A Series on Teaching Strategies for Librarians: Teaching Styles

This post is part six of a fourteen part series, Teaching Strategies, that is based on a series of education workshops. I’m documenting the content for myself, but hopefully it will also be useful to (1) librarians looking for more theoretical background for their own teaching and (2) for librarians looking to better understand education models as they look for new ways to support and participate in the educational missions of their institutions.

It seems like a natural pairing for the topic of learning styles is that of teaching styles. I’ve always thought that the nature of higher education instruction is cyclical; that those who do the best in college and graduate school are most likely to go on and join the professoriate. And then they will want to teach as their best teachers did, leading to a new crop of people who do well in that environment going on to teach in similar ways. And thus the archetype of a large lecture room with a professor speaking for 50 minutes at the front.

Of course, that’s a gross over-generalization. Many people in higher education may or may not prefer that method of teaching, and have succeeded anyway. I’ve known many faculty who are trying to teach in ways that they never experienced, either with joy that these new models are more comfortable to them or with a bit of wistfulness for a good lecture, while challenging their preferences based on what they see in their students.

I bring up all of that just to frame the teaching styles section of this series of posts.

Just as you might not tailor everything to all the various learning styles in a class, knowing your teaching style doesn’t necessarily mean you should change everything you’re doing. It just allows you to be more aware of your bias in preference, and allows you to make slight shifts as you feel it makes sense. You might find yourself lecturing if you enjoyed learning that way, and you might find a class of students who seem to be daydreaming or more focused on Facebook. That is an opportunity to look for other models that might have a few useful tools to shift your approach.

For example, my personal preference is to use a very systematic approach to share information. When studying information literacy instruction in grad school, my professor regularly commented on how logically I presented information. And that’s very useful a lot of the time. However, I found in teaching that it didn’t necessarily engage students, and over time I built more flexibility into my teaching until I got quite comfortable with open group discussions, where I’d make sure to bring up the relevant points, but only in the context of a free flowing conversation. (And I do this regularly–but only when it makes sense based on the audience and the content.)

So what might that mean for library instruction? And what did we talk about in the workshops this blog post series is based on? This was the one session that was designed and run by someone else in the library, Rosalind Tedford. At that point in time, Roz had come back from the ACRL Intentional Teacher Immersion program, and gave an overview of the two books they had read as part of the program:  Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher by Stephen Brookfield and The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer. I’d recommend Brookfield and Palmer to anyone interested in teaching.

She picked out a free test online, and just as we had in learning styles, everyone took it ahead of time. It’s a pretty quick tool to use, and gives easy to understand feedback. Again, everyone mapped their score on a chart as we had done with learning styles. In this case, the five measures of the Teaching Perspectives Inventory are:

  • Transmission: Teaching requires a content expert. You might think of an outstanding lecturer in your past when trying to think of an example of this.
  • Apprenticeship: Teaching is a process of socializing students into new ways of working. I always think of graduate programs when I think of this: how they’re structured to help students become members of a field.
  • Developmental: Teaching is designed and carried out “from the learners point of view.” I think of this, actually, when I think of a lot of current educational research.
  • Nurturing: Teaching assumes that the heart is what enables the (sometimes intense) effort to learn. You might think of a coaching model when you consider this approach to teaching.
  • Social Reform: Teaching is an approach to changing society, and class interactions are an opportunity to create social change. For me, it’s easiest to think of my Women’s Studies classes when I think about this, though I know I’ve practiced it when I’ve talked about publishing models or how the internet is evolving.

Readers of this series will recognize themes. For example, the Kolb model is apparent in apprenticeship, Vygotsky is evident in the developmental approach. There is research to support each of these perspectives, and if you find yourself clearly dominant in one, it’s probably worth investigating what has been said, if only to allow you to maximize your teaching preference. You know, the whole StrengthsFinder approach.

So what does this mean for library instruction? First off, knowing your preference will help you think about the design of your teaching. Are you giving transmission like lectures? Are you giving students lots of time to work in class, with points in time where you can guide them as might be more prominent in apprenticeship? Are you focusing on helping students see The Librarian as a friendly and supportive person as in the nurturing perspective? Are there ways to combine several of these for a given class? Indeed they are, and in some ways more easily so in a one-shot, I believe. You might spend a few minutes in a transmission based lecture, followed by a period of time for apprenticeship based guided work. You might do all of this, building on an existing body of knowledge the students have, while exemplifying the supportive and friendly librarian. And in the course of all of this you might mention any number of information issues that are broader than just how to navigate library resources.

In terms of the larger university, there’s so much to be said for trying to know the faculty you’re working with. That’s not to say that you’d ever request someone take a test and discuss their results. Only that many people make clear their approach when talking about their teaching. For example, if you know someone is very focused on social reform, they might be more interested in having a librarian also talk about the journal crisis or privacy issues with websites as part of their class. If they’re lecturing, their students have an expectation of a lecture-based learning environment for the class, and might be more receptive to that format.

I think the most interesting thing about teaching styles, for me at least, is when thinking about it in the context of your own teaching or how it fits with others it forces a more reflective approach to teaching. It calls to question what someone is really trying to do with their class, and forces the design of instruction to start there. And that is a large part of instructional design to begin with.