Thoughts on Learner-Centered Pedagogy: Principles and Practice by Klipfel & Cook

Image by Evgeni Tcherkasski from Pixabay

I recently had the opportunity to read through Learner-Pedagogy: Principles and Practice by Kevin Michael Klipfel and Dani Brecher Cook. The book came to me as I was thinking about what a book project related to some of the ideas I’ve been sharing in this blog might look like and, in reading it, I was delighted to find that a) scholarly, well-researched books do not have to be dry and boring and b) there were some surprising connections between the authors’ work and mine. Because of that, I decided it might be worth sharing some thoughts on the book overall.

What it’s about

Klipfel and Cook’s central thesis is that information literacy instruction can benefit greatly from a pedagogical approach in which we take seriously the idea that who learners are as people matters in the context of learning. They lay out the theory behind learner-centered pedagogy and some related ideas from fields like psychology. They also offer some practical examples of what learner-centered pedagogy looks like in the instructional environments in which librarians are most likely to find themselves, including one-shot sessions and reference desk interactions.

What I especially liked about this book was how Klipfel and Cook drew from their own personal experiences and life stories to make their case. A story that particularly stood out was one in which Klipfel, as a student, told his librarian that he wanted to research Johnny Rotten for a project on important historical figures only to be told that this was not a scholarly enough topic and he had to pick something else. According to Klipfel’s librarian, writing about Johnny Rotten was not “real research” even though it was a topic that mattered to him personally.

This artificial line between what counts as an “acceptable” or “scholarly” research topic and what students might actually be interested in is, in my opinion, really key to understanding why students hate research so much. To address this issue, Klipfel and Cook turn to the subject of curiosity.

 

Putting curiosity back in IL learning

In Klipfel and Cook’s view, a learner-centered approach to information literacy is one in which students learn to think well about what matters to them, which involves engaging with learners’ curiosity and teaching them to think critically about what they find.

I happened to be reading this book around the same time I was implementing (yet another) new approach to the annotated bibliography project that I use in my credit-bearing information literacy course. I’ll be sharing more details about this soon, but for now the important thing to know is that I used to start things off by asking students to think about and comment on their role as information creators and then pursue a research topic that was in some way related to what they shared. This was less than successful in no small part because I had trouble convincing the students that they were, in fact, information creators. Anyway, this semester I decided instead to open the course with some information on the role of curiosity in research and then ask them what they were curious about.

The answers I got were everything from questions about what actually happened in the Civil War to the kind of creatures that live in the deep sea to how the Marvel Cinematic Universe came to be to Chinese internment camps in the United States during World War II to how the Kardashians became so famous. Some of these were topics students had become curious about in other classes and genuinely seemed to want to learn more about. Others were ones that they just enjoyed or were enthusiastic about.

And that enthusiasm was obvious. Even before they started researching, some of the students were sharing discussion posts that were practically essays in and of themselves. In reading Klipfel and Cook’s book, I think part of this might have come from the fact that in sharing their curiosity, they were sharing part of themselves as people in a way that went beyond rote icebreakers.

I hadn’t thought of it that way before. While I can’t say that the rest of the course adhered to the ideas Klipfel and Cook discuss (for reasons outlined in a minute), even just that accidental step was enough to show me that this is something worth pursuing further.

 

The instruction environments of the wild librarian

Throughout the book, Klipfel and Cook offer a number of examples of learner-centered pedagogy in action, most of which are focused on teaching in the context of the one-shot session. But they also take the time to consider instructional opportunities as they are represented at the reference desk and in doing so make a good case that big ideas like these can be applied even in relatively small teaching moments.

Toward the end of the book, the authors include an entire chapter on technology where they weigh in on whether gizmos and gadgets like clickers and chat reference enhance or hinder opportunities for learner-centered pedagogy. Their verdict in most cases is “it depends” but their thoughtful critiques of each tool that they describe are well worth a read whether you find yourself generally in favor of incorporating fancy technology into your teaching or not.

Despite this, one thing Klipfel and Cook don’t really touch on is what learner-centered pedagogy looks like in the context of online teaching. I’m curious about this mostly for selfish reasons: the credit-bearing course I teach is fully online and asynchronous. I’ve been teaching this way for about six years now and from the start it was a challenge to get the students to think of me and their fellow classmates as actual people rather than just names on a screen. Like, I had to implement very specific policies around civility and etiquette in reaction to some of the ugly behavior students have directed toward me and toward each other simply because they’re in an online environment instead of an in-person one. This behavior was always the exception rather than the rule but it never would have happened in a traditional classroom.

In a situation like that, how do you connect with students as people when they barely think of you as a person? I realize this isn’t likely to be as common of a question among librarians as the ones Klipfel and Cook do address since having a credit-bearing course at all is relatively rare, much less one that’s fully online. Still. It was something that came up for me when reading this book that I would personally like to learn more about.

 

All in all, I really enjoyed Learner-Centered Pedagogy. It gave me a lot to think about. If you have any interest at all, it’s definitely worth checking out in more detail.

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