«Empowered Learning: Fostering Thinking Across the Curriculum Violet H. Harada, Associate Professor Library & Information Science Program Department ...»
Empowered Learning: Fostering Thinking Across the Curriculum
Violet H. Harada, Associate Professor
Library & Information Science Program
Department of Information & Computer Sciences
University of Hawaii
Most people will finish their formal education between the ages of 18 and
22. Today’s young adults are expected to have the longest average life
span in the history of the world, with most living into their 70s and many
living into their 80s and 90s. We can only guess what life will be like in the years 2050 or beyond. One likely prediction is that many of today’s young adults will be working at jobs that currently don’t exist and dealing with technologies that dwarf the imagination of present-day science fiction writers. What do they need to learn during their first two decades of life that will prepare them for their remaining years? (Halpern, 1997, 3) As society changes, the skills that citizens need to negotiate the complexities of life also change. Bransford (1999) states that in the early 1900s, a person who had acquired simple reading, writing, and calculating skills was considered literate. Today, however, the public education system expects all students to achieve higher levels of proficiency in reading critically, writing persuasively, thinking and reasoning logically, and solving complex problems.
There is certainly no dearth of ideas about what constitutes learning that is essential for the Information Age. The North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, for example, identifies the following literacies to “improve the intellectual capital” of the 21st century citizenry: basic language proficiency;
knowledge of scientific thinking; competence in the use of computer applications;
ability to decipher, interpret, and express ideas through visual media; global appreciation of the cultural diversity of peoples and cultures; and proficiency in locating, evaluating and using information (NCREL, n.d.).
For the last two decades, schools across the nation have been engaged in standards-based reform in an attempt to conceptualize and to clarify what should be taught in our schools. This has resulted in a plethora of standards for curriculum and learning developed at the national, state, district, and even school levels.
Although these various standards have yielded a rich set of alternatives for schools to design dynamic curricula, reform scholars contend that they have also resulted in a fragmented profusion that often confuses educators and the public (Newmann, 1996; Perkins, 1992; Sternberg, 1992). Wiske maintains that teachers surrounded by “curriculum materials, standardized test mandates, daily schedules, and years of experience that reinforce traditional transmission-based instruction,” are understandably bewildered (1998, 3). What ultimately results in the name of reform is nothing more than “irregular waves of change [and] episodic projects” (Fullan, 1993, 49). Ironically, we are victims of the information glut we often associate with the Digital Age. As one teacher wondered aloud at a meeting I recently attended, “We have over 400 standards for ten content areas in our state! Where do we start?” Indeed, where do we start? For library media specialists, this question has special urgency. In many schools, we are perceived as providers of ancillary (and dispensable) services and gatekeepers of underused collections (DeGroff, 1997;
Wolcott, Lawless, & Hobbs, 1999). In many districts and states, lack of funds and qualified personnel have resulted in schools without functioning library media centers. Rather than viewing this state of affairs as a “bad thing,” Johnson maintains that “our vulnerability demands that we as a profession need to continually find ways to strengthen our programs and roles” (2002, 21).
In reform efforts on all school campuses, library media specialists must see beyond the rhetoric of nurturing lifelong learning and begin asking ourselves deeper questions about what that learning really looks like and how we help to achieve it.
Although all standards include information literacy, the connection with the library media program is “implied rather than stated” (Kearney, 2000, 87). The pervasive yet transparent nature of information literacy standards makes it imperative that we review our own state standards and proactively identify those standards that correlate with information literacy.
Within this context of reform and change, Information Power (AASL & AECT,
1998) challenges library media specialists to reinvent our roles as teachers and as instructional partners. Certain assumptions are crucial in analyzing and acting
on these roles. They are:
• Learning is more than the what of discrete disciplinary content; it embraces the how and why of learning.
• There are commonalties across disciplines in terms of the processes and dispositions that motivate and drive the how and why of learning.
• The entire school community helps students master these processes and acquire dispositions that enable them to become responsible decision-makers and resourceful problem solvers.
• Library media specialists are potentially powerful catalysts and team members in this learning community.
This article revisits the following essential questions as it addresses how library
media specialists contribute to these learning communities:
• What is worth learning or knowing?
• How do students demonstrate this learning?
• How do we create environments that cultivate thoughtful learning?
Both theoretical explanations and practical examples are presented below. Past scholarship and records of effective practice are readily acknowledged throughout the piece.
What is worth learning or knowing?
Hester (1994) contends that the quality of learning is determined by the quality of the processes of thinking used in learning. Thinking, in this context, is essentially a problem solving process. He refers to creating “learning-ful” environments where students and adults come together and find meaning through their collective experiences (Hester, 1994, 4). His description of such environments overlaps with definitions of “thoughtful” learning communities posited by other educators (Barell, 1995; Fullan, 1993; Beyer, 1992).
The following characteristics of productive centers of learning emerge from these
• Schools must perceive themselves as learning organizations where all stakeholders work at changing norms and habits to make meaningful learning real for students. They must build a shared vision and define student outcomes that bring life to that vision.
• The school vision should embrace the notion of empowerment; i.e., students are not controlled by the environment but are able to impact upon it through innovation and invention.
