal for our students.

In a practical sense, what that means is that if we hope to have a student achieve any kind of depth in her research on the gods and goddesses of Hinduism, our 12-year old CANNOT begin with the gods and goddesses of Hinduism. Her research MUST start with “Hinduism” or perhaps even more broadly, “religion” for it is in the peeling away of the peripheral aspects of religion, then Hinduism, that our 12-year old might begin to see the significance of meaning of the gods and goddesses within Hinduism.

Because so much of our information literacy instruction is widgeted into projects developed by subject-area teachers, the biggest impact we, as librarians, can have is in helping our teachers “think like librarians” and more concretely, collaborating with teachers as they shape research tasks in the form of their projects and assignments.  I work with WONDERFUL teachers. Now, I don’t know about your teachers, but as wonderful and as generous as my teachers are, teachers at our still-pretty-traditional school are BUSY and STRESSED and feel deeply responsible to teach a LOT of content.  Given this context, our teaching faculty is not always exactly chomping at the bit to meet with librarians for two hours after school to collaborate on a research project that they’ve done for the last three years.

Over the years we’ve made efforts to build and bank as much social capital as we could possibly manage to hoard.  We have coffee and snacks in the work room. We handle booking of computer labs for people. We drop everything to help with instruction of any kind. We provide basic tech support. We just try to be as helpful as we can in any way possible. Sometimes this affords us the luxury of cashing some of that social capital in and I did just that.  I asked a few teams of teachers to sit down with me to start a discussion about our philosophy of research and information literacy and they were kind enough to accommodate me.

Part III – Working with Really Smart Teachers and Asking for Help

I work with some of the brightest people I know! They really are some amazing people! A great many of our teachers come out of the best schools and universities in the country–many of them are quite used to being the smartest folk in the room.  Over the years, I’ve come to figure out that when you work with really smart teachers, that it can sometimes be counter-productive to approach them with “the library’s plan and framework for research.”  There is too much on the typical teacher’s plate and there is just too much else going on with institutional culture for that approach to have much traction.  We’re finding that we have much better success by bringing, what is for teachers, a murky problem about students’ research habits and skills into clear relief, then asking for their help in solving the problem.

It looks something like this.

Hi folks! Students, not just here but everywhere, are having problems doing good research.  We wanted to start a conversation with you before you head off for the summer and start thinking about research and projects that you want to have kids do next year. A recent study of citations of papers submitted at 16 US universities indicated that 77% of the citations were from the first 3 pages of sources whether those sources were three ages or 400+ pages. This seems to square with some of the things we suspect might be happening with our kids here. I think the problem is that we are presenting research and information assignments to kids that doesn’t help them BEGIN from a clear enough point of context. Is that your intuition?

We went on to chat about patchwork writing as incomplete synthesis and we ended by asking for our teachers to look for ways to help us remedy our newly defined research ill. Like me, I think our teachers were intuitively aware that this seemed likely to be happening, but it’s one of those things that you can’t really see until someone at a conference you attend points it out, after which you can never un-see it as it materializes in your students’ papers and projects.

We ended with more of a plea for help.

What do you think? We see this meeting a just the start of a dialog about bringing more context to the research our students do and as part of that we’re hoping that you’ll think about your curriculum and look for places where we might be able to help kids do better with this!

I have to say, the response from the sampling of teachers I met with has been remarkable! “We need to have kids start by pre-searching the general topic, before having them generate their driving questions.”

Whoa!!! THAT’s a paradigm shift!

So anyway, to bring this very lengthy post back around to my tendencies to choke on the volleyball court, the fact that I am a slow thinker, and the fact that I work with some incredibly bright teachers. Start with a goal that you have clarified and brought into clear relief for yourself. For me, it was the need to have our kids START their research with more context. Take some time to really plan a strategy and approach that presents your insight so that it resonates with your teachers, since that is the only way that your idea has any hope of scaling out beyond the walls of your library. Finally, ask for their help solving your information literacy problem. If they’re anything like my teachers (and I can just about guarantee you that they are) you’ll be thrilled by their responses!

Have a wonderful and restful summer, all!

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