Month: February 2012

Book Clubs, Socratic Seminars & Talking About Reading

Most of our readings this week focused on ideas of reading groups — various different ways of organizing people around the discussion of something that they had read. Although I like the How People Learn reading, I also have to admit that I found this week’s readings a welcome break.  Having multiple short takes on various ways that people connect to and through reading felt like a breath of fresh air.

Dempsey’s article, the most recent, focused on new forms that book clubs and reading groups are taking in libraries. She comments that

Like the format of the book, discussion groups are evolving and reaching new markets. What hasn’t changed is their inherent charisma—readers love to talk about what they’ve read.

Even as someone who really loves reading — someone who studied creative writing and literature as an undergraduate, I have to admit that I’ve been out of the book-group-loop for a few years, and so some of the ideas in this piece were new to me. I couldn’t help but think that an ill-fated book club that I’d been involved with could perhaps have lived on if we had actually adopted some of the approaches mentioned in Dempsey’s overview.  All of our book club members loved to read, and loved to connect with each other, but we were all also insanely busy between work, studies, wedding-planning, new babies and other big life-shifts.

The various book groups that Dempsey includes offer up ways to discuss asynchronously (via online forums and other mechanisms), a focus on “no pressure,” and also an openness to alternative venues — sometimes these groups meet in cafes or bars rather than at the library itself.

One type of reading group mentioned in Hoffert’s article that was appealing to me was the “thematic” book group. In some cases, members read the same book at the same time… and all of the books they read over several months fit into a set theme. But, in other versions of a thematic group, member actually read different books that coalesced around a shared theme, and then discussed them.  Maybe it’s just the time-crunched grad student in me, but this idea really struck me as something I’d enjoy.

The possibilities of theme-oriented discussion leave extra space for people to bring their personal lenses/experiences into the exchange. Another unique bonus, however, seems to be how this sort of group could clue others in to particular titles or other books on a theme that they might also want to read. These potential readers would have the benefit of understanding a bit about the topic and hearing a little about the book from another member who’d read it in its entirety. Although recommender systems and reviews on Amazon sometimes jibe with my tastes, I’d much rather learn about a potential “to-read” book this way.

Although the reading by Metzger was very different in tone and approach, I also found it pretty intriguing. Metzger, a high school English teacher, was struggling with just how to really boost her students’ abilities to truly pick apart, analyze and comprehend various works of literature.

When students search for hidden meanings, they assume that there is one single answer that teachers or authors are withholding from them

In her article, Metzger describes a very specific, methodical way that she applied the idea of the Socratic Seminar as a technique for both discussion and for being able to get into/open up the thought processes that students were going through as they were reading and making meaning:

I needed to know what students were thinking as they read…Because reading is invisible, I was at a loss.

Metzger defines the Socratic Seminar process as “Noncompetitive discussion” that “moves toward a collective and deeper understanding of the reading rather than to one right answer. Students talk through possible interpretations.”

This idea seems simple enough, and indeed, I’ve had teachers who said that they were leading a Socratic Seminar.  However, I think that the focus on the discussion/meaning-making process that the (Adler and Gray approach to the) Socratic Seminar offers is what really can set a SS apart from a regular old class discussion.

The critical piece here seems to be an inner and outer circle and the important role of observation:

The teacher gives each student a short passage, preferably less than one page. Before class, students read and take notes on their reading. During class, the students divide into an inner and an outer circle. One group holds a discussion while the other group observes.

Metzger did have to be deliberate about modeling observation and note-taking on certain parts of the process itself, which makes sense. Although I often notice things like body language and tone, I so often jump to interpretations of those things that I don’t often consider just taking objective notes on such things.

The students in Metzger’s classes worked though some challenging material, relying primarily on each other. Metzger found refraining from jumping in and guiding the discussion too much difficult at first.

Reading through Metzger’s description, I immediately tried to put myself in her shoes. Although I think that I might also get a bit impatient and find it hard to simply listen and gently facilitate (I have this problem in class sometimes, and it’s mostly just because I get really excited about things), this way of thinking about learning is much more appealing to me when compared to some sort of top-down approach. In short, I see myself as a bigger fan of facilitation than straight-up instruction, though they both have their place in a learning environment (and may overlap).

The last reading that I completed was the Tredway piece. I found it helpful to read a slightly different angle on Socratic Seminar approaches, but it was a much more general/summary-type of writing. Ultimately. I found Metzger’s very honest step-by-step account more useful and relate-able.


