Core Competency K: Teaching
“Design instructional programs based on learning principles and theories.”
Much of my adult life has been focused on teaching. Even as a high school student, I attended a project-based charter school that encouraged us to think critically about own own education. In both high school and college, I volunteered as a museum docent at various institutions, including the San Diego Museum of Photographic Arts, and the Santa Cruz Natural History Museum. Over these years I came to appreciate being both student and teacher in constructivist, experiential learning environments. After college I moved to a ski town, where I worked for three years as a teacher at a learning center for independent study K-12 students. Again, I found that constructivism was the teaching style I was most drawn to and saw producing the best results.
Constructivism asks students to learn through experience, and lessons usually involve problem solving, project-based learning, observation, or other hands-on tasks. Hyslop-Margison and Strobel (2008) emphasize that a constructivist approach does not renounce less interactive instructional methods, such as lecturing, but merely keeps them in perspective–whatever methods will best help students actively learn should be used. Teachers are guides in a constructivist approach. Knowledge constructed purely in the mind of an individual student is only belief until it is validated, and teachers play a vital role in guiding students’ validation through factual, evidence, pragmatic, and social challenges to the knowledge (Hyslop-Margison and Strobel, 2008).
Library and Information Science (LIS) professionals may not consider themselves teachers, but they are, even if instruction typically occurs in an informal setting. Constructivist theory, in fact, applauds informal instruction because it connects information to context. This is also a core principle of learning according to Freeman Tilden, the father of interpretation (1957). Tilden’s principles of interpretation, though over fifty years old, are still the basis of the U.S. National Parks Service interpretation programs because they invoke constructivist principles to inspire visitors to learn by exploration and experience.
Whether in a classroom, at a reference desk, or visiting a national park, students arrive with pre-existing knowledge. Hyslop-Margison and Strobel (2008) write that most people are very unwilling to change preconceived notions until a new model of information strikes them as intelligible, and they decide that either the old model cannot provide adequate answers anymore, or the old model makes them uncomfortable. “Part of what qualifies as good teaching, then,” say Hyslop-Margison and Strobel, “is discovering what students already believe and creating the required cognitive dissonance or conflict that leads to the hard work of adjusting their conceptual understanding,” (p. 78).
I believe this “cognitive dissonance or conflict” must be incorporated into any learning event, even if it is a five-minute reference desk transaction. Teachers, after all, should be able to offer students a different perspective to help them expand their knowledge base. For instance, if a student approaches the reference desk needing to find information about the current political situation in the Middle East, the reference librarian may determine through a reference interview that the student wants current news articles. However, if the librarian can also recommend a few resources with historical perspective, the student will end up with a much richer understanding of his topic. Historical resources do not conflict with the student’s topic, but they do conflict with his desired resource, and without the guidance of the librarian he would likely remain in a narrower window of new knowledge.
In my experience teaching in a variety of different environments, I have embraced and incorporated constructivist principles. I believe that students’ preconceptions are a benefit and afford us more engaging, effective learning opportunities. I also understand that I rarely know all the answers, and that my students are often better poised to find them than I am. Today I do not find myself in the role of teacher as often as I have in the past, however, these principles are deeply ingrained and I appreciate the haphazard teachable moments I do encounter.
EVIDENCE . During my undergraduate at University of California, Santa Cruz, I took several classes from the Education Department. One, EDUC 92B – Introduction to Theories of Education, was particularly useful because it was very hands-on. I worked with three other classmates to design a curriculum plan for 9th graders on the theme of solar energy, in which we tied our curriculum to the frameworks of constructivism and socio-cultural theory, as well as multidisciplinary California state standards. We created lesson plans for the curriculum that were learner, knowledge, assessment, and community centered, and this process helped me learn how to apply instructional theories to implementable lesson plans and required standards.
EVIDENCE . Also while at U.C. Santa Cruz, I took a course on environmental interpretation, and as part of the course completed a 120-hour internship at the Santa Cruz Natural History Museum. My internship involved docenting for school groups that visited the museum, as well as developing educational programming materials. Natural history is my forte, and I was excited to share my knowledge with students. That said, one of the most important skills I learned during this internship was that students don’t want to share my knowledge–they want to create their own. The evidence present is my end of term reflection on this internship experience and my personal ideas about interpretation. Also included is the evaluation from my internship site supervisor at the museum.
EVIDENCE . As a teacher at Clever Minds Learning Center, I worked one-on-one or in small groups with independent study students in grades K-12. For some students I was a supplementary tutor, while for others I was their primary instructor. During the years that I taught at Clever Minds I developed countless lesson plans in many domains, from high school biology to elementary reading. Although my time with the students was limited, I tried to incorporate experiential, constructivist lessons whenever possible.
Here, I present the handout for an A.P. Biology lesson plan that I wrote: “Comparing DNA Sequences to Understand Evolutionary Relationships with BLAST.” In this assignment, students build on their pre-existing knowledge about cladograms, shared derived characters, and genetics to investigate an unidentified fossil. I engage them by asking that they make observations and hypotheses about the fossil image before giving them more advanced tools. BLAST, or the Basic Local Alignment Search Tool, is an online database hosted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information; it allows users to upload a genetic sequence and see how closely it matches those in the database. Students use BLAST (with files that I provide) to determine what the fossil’s closest genetic relatives are, and to evaluate their hypotheses. This lesson plan, in addition to helping students construct new knowledge, also offers several jumping off points for students who are intrigued by the topic.
Instruction, just like education, is a lifelong calling, and well-suited to LIS professionals, who are versed in connecting users to information. Educational theories like constructivism offer guidance to LIS professionals by providing frameworks for user-centered learning interactions.
Hyslop-Margison, E. & Strobel, J. (2008). Constructivism and education: Misunderstanding a pedagogical implications. The Teacher Educator, 43: 72-86. doi: 10.1080/08878730701728945
Tilden, F. (1957). Principles of interpretation. In Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.