Teaching Near the Edge of Chaos

Hautala, Robert M. and Bryan Miyagishima, 2008. Teaching near the edge of chaos: dynamic systems, student choices and library research. Communication in Information Literacy, Spring 2008, 2(1): 25-35. Accessed on Dec. 1, 2008, http://www.comminfolit.org/index.php/cil/article/view/Spring2008AR2.

This article urges instruction librarians to toss students into the drink first, then offer helpful suggestions on how to swim. In other words, before lecturing on or demonstrating information literacy skills, have students attempt to deploy such IL skills as they might possess. Hautala and Miyagishima are hardly the first to propose this. They come to this strategem by way of Dynamic Systems theory, as applied in motor learning.

Dynamic Systems Theory?
The authors refer to “… models [that] contain two important tenets. First, when disrupted, systems will self-organize; and second, the best, most efficient reorganization of any system will emerge from the edge of the chaos that any initial change has first produced (Seel, 1999).”

How Do They Recommend Dynamic Systems Theory Be Applied to ILI?
“… this approach requires the library instructor to design tasks that engage students in desired IL skills and expose them to designated library resources.”

What Can An Instructor Do?
Instructors can directly manipulate two of three “constraints”—the tasks students are assigned and the environment/tools students can use to complete these tasks—in order to indirectly affect the third constraint, students’ skills.

Yes, That Does Sound Like Teaching.
The difference here is that the teacher removes herself from the tasks as much is possible, intervening only to introduce new tasks and/or new environments, providing students with the opportunity to create their best solutions.

That Sounds More Like…
Coaching. And the dreaded sports metaphors hold up here. There are lots of guidelines on how to hit a pitch, but every player has to find her own swing. This approach, the Ecological Task Analysis (ETA), allows the instructor to work with all students, at whatever level—those who “get it” right off will still have something to do, as well as those who need more work to discover their best methods.

The authors give two examples of classroom applications of ETA, following these steps of ETA: “Establish Task Goal; Provide Choices; Modify the Variables; Provide Instruction.” The ETA model seems challenging to translate to a large or a non-technology classroom. (NOTE: Consider also using tutorials, esp. customized learning as described in de la Chica et al., 2008*).

The Take-Away…
1) Instruction librarians should think of and design their classroom sessions more as coaching, where they respond to what students are doing, than as teaching.
2) This article is a quick read, and would be a good one to pass on to faculty members when one is planning an instruction session.


*de la Chica, S., F. Ahmad, T. Sumner, J.H. Martin, and K. Butcher, 2008. Computational foundations for personalizing instruction with digital libraries. Int J Digit Libr 9: 3-18. http://ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=33333190&site=ehost-live

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