Learning for Understanding, Alignment & Insight Into One’s Own Learning

Although there are a lot of interesting things to think about in this week’s readings, I found two specific points jumped out at me the most.

Since I’d just been thinking about last week’s class and ideas of alignment, I found the major idea behind Put Understanding First” by Wiggins & McTighe very relevant/timely. They stated that

 common methods of teaching and testing in high schools focus on acquisition at the expense of meaning and transfer

…which seems extraordinarily true. The article went on to talk about this fundamental mis-alignment between teaching and assessment methods (which focus more on acquisition) and just what the overall mission of high schools should be:

not to cover content, but rather to help learners become thoughtful about, and productive with, content. It’s not to help students get good at school, but rather to prepare them for the world beyond school—to enable them to apply what they have learned to issues and problems they will face in the future

…this is what they refer to as learning for understanding. They propose a specific framework by which teachers can design their lessons to better facilitate meaning and transfer as well as acquisition (curious? Head to the article, here.) This way to view a pretty fundamental misalignment seems helpful to me. Although they think about it in the context of high school, it feels to me like it’s likely relevant in all sorts of circumstances. Without the ability to make meaning of what one is learning, attach it to some sort of context or prior knowledge, and then to make use of that information through transfer, how the heck could we expect anyone — a formal student or otherwise, to really understand the value or learning something and be motivated to retain and use that knowledge?

The other point that jumped out at me was from a specific passage in Chapter 3 of How People Learn.

In order for learners to gain insight into their learning and their understanding, frequent feedback is critical: students need to monitor their learning and actively evaluate their strategies and their current levels of understanding.

This type of feedback and the ability it gives me (or anyone) to self-assess, correct, and better understand my own learning seems to be precisely one of the potential benefits that I was trying to get at in my recent post on what I see as “learning in public.”

Games, Web Workshops and Alignment

This last week, we spent some time watching this excellent TED talk by game designer Jane McGonigal:

TED: Gaming Can Make a Better World

Her stated goal is to make it “as easy to save the world in real life” as it is in games,” and her talk was super interesting. I’ve had her audiobook, Reality is Broken, sitting on my computer for about a month now, waiting for a good listen, and I did actually give SuperBetter a try when recovering from an illness over the last 6 months.

Aside from the actual content of her talk (and some interesting discussion it prompted related to the idea of transfer), we used her TED talk as a part of a larger experiment.  We looked at her talk as if it was a webinar or remotely-conducted workshop, and each filled out an evaluation form after viewing it.

We also got together in groups to sort out the questions that had been on the evaluation — this stimulated some good discussion as well as some thoughtfulness about which questions were even useful to ask vs. sort-of-superfluous.

One thing that really struck me was how these questions made me consider the previous week’s reading on alignment between what students are learning and what is actually being measured.  For example, does it matter if we measure how many people noticed the speaker’s footwear if we really care about the ideas in the presentation?  Although this may seem like somewhat of a no-brainer, being walked through an experience like this really made me wonder how many times even quick survey assessments of learning are off-kilter in what they are measuring.  I feel like that in itself will make me far more deliberate in how I design surveys, assignments (and how I complete them, too!) as I move forward into my career.

Learning in Public: Just Keep Going

So, you may have noticed the name of this blog: We Learn in Public. While that phrase could mean many different things, I chose it based on some really specific thinking I’ve been doing over the last year.

I’d returned to school at SI somewhat later in life —  ten years into my career. Although I’d completed a previous MA, I had been working full-time throughout that program, and so really had one foot in the student world, and one foot in the world of being a “professional.” The jump back into SI felt different. Partially, I think that was because SI is so much more high-tech than my previous program. Instead of textbooks, I was mostly reading PDFs. And turning in paper version of… papers seemed downright silly. The last time I had been in (grad) school, Facebook was only open to .edu email addresses. Yep. A lot had changed.

Whereas previously I would have printed off every PDF to read, in SI that seemed not only silly but impractical and wasteful.  So how would I transition from highlighted and physically marked-up documents with plenty of margin notes to Kindle or Preview marked-up PDFs? I quickly realized that I had to be far more deliberate in thinking about how I read, marked up and absorbed various media. In some ways, I was starting over in figuring out how I learned in a more formal academic environment.

