Teaching the Framework versus Teaching to the Framework

Image by Narin Seandag from Pixabay

As a way of staying in touch while under stay at home orders, my colleagues in the information literacy department have been conducting weekly Zoom meetings to talk about interesting articles we’re reading and research we’re working on.  For one such meeting, one colleague recommended “First-Year Students and the Framework: Using Topic Modeling to Analyze Student Understanding of the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education” by Melissa Harden(1). The article is an interesting exploration of how to use topic modeling to assess students’ understanding of information literacy concepts.

What I thought was really interesting about the author’s approach, though, was her use of the Framework as a text. Basically, as part of the assignment she was assessing, she asked students to read the Framework, albeit a modified version which eliminated some of the jargon. I’ve seen similar approaches in other articles and my own colleagues have discussed activities they’ve used that involve having students read the actual Framework.

I’ve never used this approach myself. In fact, though I occasionally allude to the Framework as a document that defines information literacy, I never even name any of the frames to my students or discuss the threshold concepts with them. That doesn’t mean I’m leaving the Framework out of my teaching. I guess it just means that my teaching is informed by the Framework without directly referencing it.

I’m going to admit that when I first heard that there were IL instructors who were using the Framework as a text and teaching the Framework itself to their students, I thought it was a little weird. Did anyone ever do that with the Standards? I imagine there are instructors who did and I know that, unlike the Framework’s threshold concepts, I myself did generally name the six factors that the Standards used to define an information literate individual to my students (can identify a gap in knowledge, etc.). But I’m guessing relatively few instructors used the Standards as a text the way some are doing with the Framework.

I’m wondering if that speaks to some interesting differences between the Standards and the Framework as documents. With the Standards, there wasn’t much to grapple with. It was mostly a list of skills and learning outcomes that could be used to measure student learning with regard to information literacy. It just kind of was what it was. Meanwhile, the Framework does a better job of inviting discussion. It invites you to think a little more about what the differences are between expert researchers and novice researchers and the work that goes into developing that expertise. I can see myself having a really good discussion with a classroom of students on what, if any, threshold concepts could be added to the Framework. That discussion might be most fruitful if it was conducted with LIS students but I can see how undergraduate and graduate students in other programs might have interesting things to say.

So I think teaching the Framework as a text is an interesting way to pull back the curtain on information literacy and reveal the underlying concepts to students. In our own discussions, my colleagues seemed to feel that introducing students to the Framework itself was most appropriate for upper level students. But Harden’s article shows that you can also have some success with this with first year students as well.

I think my original feeling of caution when I first heard about this approach had something to do with how, back when the Framework was new, there was a lot of discussion about teaching the frames to students. As in you would create a tutorial called “Scholarship is a Conversation” that explained the frame to students in very literal terms. This approach was a holdover from Standards-based teaching where, because the Standards named being able to evaluate information as an important skill, you would have an entire lesson basically called “Evaluating Information” in order to meet the outcomes associated with that standard (..or at least I did).

This is different from the approach where you treat the Framework as a text because treating the Framework as a text is a way of inviting analysis and critical thinking about information literacy itself. Teaching the frame itself seems like a type of teaching where you’re treating the students as empty vessels and it’s your job to fill them with knowledge.

Which isn’t necessarily wrong but I’m not sure how compatible it is with the idea of threshold concepts. I don’t know how effective it is to try to get students to cross a threshold of understanding by telling the threshold concept to them. I mean, they’ll definitely walk away with more information about the concept but that’s not the same thing as having that deeper level of understanding that threshold concepts are supposed to be about. Then again, there are threshold concepts in fields like economics that are taught very directly so why not take this approach with IL as well?

Those who teach the Framework directly and threshold concepts directly might question my own decision to not even reference the frames in my own teaching, which is fair. I mean, how can you expect someone to cross a threshold of understanding if they don’t know what the threshold concepts are?

What I think is interesting about that last question is the assumption that learners need information literacy instruction in order to cross thresholds of understanding when it comes to information literacy concepts. They don’t. There are plenty of scholars out there who implicitly understand that scholarship is a conversation even if they’ve never heard of the ACRL Framework or articulated it as such. So I think it’s possible to help students understand that scholarship is a conversation without necessarily signposting it in that way.

All of this to say, I don’t necessarily think one approach is better than another. I just think it’s interesting that these different approaches exist because it seems so different from the way things were done with the Standards. As scholarship about the Framework and Framework-based teaching continues to develop, this might be something that’s worth taking a closer look at.


(1) Harden, M. (2019). First-Year Students and the Framework: Using Topic Modeling to Analyze Student Understanding of the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 14(2), 51–69. https://doi.org/10.18438/eblip29514

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