By Meredith Farkas | October 7, 2007
I’ve been reading a number of interesting posts on the “training-wheels culture” from Dorothea Salo, Nicole Engard, and Emily Clasper. As I’ve been doing a lot of teaching — both online and in-person workshops — it’s an issue I’ve also been thinking a lot about on my own. During the InfoPeople courses (two sections of the same course) I taught in August and September, I had a number of people ask me for things that I really thought they should be able to figure out on their own. Some people tried stuff and were unable to figure it out and then e-mailed me for help. That’s fine; it’s what I’m there for. But to not even try to do the thing you’re e-mailing me about before you e-mail me is just silly. There are a lot of librarians out there who for whatever reason are not willing to just try things out (or look things up) on their own. And what I really find most frustrating about this is that I don’t know why.
Dorothea largely sees this as a cultural issue in our profession:
Librarians are a timorous breed, fearful of ignorance and failure. We believe knowledge is power, which taken to an unhealthy extreme can mean that we do not do anything until we think we understand everything. We do not learn by doing, because learning by doing invariably means failure. So a librarian just won’t sit down with AACR2, Connexions, and the AUTOCAT mailing-list archive and work out how to catalogue a novel item. Nor she won’t sit down at the computer and beat software with rocks until it works.
Maybe she’s right; I’m not really sure. There definitely is a lot of risk aversion in this profession. I think we’re getting better, but a lot of libraries do not create an environment where people feel comfortable failing. I would not be able to do my job were that the case and I have learned much more from my failures than from my successes. That culture can make people feel like they need to put out a perfect product every time, which leads to people not trying at all if they think there’s a chance things won’t be perfect. But I think it’s more than that. Why do some people feel like they can’t learn something unless it’s literally handed to them? Why can’t people look things up or just — as Dorothea says — “beat software with rocks until it works?”
We talk a lot about diverse learning styles and being sensitive to those styles. I’m someone who doesn’t learn well by reading step-by-step instructions. I learn by seeing someone do something or by trying to do it myself. I remember in math class once, I came up with my own way of solving certain problems. While I’d always come to the correct answer, I’d get points taken off (remember, in math class you always had to show your work) because it wasn’t the way we were taught in the book. This is just the way I am. I learn in my own way. And I’ve been wondering if maybe this has something to do with learning styles. Maybe some people just can’t go into a wiki and learn how to use it. Maybe they need a facilitator around to show them how things are done before they feel comfortable doing it themselves. And if that’s the case, then should we really be pushing them to learn in a way that runs counter to their own learning style? Should we be like my math teacher who penalized me for learning in a different way?
Maybe it’s a simple lack of interest. I can understand why a lot of people don’t learn certain things that aren’t important to them. There are plenty of things in this world I know nothing about because they’re not a priority for me. And not every librarian needs to know all that much about technology. So perhaps a lack of interest is to blame in some cases. But what about those who are taking technology classes? Obviously the interest is there, so why are they not willing to go the extra mile and just try to figure something out on their own?
In an average day, I spend a lot of time looking things up for/with students. That’s a big part of what we do as librarians; help people with their research. So when I find a librarian in a class asking me for a glossary of terms that some of the participants don’t recognize from my lecture, I have to shake my head a bit. We are all librarians right? Anything I discussed in my social software class could easily be looked up in Google or the Wikipedia and it would take less time to do that than to e-mail me with the question. I used to read above my grade level as a child, and there were frequently words I’d encounter that I didn’t know. I guess I could have just read on and ignored those words, but instead, I looked them up. I didn’t expect someone to explain it for me. I can understand not looking it up if you’re not interested in knowing what it means. But if you are interested, why would you not just look it up yourself?
The thing that concerns me most about this learning style or culture or lack of curiosity is what it means for their future in implementing technologies. Whether this is a learning style issue or not, librarians are doing themselves (and their library and their patrons) no favors when they take no responsibility for their own learning. If someone can’t figure out (or be bothered to figure out) how to subscribe to RSS feeds in an aggregator without explicit instructions from their instructor, will they be able to evaluate and implement technologies at their library? Will they be able to keep up on their own as technologies change? Will they be able to learn how to use the new things that come along without a class? I think Dorothea’s right that this external locus of control with respect to technology will get librarians nowhere. If we abdicate all responsibility for understanding and maintaining technologies to IT, do we really have any right to complain when we don’t get things the way we want them? Without curiosity, without a willingness to at least try to make something happen before we ask for help, we are going to be dead in the water once we leave that class. Because we won’t always have a facilitator there to offer instruction and advice.
I really want to understand what is at the root of this training-wheels culture, because we can’t combat it until we understand the cause(s). What do you think it is? Cultural? Laziness? Lack of interest? A difference in learning styles? I’d be curious to see what you all think might be the cause of this, because honestly, I don’t have a clue.
I was one of those kids who never wanted to take off the training-wheels or the water wings. I liked my comfort zone. I was a rather fearful child, and I’m lucky that I had people who pushed me to do things that scared me. That’s why I feel I’m doing people a disservice when I define a term for them or give them explicit instructions on how to do something. Because learning how to find the answer is even more important than what they actually accomplished in the task. Once you know how to tinker with technologies, once you know how to find documentation, once you know how to look something up… you’ve developed skills that will make you a better librarian in the future. If I teach you exactly how to subscribe to an RSS feed in an aggregator or exactly what you need to do to install MediaWiki, all you’ve gained from that is a collection of RSS feeds and a wiki. While there’s nothing wrong with asking for help if you get stuck, for way too many people, their first reaction is to ask for help before they’ve even tried. And that path will never lead to true lasting learning.
As instructors and trainers, I believe we are doing our best work when we can push people to take off their training-wheels, because we are helping them to become better life-long learners. So next time someone asks you for an answer they should probably be finding themselves, think about what you’re really teaching them if you give them the answer.