How to Break, Not Bend the Rules* (Part One)

Risk is something that has been occupying my mind for some time now both professionally and personally. I have been in post for over six months and passed my probation. I’m starting to take more responsibility for the teaching in my subject steer areas and understanding where the gaps are in what we could be offering our students.

It has come to the crossing point where I feel I’m ready to share my ideas  but not confident to push my point of view too strongly. There is a tension in the team I feel between stated objectives and the culture of practice. New ideas are welcomed but not always embraced as a reality. There seems to be a lot of lip service to certain sacred cows of educational theory and practice, but a reluctance sometimes to see how these are useful in our context.

Part of me suspects this is endemic across the university and college sector among librarians who teach. The deep seated and hard to dislodge reluctance to refer to ourselves as teachers or what we do as teaching, doesn’t help. It certainly confines us to a box marked instruction, rather than opening the door that our new job title (Library Learning and Teaching Manager) was supposed to open up.

Because of partly historical and structural reasons, our teaching strategies seem to ping pong between teacher-talk heavy Powerpoint sessions to just simply directing students to an online library guide. For me, neither of these methods are particularly satisfactory. A big fan of Active Learning, I am increasingly using Powerpoint only to clarify task instructions or use diagrams to illustrate key learning points. With regards to leaving students to their own devices with online learning packages, I can’t help feeling the neediest students get left behind.

Demonstrations form a huge part of what we do. At a conference once, I remember a contributor saying “Who wants to demo another database? Why not do something fun instead?” (Edwards, 2014). I have a huge amount of sympathy for that point of view but at the same time, students largely come to literature searching sessions because they can’t pick their way through the minefield that is a database. Is it fair or ethical to not show them what they came to be taught? Demonstrations can be pointless, particularly those delivered to large lecture theatres of students. However, our team mandate that all sessions take place in small PC rooms does give control (and interest) back to the student. It also provides opportunities for students to apply what they are learning directly.

Since the restructure, we are not conventional subject librarians, who traditionally would design, develop and deliver all the material to a faculty each. Instead we all teach every session offered to all students, regardless of faculty. In a nod to subject expertise, we are Subject Steers. So I am Subject Steer for Arts & Humanities and Nursing & Midwifery. We each have one health faculty and one arts and science faculty. The theory is that the subject steer for the relevant faculty develops sessions where particular cohorts of students have been booked in by an academic. We share these materials and then the other Library Learning and Teaching Managers teach sessions based on these.

This process has a number of problems, the biggest being that sometimes subject steers don’t develop materials or take ownership of the sessions ostensibly with their name on them. For some, they simply leave old materials, presentations and lesson plans sitting in the shared drive with no updating or care or love. This is problematic. A further problem is that some LLTMs will expect to be delivering a fairly standard session each time and are often surprised when you have tried to develop something a little different for your subject steer sessions. This chimes with Shirley Grundy’s discussion of  difficulties in introducing a curriculum centred on processes and shared meaning-making, rather than a technical specification (Grundy, 1987). Grundy describes how in Lawrence Stenhouse’s Humanities Curriculum Project, the teachers trying to put the project into practice were focused exclusively on what the end product should be and how they should technically implement it (Grundy, 1987).

This is where taking risks is an issue. Other people have to take that risk with you. And sometimes, the teaching strategies you have selected may not fit with how a particular LLTM prefers to teach. Some sessions are overarching and more general than discipline specific ones. Starting Out with Study sessions are one such session and these fell to me to design.

I felt a lot of pressure to get this session right. The majority of students receive it. It is often the first contact they have with us. We may never see them again in their course of study. We need to convey a number of key pieces of information and help them understand where to find the essentials. In many universities and colleges, these are often called induction or orientation.

My experience is that students learn nothing during them. Why? They tend to be boring, uninspiring, far from engaging and too static. They nearly always contain too much information and not enough hands-on application. Students often cannot see the relevance at this stage in their academic careers, and they have too much other information and change in their lives to cope with when starting university.

Starting from the materials for the previous two years, I tried to get a feel for what we were trying to achieve. If this was going to be our first contact with our students, it was so important that we got it right. But the 2014 session was disappointingly a text-and-talk presentation packed with too much information. The 2015 session was less didactic but started inexplicably with an unanswerable quiz about borrowing policies and library rules. All relevant information but nothing students would know or be able to work out for themselves. This was followed by a bit of e-learning which there wasn’t time to complete.

I definitely wanted to scrap the unanswerable quiz which would have irked me no end as a student! I also didn’t really see the point of them starting a bit of e-learning (which could easily turn into passive screen staring or some illicit diversions into Youtube cat videos) and then the session ending. It all felt a bit flat and disjointed. The 2015 session was obviously designed to tackle the lack of interactivity in the 2014 session, but it seemed to come full circle and sever any interaction between student and teacher or student and student. Indeed, the only interaction was between the student and the screen.

