One of the cool things about being a university librarian is that I get to hear what faculty are learning. Today I attended a presentation about a math professor’s sabbatical project, which included working on an OER textbook for a freshman geometry course. Dr. Teresa Magnus talked about her work incorporating active learning, where students solve problems together rather than just listening to her lecture, and mindset.
I’d heard about Carol Dweck‘s theory of mindset before — the gist of the idea is that we either believe our abilities are fixed, and that there is little we can do to overcome the deficits or augment the talents and abilities we were born with, or we believe we can succeed by working, growing or developing. Fixed mindset people sometimes give up if they make mistakes, and as Dr Magnus noted, come to believe they aren’t good at something, like math, because they just aren’t able to. Growth mindset people are ok with mistakes, seeing them as a path to progress, and are able to tolerate productive struggle.
My guess is that very few people are strictly fixed or growth oriented all the time for all the things they learn in a lifetime. Lots of people believe they aren’t good at math, for example, and think no amount of practice will help them, but some of those same people are willing to practice shooting baskets or learn to make cookies from scratch without a recipe or some other skill.
I also read about the Right Question Institute today, because an interview with Dan Rothstein, one of the directors, popped up on one of my email lists. This organization is dedicated to helping people teach and learn how to ask questions. It sounds simple, but really, if you look around you can find dozens of examples of misinformation or misunderstandings or miscommunications caused by inadequate questioning.
What does all this have to do with librarianship, you might ask? For me it’s important to learn more about teaching in order to be a better instructional librarian, but even at the service desk, I think librarians could really benefit from mindset theory and “beautiful” question techniques. We are so often helping people who know they need or want some information but can’t quite explain it — and may feel they are too dumb to ask properly, or that they just don’t know how the library works, or how research work, not because they haven’t been taught but because they “just can’t.”
I’ve heard librarians and teachers over the years become frustrated by this or make assumptions about patrons’ or students’ laziness or neediness. What if we approached these situations with open hearts, minds, and ears, and compassion for the little voice inside all of us that says “you’re no good at that, you can’t do it?” What if fostering growth mindset was an intentional part of our work? What if we used a version of Question Formulation Technique to gently guide patrons towards their own best questions? What if instead of looking things up for people, we made active learning a part of reference interactions? I think these are really important ideas, not necessarily foreign to librarians but perhaps tucked away in grad school or conference notes and not part of our conscious daily efforts. I’m looking forward to thinking about how best to approach more deliberately incorporating them into my life and work.