A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak at unCOILed (a local library workshop). I think I’ll share more about my talk in coming posts, but a topic came up that merited its own post. Before the first breakout session, all of the day’s speakers participated in a panel discussion about why information literacy matters and the best ways in which to teach those skills. As the conversation unfolded, several audience members spoke out about the need for information literacy instruction to be immediately relevant and practical to student needs, and that Library schools needed to focus less on theory and more on teaching those pragmatic skills. As you might imagine if you’ve been reading this blog, I began to squirm.
As soon as there was a natural pause in the conversation, I raised my hand, and said the following (approximately):
I’d like to push back a little on this. Practical teaching skills are important to librarians and becoming more so, and I think Library schools can and should make sure that there is space in the curriculum for all students to become grounded in the basics of pedagogy and curriculum design. However, we can’t discount the importance of theory, which I think many library schools teach fairly well. While it’s important to learn how to be an instruction librarian, theory teaches you the reasons WHY information literacy matters to students and my extension to the university. Understanding and communicating those reasons will help us be better educators, and give freshmen more reasons to pay attention to Peer-Reviewed sources at 8:30 AM.
A decent response as far as it goes. But I got to thinking about the Theory Thing, and realized there are at least five detailed reasons why theory matters to practitioners and the students we serve.
Theory explains why something is worth doing
Librarians (and educators/universities in general) are here to help student learn the skills they need to succeed in life, however they personally define that success. Universities, educators, and academic librarians have a shriveling pile of resources with which to accomplish that goal. Understanding theories about student learning can help librarians understand what services and resources should be emphasized to get the biggest return on investment, and what activities can and should be left behind.
Theory can Describe or Suggest
In a recent course on Educational Leadership, our Prof talked about the difference between descriptive and prescriptive theory. I’d never heard the distinction, but it made total sense and helped me grapple with theory more effectively. Briefly, Descriptive theories attempt to describe the impact of one phenomenon on another one—Say a student’s SAILS score versus their CLA score, for schools who can afford those kinds of Blue Chip assessments. Prescriptive theories actually suggest a course of action: For instance, if you teach source evaluation skills via a constructivist-based pedagogy, then students will score better on SAILS than if you used a post-positivist lecture-based approach. Both types of theories provide possible explanations for how your students learn, but they work very differently.
Theory helps make assumptions explicit, which allows practitioners to critique them
Every profession is grounded in some basic assumptions, which may be captured in concepts like The Five Laws or Kuhlthau’s Sense-making Model, or which may be more informal. Some somewhat informal assumptions that ground much of what the library does could be worded like this:
- All knowledge (or at least all scholarly knowledge) is worth preserving.
- All knowledge can theoretically be collected.
- All knowledge can and should be arranged into a tidy, logical and unbiased form of organization such as subject headings and shelf call numbers to promote ease of access.
This is something that most of us librarians believe in our bones, but a 19-year old postmodernist sophomore could demolish this assumption with one hand tied behind his back. For that matter, Wikipedia’s much easier to navigate than your average library catalog. (Yes, I hear you screaming about Source Authority. I’m not getting into that here. Let’s just say Authority opens its own epistemological can of worms which I will be exploring in coming weeks) In short, by laying out this informal assumption and making it explicit, it becomes a theory which can be refined, critiqued, challenged, tested, and implemented.
Theory explains the significance of what you do to a wider audience
This cohort has provided a fascinating insight into the way that administrators think. Most good administrators want their universities to implement programs to help students learn the skills needed for success. They also want this process to be explainable and provable to other administrators, donors, local businesses who hire graduates, grad schools who recruit them, and the accreditors who allow us to operate. At the end of a presentation about your new information literacy curriculum, after showing charts and tables full of wonderful test results and quotes from students, some wiseacre VP will inevitably ask: So What?
Theory, if worded in plain English, gives you an answer to that question.
Theory helps you verify whether you’re doing the right thing
FInally, if you’re a good librarian or library director, you are constantly asking yourself whether the things you are doing will help you reach your end goals. The good news is, theorists in student learning and librarianship have been pondering these issues longer than you, and in a more focused manner. By reading theories, evaluating them against your own knowledge and experience, and acting on what seems right, you build your own knowledge as a practitioner, manager, and leader. Theory, when implemented well, can lead to stronger librarians, stronger libraries, and universities better equipped to prepare students for the challenges they face.