• The outcomes focus on a foundation of thinking. Thinking is defined as a cognitive process that connects bits and pieces of experience with other bits and pieces to establish relationships, to move from the simple to the complex.
This process grows and develops in learners so that they are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what others have done (Hester, 1994).
• The concept of “thoughtfulness” is essential in a foundation of thinking (Tishman, Perkins & Jay, 1995; Barell, 1995). This involves not just the intellectual or cognitive operations but the feelings and attitudes that students have toward themselves as thinkers.
Glatthorn and Jailall (2000) further elaborate that curriculum based on the above premises exhibits depth rather than superficial coverage, emphasizes solving problems rather than simply acquiring factual knowledge, centers on contextualized problems rather than skills taught in isolation, and selectively integrates disciplinary content rather than maintaining a separation of subjects.
While different theorists have presented their own models and taxonomies of thinking (Marzano, 2001; Halpern, 1997; Barell, 1995; Hester, 1994; Ennis, 1992;
Beyer, 1992), certain thinking processes are reflected in all of them. They
• Perception and recognition of problems, of new data, and of patterns emerging from the data.
• Storage and retrieval of new data.
• Organization and transformation of data, identifying relationships between things.
• Reasoning, problem solving, deductive and inductive inference.
• Metacognition, assessment and monitoring for self-improvement.
Figure 1 expands on the process by identifying some of the strategies essential for thinking (Nahl-Jacobovits & Jacobovits, 1993; Beyer, 1992; Ennis, 1992).
Implications for practice: How do we enhance this learning?
Library media specialists are strategically positioned to work with entire school populations and to examine curriculum from a big picture perspective. We are not immersed in single content areas; instead, we have the advantage of working with classes in multiple disciplines. We have the opportunity to reflect with teachers on the essential ideas and modes of inquiry in the various subjects taught.
Based on the premise that a foundation in thinking permeates the disciplines, library media specialists are key team members in identifying the relationships existing between thinking skills and dispositions and the processes embedded in the disciplines and in information literacy (Stripling, 1995).
What might these skills look like in various disciplines? Here are several examples culled from my own classroom observations and from more formal analyses conducted by other scholars (Wiske, 1998; Spitzer, Eisenberg & Lowe, 1998; Dalbotten, 1997):
• In language arts--literary appreciation and analysis requires strategic use of language including being able to predict, validate, and synthesize. It also encourages analysis from multiple points of view and perspectives, and the ability to identify bias and stereotyping. Students are immersed in both literary and nonliterary modes of information. Active engagement is crucial.
• In social studies--historical analysis involves formulating questions, obtaining data from sources, testing these sources for their accuracy and authority, and detecting and evaluating propaganda and distortion. Students develop comparative and causal analyses and construct sound historical arguments.
They use resources ranging from primary documents and artifacts to virtual field studies found on the Internet.
• In mathematics--problem solving in mathematics challenges students to formulate problems, consider alternative strategies to solve them, and apply a strategy and verify the results. To accomplish these aspects of problem solving, they must be able to collect, organize and describe data; construct, read and interpret displays of data; and formulate and solve problems that involve data collection and analysis. Mathematical inquiry provokes students to make sense of ideas in relation to one another and to the everyday world.
The focus is on conceptual understanding, multiple representations and connections.
• In science—scientific inquiry necessitates that students understand key questions and concepts that guide scientific investigations. They must be able to formulate testable hypotheses, design and conduct the investigations, formulate and revise explanations and models using logic and evidence; and communicate and defend their findings. Students use a wide range of tools and make choices among alternatives. Carefully planned experiments can proceed in a predictable fashion or yield startling data that lead to new questions and investigations. The process is not random; it follows a purposeful sequence of testing, data collection and analysis, and drawing of conclusions.
• In information literacy--information searching and use assumes that problems and issues investigated require student engagement with information in different formats and for different purposes. Students must be able to articulate the focus of their information search, generate questions that probe the problem, consider alternative strategies to locate and retrieve data and to evaluate their value and relevance. Students also need to explore organizational schemes that help them store and use their information, and to hone their expertise with different communication formats.
Whether learners are performing a scientific experiment or a historical investigation, they are questioning, conjecturing, and searching for relationships to problems and issues. Figure 2 captures the cross-disciplinary nature of the thinking process.
Although self-improvement and reflection are most directly captured in the metacognition strand in Figure 2, the notion of thoughtfulness actually permeates the entire learning experience. That is, as students practice the skills of thinking, they must also recognize the attitudes they are developing toward themselves as learners. Questions such as “How did I know I was doing it correctly or well?” and “How confident am I in doing this again?” go beyond the cognitive operations and acknowledge the importance of affective responses.
Working together with teaching colleagues to examine curriculum from the perspective of thinking processes, also means that we as library media specialists must look deeply into the content of our own information literacy instruction. While various excellent information literacy models exist, the challenge for library media specialists is to reexamine the skills we have traditionally taught and to evaluate them in the context of developing thinking.
In this self-assessment, many of us may discover that we have focused largely on tasks at the mechanical levels of performance rather than at levels requiring manipulation of information and ideas. Examples of these traditional tasks
• Using an online catalog.
• Identifying the physical components of a resource (e.g., parts of a book).
• Locating materials within a specific library.
• Using an organizational scheme to take notes.
• Creating a bibliography.