I was certain there was a better way. I decided to take a risk and put my belief in interaction being a key part of making meaning into action. In more traditional library structures, library welcomes or inductions are very common. Their main aim is to get the message across that we exist: everything else is lost in the haze of Freshers’ week. In our structure, students are receiving fifteen minute library welcome briefings from another team. This is because promotion falls within their remit, not ours. We are about teaching skills. So the logic behind this rather short 45 minute session introducing key resources for finding resources, puzzled me!

After spending time looking at the previous materials differently, I began to discern that there were a couple of key facts about how to use the library we needed to impart and that we would like the students to develop the process of using our e-learning materials. My manager was very keen that the quiz be retained. Thinking about the reading I have been doing around curriculum, I saw an opportunity to go slightly deeper. We are an Information Skills team: we want students to start making their own meanings to navigate the information landscape. Why not give them the quiz to start the session and let them find the information themselves?

There is a lot of buzz at the moment in Libraryland about gamification. Librarians are trying to redesign library instruction around the notion that “play is where students deepen shallow understanding into real knowledge” (Walsh, 2016). Many of our sessions aren’t currently a natural fit for this but this Starting Out session seemed an ideal candidate because we needed something that worked for large numbers but was very engaging. I was very keen to make it as student centred as possible, rather than the teacher talking (get a reference for this). I was also keen for students to have an opportunity to make connections between each other and develop community, after all, this is their first week at university (hooks, 2003).

I decided to set the quiz, which was now more of a treasure hunt, as a team exercise. Returning to my faithful friend in matters of group activities, Geoff Petty’s Teaching Today, I read up again on ways of making team exercises work (Petty, 2014). I came across Petty’s suggestion that TV shows can form the basis for activities (Petty, 2014: 237). The treasure hunt exercise reminded me of the perennial task in The Apprentice where the hapless wannabes run around London trying to find the items on a shopping list.

From there I needed to design a second activity that would engage the students in our online learning modules without them needing to complete all of the modules because of time. For a little while I tried to discern which would be the most useful if they all just did one of the four, but this was virtually impossible to judge. I remembered my Level 3 tutor’s fondness for activities where tasks are split between group members who then come back together to explain their element. The idea being that lots of content can be covered dynamically using peer explaining (Petty, 2014: 196).

I resolved to assign each team member a different online learning module. Typically these last five minutes thus minimising the potential for disengagement and the curse of the Youtube cat videos. At first I wanted students to explain the online content but this seemed a little dull.

Drawing on The Apprentice style first activity, I settled on a Dragon’s Den style pitching exercise. Time would be tight so I made it an elevator pitch: each student would have a minute to convince their team mates that the tool they looked at was the most useful. There would be a vote at the end (students wouldn’t be able to vote for themselves). Following Petty’s advice, I outlined the whole task so the students knew they would need to concentrate on the online learning module (Petty, 2014).

I suspected I may run into some resistance, with timing and general logistics of organising teams the chief objections. To simplify these processes, I developed a placemat for each student designating them a team (names based on KCL alumni) and a tool (for example MyReadingLists). This meant there would be no time or confusion taken up by students getting into groups or deciding what they wanted to do. I fully appreciate that in many ways this session could have created more options for students but these were always going to be options within a framework (Grundy, 1987) and in a 45 minute session with up to 60 students, potentially chaotic.

Usual dissemination practices are to share session outlines on the shared drive. But the act of conveying a new educational “proposal” for this session required more (Stenhouse, 1975: 142). Based on reading the work of Grundy, the problematic nature of creating teaching sessions that differed from the norm for colleagues to deliver, became transparent. They simply wouldn’t understand what I was trying to achieve from words on a page. I therefore decided to meet with the team to discuss the guiding “eidos” that informed my approach to the session (Grundy, 1987: 24).

The response from the team confirmed it was deemed an unorthodox approach, but the ideas were well received and solutions to potential problems offered. It was a constructive meeting. I keep touching base with LLTMs on how these sessions are going with reports that the students engage really well, particularly with the pitching part. I have found the sessions to be lively and high energy as students connect with one another and the learning, exactly what I was hoping for. Before designing the sessions I wouldn’t have described them as teaching, but now they definitely fall into that category. The risk was worth it.

 

*This title is a riff on the lyric “All I learnt at school, was how to bend, not break the rules” in the song Baggy Trousers, written by Chris Foreman and Graham McPherson, performed by Madness.

 

Bibliography:

Edwards, A. (2014). The Winner Takes it All. From “The Road Less Travelled to the Information Superhighway: Information Literacy in the 21st Century”. Friday, January 31st, 2014 at the British Library Conference Centre.

Foreman, C. and McPherson, G. (1980). Baggy Trousers. On Absolutely [CD]. London: stiff Records.

Grundy, S. (1987). Curriculum: Product or Praxis? Lewes: Falmer Press.

hooks, b. (2003). Teaching Community: a Pedagogy of Hope. London: Routledge.

Petty, G. (2014). Teaching Today: a Practical Guide. 5th edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stenhouse, L. (1975). An introduction to curriculum research and development. London: Heinemann Educational.

Walsh, A. (2016, September 1). “Think play is for nurseries, not universities? Think again.” The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2016/sep/01/think-play-is-for-nurseries-not-universities-think-again

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