ACRL Questions: The Framework dispositions and the beginner’s mindset

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The last question from the ACRL Conference that I’m going to look at as part of this ongoing series is one about the dispositions from the Framework and if there might be a relationship between these and the idea that research is contextual in nature.

First, I have to admit that the dispositions are probably the part of the Framework that I’ve paid the least amount of attention to. I imagine that I’m not alone in this since the knowledge practices more closely resemble learning outcomes while the dispositions reflect attitudes and habits of mind that seem a lot harder to influence (or measure) as an educator. So trying to answer this question gave me an excuse to take a closer look.

What I noticed was that a lot of the dispositions that the Framework describes are about openness. They can all basically be summed up as “a learner developing in their information literacy abilities recognizes that the journey toward information literacy is ongoing.” I would add that, due to constant changes in how people share, access, find, and use information, the journey toward information literacy is not only ongoing but possibly also never-ending. It’s never finished. There may come a point where you, as a learner, meet the learning outcomes of a particular information literacy instruction but there is never really a point at which you can once and for all be labeled “information literate.” We are all always developing in our information literacy abilities.

This makes me think of something that comes up a lot in the two meditation apps I’ve tried, Calm and Headspace, which is called the beginner’s mindset. The beginner’s mindset is where you approach everything with the same curiosity and openness as you would if you were new to it, even if you’re actually quite advanced. There’s a quote that “in the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind, there are few.” I think the dispositions in the Framework to some extent reflect the need for a beginner’s mindset even if you’re an experienced researcher.

In their article “The Novice as Expert: Writing the Freshman Year,” Nancy Sommers and Laura Saltz discovered that first year students who approach college-level writing with a beginner’s mindset do better than students who come to it with more closed minds. These students may already be skilled writers but they’re able to recognize that college-level writing is new to them, something they are still learning, which helps them be successful with that type of writing.

I’ve said before that I think one of the challenges of information literacy instruction is that students come to it believing they already know what they need to know to be effective in the type of research they are being asked to do. In relation to the beginner’s mindset, it’s almost like they are beginners who view themselves as experts. Or even if they don’t view themselves as experts, they don’t want to admit their lack of knowledge to others because it could potentially be embarrassing. What if everyone else already knows this? What if their peers laugh at them for not knowing? What if their professor gives them a bad grade?

I think teaching the contextual nature of research would create a space where it’s okay for students to adopt a beginner’s mindset because it places value on what they already know and the experience they already have while showing them that there is more to learn. And there always will be. Like with writing, you never stop learning how to do research because every time you do it, your goals and motivations are going to be different.

Of course, in order to do this effectively, we as information literacy instructors also need to be okay with the idea that learning information literacy is an ongoing, lifelong process. On the one hand, we have room to do that since the dispositions described by the Framework more or less portray it that way. On the other, higher education isn’t about the journey, it’s about the destination, aka assessment. The need to assess learning is especially urgent for information literacy instructors who constantly need to prove the value of what they teach while, in many cases, only being allowed to teach it in the space of a single, short instruction session. Which, again, is probably why the knowledge practices in the Framework tend to get more attention than the dispositions.

But I’m glad the dispositions are there. I’m glad they don’t try to define what an information literate person is, only what someone who is developing their information literacy abilities might do or what mindset they might have because this is an area where we should always be learning, always be developing. Even those of us who consider ourselves experts.

And our students need to know that.

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