Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Who is the biggest enemy of learning?

My daughter just passed her first birthday and so its not surprising that I am very fond of Neil Gaiman's benediction for a Blueberry Girl which he wrote for his God-daughter.

One line in this poem struck me in particular: "Remind her that Fortune is blind." This is a sentiment not often expressed in our "you can do anything if you believe in yourself" culture. To know an alternative to this current notion that modern man has somehow wrest himself from fate is one of the reasons why Professor Donald Kagan of Yale thinks we would do well to study the ancient Greeks.

Last week I listened to Dr. Kagan's lecture to entertain myself as I was doing the dishes. There are no slides to see - just 33 minutes of a man talking from a stage. It reminded me of my own university days when a course meant you were given dry facts from a textbook and fluid thought professed from your professor and somehow you had to weave them together into something you could remember for your midterm.

Now that I work at a university, I know that this "sage on a stage" teaching style is frowned upon as it has been largely discredited for being largely ineffectual for memory retention in most students. Instead, faculty are encouraged to engage their students in the classroom and online using a myriad of techniques and technologies. Anything goes - except for reading a lecture to your students. It is as if the new slogan is "The biggest enemy of learning is a talking teacher."

And yet something doesn't sit right with me about this development.

While I acknowledge that the lecture is not suitable for all ages or contexts, I don't want to see the lecture become completely banished from the university. We still need it. Sometimes, intertwining complex ideas need to be unwound in a slow and deliberate manner. Five lectures over five days can change your worldview forever. A keynote speech is essentially a lecture and if you've heard a good keynote (or my personal example: Rick Salutin's talk at WILU 2007) you know that it sits with you and moves you in a completely different way than a "presentation" does.

There is nothing wrong with a teacher talking as long as that teacher is telling a compelling story.

The stories told by the ancient Greeks are so compelling that we still tell them. When I was in university, one of my favourite indulgences was to go to the local comic book shop and buy Neil Gaiman's The Sandman - a series in where ancient myths take both modern and timeless forms.

And then, I would get back to the lectures.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

How to reduce the number of missing books on my library lists

We all look at problems from different distances. For me, I tend to look at library things from the network level (far away) or at the user level (close up, but not too close up) and then I try to fit the two perspectives together.

Even though I blather on about grandiose big-picture library ideas in this blog, my library thoughts are also consumed by the minutia of the library experience. For example, it still grates me that its so very hard to create a simple 'shopping list' of titles, call numbers, and floor numbers (!) from the library catalogue that I can print out at home to take with me to the library.

My other complaint I have is that (at least at the libraries that I have recently visited) there is a disturbing number of books on my home-made cobbled book list that should be on the shelf but can't be found. What's particularly troubling, is that I haven't even bothered to approach library staff to fill out the requisite 'Item Missing' forms, and I'm a librarian. Just imagine what percentage of our users take this extra and effort to fix a problem that won't help them with their own immediate needs.

So here's my wish.

I would like a library catalogue to effortlessly let the user create a list of items for retrieval from the library shelves (this will come in handy in the future when our libraries become closed-stacks again, but that topic is another post). AND on this list, I would like a checkbox beside each item that reads something along the lines of "couldn't find this on the shelf". Now the user can check off the items she couldn't find and drop off the list at the front desk (with or without a contact email address for follow-up) and the cycle of missing books on the shelf is closer to closing.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Wisdom is knowing when to break the rules

Barry Schwartz's TED lecture "The real crisis? We stopped being wise " to libraryland for a couple reasons. The first reason is actually minor: Schwarz deftly illustrates how ill-framed incentives can backfire and actually demotivate individuals (library administrators, please take note).

The second and real reason why I think lecture is worth viewing is to listen to Schwartz tell two compelling stories why we have to give individuals the leeway to break from rules, scripts, and standardized operating procedures of their work when one sees an opportunity to act, shall we say, humanely.

The talk reminded me of a recent New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell called Most Likely to Succeed: How do we hire when we can't tell who's right for the job? While it begins with football, the core of the article is about what makes a good teacher and why its so important:

Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year's worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half's worth of material. That difference amounts to a year's worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a "bad" school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You'd have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you'd get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers.

I won't spoil the piece's ending by giving away the quality that has been identified as what separates good teachers from bad, but I will say that this quality can only be exercised in an environment when teachers are able to deviate from the curriculum in order to better teach their students. (This This American Life episode also comes to the same conclusion.)

Schwarz, if memory serves, ends his talk with a very small story teaching and how, in the pursuit of consistency we have lost the opportunity to excel and, more tragically, to act with kindness and wisdom.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Takes a community to raise a library. It takes a library to raise a community

If the Darien Statements on the Library and Librarians were specifically meant as a volley back to the The Taiga 4 Provocative Statements, then I think they are a brilliant response to the fear-mongering that is trying to be passed off as leadership.

If otherwise, well, to be honest, I'm not that crazy about the Darien Statements. But that's okay. Those aren't my statements on The (One Big?) Library and Librarians. Its theirs.

But I do want to start a thought of mine from their statement on the purpose of the library. "The purpose of The Library is to preserve the integrity of civilization."

Now saving civilization might be a good idea but I would leave that job up to superheroes and those working towards nuclear nonproliferation. I haven't properly worked out my own idea of The Library's purpose but if I did, it would definitely contain these two words: share and community.

Share is the most important word. We don't sell the stuff we collect. We share it.

And when I use the word community I mean, a group of people with a common interest. So that could be a group of graduate students in a lab or a small town.

I've been thinking about communities and small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens quite a bit lately. Sometimes its been in a library context but more often than not its been more about local politics and the environment. And recently, I've been re-visiting this paraphrased thought of one of my heroes, teacher Vivian Gussin Paley:

the "work" of school is not to learn the numbers and letters as quickly as possible, but to learn to come together and build a community.

Now that's certainly wasn't the purpose of the schools that I attended or have worked for. But what if it was? How would we do things differently? It just goes to show how its not a bad idea to go back and rethink what's the purpose of what you're doing.