The borderline perfectionism that had served me well in undergrad and my previous grad program now seemed cumbersome, and outmoded attitude, and something that I really needed to shed.  I needed to become more comfortable with satisficing, with the idea that I could continue to improve on my own imperfect processes and the imperfect work (and let’s face it, my previous work was never perfect anyway!) that those processes might produce.

I needed to think about ideas of multiple versions and iterations. Although this concept wasn’t totally foreign to me (being a Creative Writing major meant I was comfortable with lots of drafts), it was still a little scary. Drafts of my writing in undergrad had previously been shared with a small, close-knit group — a bounded group. An embarrassing error could be corrected before I went through any sort of formal publishing or submission process and my work was open to a wider audience.

Sometimes, now, I was going to have to share my work-in-progress, my incomplete thoughts and my stumbles in my own learning with an audience whose boundaries I wasn’t sure of (online) or with other teachers and students who weren’t already in some close-circle-of-trust I had already established. I was kind of freaked out about this.

And then, late in the first semseter, I picked up a bass — a new instrument for me — plugged into an amp, and things started clicking into place. I hadn’t made music with other people in a few years, let alone performed in public. I’d forgotten how to embrace being totally, messily imperfect.

I grew up making and loving music. Mostly, I played violin, wrote and sang. As I hit college and the years after, I was drafted into being a singer in a few bands. Although the first few shows of my first-ever band made me feel physically ill, at show number three, something suddenly switched. The second I stepped up to the mic, I had no nervousness at all. What was going through my head was something close to “Ok. This is me. Are you (audience) up here? No. Ok. So, let’s go…” and with that, I was in the moment. It didn’t really matter if someone out there a few feet away was judging me.

The most important thing that I learned in interacting with various bandmates was just not to stop. Did someone break a string? Did I flip a lyric? Did my voice crack for a second? Just. Keep. Going. Chances always were that people in the audience would barely notice any of those things, as long as the band as a unit kept momentum. Each time we played a song or encountered a new hiccup like that, we’d learn better how not to break a sweat.

It’s pretty common for any specific musician to be a lot harder on themselves for an error than anyone else. How many times did a crowd think a show was totally dynamic and fun and great — not even noticing an error that an individual might bet themselves up over? Most of the time. Your bandmates would carry you, the energy from the audience would carry you. Something would carry you past the minor hiccup.

As long as the band keeps going I would learn how to better manage my mistakes. I can claim that space to not be perfect and still be good enough. People aren’t paying to see/experience perfect. They’re interested in a lot of things from their rock and roll shows, and one of them is that ability to claim the space, despite any flaws.

As Kim Gordon famously said,

People pay to see others believing in themselves.

The band doesn’t have to be perfect, I don’t have to be perfect. Sometimes quirk or imperfection is charming. The performance, assignment, argument or discussion can have flaws — I can have flaws, but it all can still have a lot of value. It can have more value by the sheer fact that the performance or discussion or reflection is taking place in public and can help others think through things, learn learns, experience things and share in something larger.

Learning in public can make you feel vulnerable sometimes, but it also opens you up to so many more possibilities than if you just perfected something alone in your sequestered little room and never shared it. Garage bands are appealing to people precisely because what they’re doing seems relatable, seems human and not-too-polished.

So, this is what I quickly realized was important in both learning a new musical instrument, and learning in general — Just. Keep. Going. — through the mess and the noise and the moments where everything seems like it might fall apart, keep moving forward. Keep figuring things out, even when it feels like a minor failure. You can learn from that failure. You might wind up better than you could ever be alone.

Designing Learning Environments & Considering Assessment

This week’s readings begin with a return to How People Learn. This time, the portion that we’re focusing on covers some of the complexity behind designing an effective learning environment. The text walked us through the characteristics of learner-centered, knowledge-centered and assessment-centered environments for learning, and how these approaches certainly aren’t mutually exclusive, and in fact might overlap.

Like many times in SI (and life), there’s a Venn diagram that helps make things a little more understandable:

FIGURE 6.1 Perspectives on learning environments. SOURCE: Bransford et al.

I’d already done a little bit of reading/talking about each of these ideas, but one additional thing that I thought the chapter did a good job with was guiding me to think about the community context within which all of this would be taking place. Since my background has entailed work with/in various different communities, I’ve been aware of how various cultural norms, etc. might impact learning, but might not have seen those factors as a sort of valence over all of these intersecting approaches, had the reading not been specific in spelling that out.

