Libraries are for Use

Demonstrating the value of librarianship

Favorite TEDTalk of the week


For the last few months, I’ve been trying to schedule a time on Sunday mornings to watch the latest TEDTalks posted during the week.  Today, I’m having to catch up from missing a couple of weeks due to various reasons.  While most are quite interesting, I did want to highlight one that I found most intriguing and/or inspirational.

Tyler DeWitt talks about his efforts as a middle-school science teacher to explain science without the “tyranny of precision” and conforming to the “cult of seriousness”.  His key line is, “Let me tell you a story…” advocating the use of storytelling as a tool for engaging students.  Tyler seems like a person who has been born & raised in a cult and has just thought of and is bewildered by ideas such as speaking your mind and freedom to believe in any (or no) religion.  He (metaphorically) wonders why others haven’t thought of this before.  It’s almost like Tyler believes he’s the first person to use storytelling to reach students in science.  And it’s quite reasonable for him to believe this.  He, himself, has been indoctrinated into the “cult of seriousness” and has been complicit in the “tyranny of precision” through his own science education and training to teach and write about science.  So we can forgive him for his seemingly egocentrism and examine the meat of his argument: Make the teaching of science engaging and inspiring to students by using simpler language, metaphors that the students can relate to, and occassional “little lies”.  While he winces when people call it “dumbing down” (you’d be surprised at how many of the negative comments use this exact phrase), ….  The “little lies” is another aspect that some people take exception to.  But Tyler affirms it is better that the students learn overall concepts that may not be 100% accurate than to not learn any of the concepts at all.

I always find it interesting to read the comments of the TEDTalks to find what others think.  Inevitably, there are the gushing “Right on!” and “Amen!” comments, but just as inevitably there are naysayers.  I think this exchange is good and right.  And I found it quite interesting that the bulk of the negative comments came from fellow science teachers who express the exact sentiments that Tyler advocates against: a tyranny of precision, focusing on the idea of “little lies” idea; and the “dumbing down” of science.  I think the concerns about the “little lies” are due to a poor choice of words.  From what I understood, Tyler is not advocating lying per se but rather not being 100% precise.  Using the examples of his talk, by leaving out the fact that a few viruses use RNA instead of DNA, he avoids confusing the students as they attempt to understand the basic concept of bacteriophage viruses.  The more exceptions you throw into an explanation, the harder it is to understand.  So, while Tyler is not telling the whole truth, he is, nonetheless, telling the truth.   The second issue of “dumbing down” is also about choice of words, in this case, by the naysayers.  Tyler emphasizes “simplifying” the language, not “dumbing it down”.  I believe the difference is based on your assumptions of how learning should happen.  If you believe that it is the individual student’s responsibility to “do the work” and understand it on his or her own, then using simpler language is “dumbing down”.  If you believe it is the responsibility of the teacher to explain and to, well, teach, then using simpler language is one tool of many.

Finally, context of the class is key to the teaching methods used. Tyler (and most science teachers in  primary, secondary, and lower-level undergraduate education) is teaching students many of whom will not even go to college, let alone become a scientist or science teacher.  His goals are to have his students understand the basic concepts of science and the scientific method, and to inspire interest in discovering the ways of nature.

So, what does this have to do with librarianship?  Well, librarianship is an extension of education, and using library-centric terms and teaching searching skills using complex concepts like “boolean” and “relevance”.  Just as with science teachers, there are some who think we should teach the terminology and not “dumb it down”.  I believe there is a compromise of sorts – teaching the terminology by telling a story.  Similarly, by using metaphors and storytelling to explain concepts of information literacy, our goals should not include making our students professional searchers, but rather to be able find relevant and useful information and to evaluate the sources and potential biases of the sources.

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This entry was posted on February 10, 2013 by in Intriguing Ideas and tagged .
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