Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about library instruction and the role it plays within the library and within the lives of the students we teach. One of the functions of instruction I’ve been ruminating on is the idea of instruction as translation.
Let me back up.
In my User Education class last semester Rachael Clemens brought up the concept of environmental interpretation to show ways in which instruction takes place in different contexts. I had never heard of environmental interpretation before, though I had unwittingly been the recipient of it. According to Sam Ham who has literally written the book on environmental interpretation, it “involves translating the technical language of a natural science or related field into terms and ideas that people who aren’t scientists can readily understand” (p. 3). I actually had been on the receiving end of environmental interpretation in several national parks in the form of talks and programs given by park rangers–I just didn’t realize there was a name for this sort of instruction.
Before that class discussion, I hadn’t considered the ways in which other fields engage in and train for instruction. We watched this short student-made video that discusses principles of good environmental interpretation that are based on Ham’s book. As I watched the video, I was struck by how the concerns of the environmental interpreter are very similar to the concerns of a librarian leading an instruction session.
While the students in the video model the need for an introduction to help establish rapport and provide context, as well as a conclusion to signal when the session is over, what captured my attention were the parts that address the concept of translation that Ham discusses. The students warn against playing the “know-it-all” and using lots of scientific terms and advise instead to “stick to the basics.” When I first saw this, I immediately thought of library jargon and how easy it is to use to slip into library-lingo in instruction sessions. It was a good reminder that I need to work to make my meaning known and simplify and contextualize complicated language.
The concept of “instruction as translation” is also at work when Ham discusses the need for interpretation to be relevant. One mark of relevance is that the interpretation is “meaningful.” Ham says “when information is meaningful it’s because we’re able to connect it to something already inside our brains” (p. 12). In light of this, analogies and metaphors seem to be perfect instruction tools because they take abstract ideas and link them to concrete ideas in such a way that the abstract becomes a little more clear. Creating these analogies can be a means of translation.
Lately I’ve been experimenting with different analogies to help students understand the research process. One that I’ve found to be fun and fairly successful is the idea of a detective needing to gather evidence to build a case. There are lots of possibilities for extending this analogy, but that particular class was able to explore why there is a need to find the best possible evidence rather than just any old evidence and then connect that to why, when writing papers, they’d want to dig for articles that support their arguments rather than articles that are loosely connected to their topic. By translating the abstract need (“good articles”) to a concrete concept (evidence to build a case) the students were able to think about their searching and article evaluation differently.
What sort of metaphors and analogies have you been using in the classroom? What have you found to be effective?