I appreciated a chance to think about formative assessment again, and realized that formative assessment is pretty much exactly what’s happening in this class as we write these blogs and work through our ideas. It might seem no-duh to the outsider, but the fact that we are not only blogging our reflections, but giving each other feedback on our ideas & writing (and in the process, learning how to better evaluate and give feedback to others) is no doubt a type of formative assessment that’ll take place throughout the semester. It’s another type of learning-in-public.

As Sadler mentions in our other reading, “Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems,” in order for “students to be able to improve, they must develop the capacity to monitor the quality of their own work during actual production.” The feedback that I have gotten (even in just a few weeks of this blog’s existence) from friends and classmates has already helped me to understand where I can improve and to correct my course as I’m writing and editing. I think that it may even help me tweak the note-taking I do in preparation for writing.

The How People Learn chapter specifically says that it’s not going to address the issue of standardized summative assessment beyond the classroom level, but I found that a little frustrating.  If we agree with the authors — that the actual goals/expectations related to education have changed drastically and that factory-like-schools don’t align with current goals/desired outcomes… and if we recognize that the community or culture impacts student learning, then there is a HUGE potential disconnect between what results we want and what is actually incentivized by standardized tests.  This is its own issue of a failure in alignment (a term the authors are fond of using) which seems to be a glaring, large issue that needs to be addressed.

The Big Messy World of Information Literacy

Last semester in SI641 (aka: Information Literacy for Teaching and Learning), we walked through multiple different ideas about information literacy, digital literacy, media literacy, and all sorts of related ideas. We had most of the semester to read, research and debate definitions and work through ideas about what the heck the role of information professionals should be in teaching & facilitating information skills and competencies with/to the people we serve.

Since I felt like at least a handful of us now in SI643 (this class) had spent quite a bit of time wrestling through these ideas recently, I wasn’t sure how much I’d be drawn into the discussion of the topic in class. Our pre-class assignment — to look for articles about IL that related somehow to our future career interests — was a fun exercise. Although I ended up following a sort of game-centric route in what I fully read and reported on, the searching process exposed me to all sorts of articles to put aside for later. In my search, I found I was drawn to articles written by people who were often outside or on the edge of library-land.

Once we launched into our small-group conversation in this last week’s class, I was pleased that my group-mates had uncovered interesting articles that I hadn’t. Some of the articles related to the ideas of information flows within networks, and some were written by people who weren’t within the traditional library world. I realized that some of the work I found most compelling came from people more focused on Communication Studies or some aspect of the Digital Humanities.

As each group reported to the rest of the class, I jotted down whose blogs to check out, what additional articles to find, skim or read. As much as I was wary that I might be all IL-ed out, I found the ensuing discussion really interesting. Before I knew it, I was drawn in and taking lots of notes for follow-up.

Although there were many sub-topics that struck a chord with me, there was a bundle of related questions that stuck with me most. They weren’t brand new — we’d talked them a bit last semester — but they are questions that still don’t have a simple answer, so I’ll likely keep asking and thinking about them:

Why is information literacy invisible?

  • Is a part of that because IL is more than a list of specific skills? (Even though we often think of it as only a list of skills)
  • Do people’s individual levels of overconfidence — “everyone knows how to Google! I certainly do!” — have a lot to do with that invisibility, and lack of being open to what one might be helped by learning? (This seems like it might have an analog in the ways people feel about learning in relation to health and nutrition)
  • Is IL mostly invisible because of an overall cultural focus on end-point-facts over the process of working through how to find stuff? If you know how to find stuff in general, that’s a skill that’s transferable to all sorts of contexts and situations.

Here’s my own follow-up question that relates to those above:

In a way, does IL’s invisibility have to do with the idea of the “broken tool”?
I mean this in the sense that often a tool or piece of infrastructure is “invisible” until it breaks or simply doesn’t work. That can make recognizing a tool or a system that works “well enough” hard to do. If information seekers are satisficing for info. that they think is “good enough” but may not be…(and then, who sets that standard?!), they may not see the tool, the system or the search skills that are getting them there. They might not even realize that there is a tool or a system. The tool in the case, works well enough, and so it remains invisible.

Does this thought make sense to others who are thinking about IL, search skills, and other related topics?