Friday, July 13, 2007

cognitive development: the missing link

I've always been amazed by the work of cognitive psychologists. Through experimentation, carefully crafted and executed methods, their work gives us insight into the human mind. For those of us in the business of education, including librarians, knowing and understanding how the mind works gives us some guidance for the ways we shape our interactions with students and the academic and social environments we create for them.

What got me thinking about cognitive psychologists is an column in the latest issue of RUSQ titled, "Cognitive Development: The Missing Link in Teaching Information Literacy Skills". Here, the authors (and I'm a little confused at who actually wrote this piece -- it says Rebecca Jackson as he guest columnist, and Lori Arp and Beth S. Woodward are editors) map the ACRL Information Literacy Standards to levels of cognitive development written about by William Perry and others.

The article presents an excellent review of literature about cognitive development and its relationship to information literacy and student-library interactions. In many cases, freshmen enter college in a stage of development described as dualistic: there are rights and wrongs, and that is it. There are Authorities who are always right, and those that hold other positions are wrong. By the end of a four-year program, students have generally progressed into a mode described as multiplicity -- there are still right and wrong answers, but not everything is necessarily known yet. Still, though, there is an ultimate truth.

What students often cannot grasp, even upon graduation, is the relativistic level of development. In this stage, students realize that answers to questions largely depend on context, and there may not be a be-all end-all right and wrong answer. Solutions can be on a scale of grays as opposed to strictly black and white.

This sheds some light on some of the struggles I had with students who came to see me in one-on-one appointments. Last semester, I helped many students find articles for their annotated bibliographies for a COMM 101 class - a freshman-level class on mass media. Many were discouraged when, even with a librarians help, they were unable to find that one, perfect article that supported their ideas. The notion that they would have to piece together multiple articles and synthesize them into new knowledge (or at least demonstrate an understanding of the varied perspectives in the articles) is a task that can only be accomplished by those who understand that knowledge is contextual and relative.

If my freshmen are still in the dualistic stage, then they believe that there is one singular way to argue a topic. For example, one of the topics a student came to me was about reality television and its popularity. She wanted to write a paper explaining that this popularity was due to audience members seeing reflections of themselves on television. When we explored the literature, she quickly became discouraged when our search results didn't 'hit the nail on the head'.

After reading this article from RUSQ, I imagine she was looking for confirmation of her own thoughts.
In Perry’s dualism, students see the world as either good or bad, right or wrong, black or white. Authorities (with a capital A) have all the answers; if they do not, either they are not legitimate Authorities, or the answers are only temporarily unknown. Students believe that there are right answers for every question. They will only look for information that agrees with their beliefs. At early stages of dualism, students simply ignore uncertainty or place it in the “others” category: us/others.
Despite turning up many articles on reality television and its representation of various cultures and groups of people, she may have been feeling at a loss because we couldn't find an article echoing her hypothesis. She wasn't ready, cognitively, to process the varied articles we got and use them to support an argument. She also wasn't ready to change her opinion and let it develop as she read and searched.

Thinking about it, she may have also been frustrated with me. I couldn't come up with the 'perfect search' to find what she knew had to be out there. In fact, she even said, "Someone has got to have written about this!" suggesting that she thought the answer, confirmation of her hypothesis, was in existence.

How can we work with students that are not yet ready to think about searching in flexible, 'relativistic' ways?

One successful interaction I had may be an option. As I worked with a student on her topic about depictions of women in advertising in the 1950s, we shifted our topic to match the articles that we were finding. While we didn't find much about her initial topic (how women's lives were shaped by advertisements), we did start seeing many articles about body image. We then expanded our search to include other decades, and she decided upon writing about how depictions of women's bodies have changed over the years, culminating in a description of Dove's "real women" campaign.

I think she left happy because we did find articles that supported a thesis. They were there, available, and obviously a 'right' way to go because there were articles about it, satisfying the need for a 'right' answer.

However, over the course of the semester, she no doubt started to develop a little more as she read -- comparing and contrasting the viewpoints in the articles themselves. I don't think I sabotaged a change to learn how incomplete human knowledge is -- she'll learn that as she goes through college -- but I did get her to a stage where she felt comfortable.

The ACRL Information Literacy Standards are noble goals, but this scenario illustrates how some of them require students to be more developed cognitively than they are:
For instance, Standard One, outcome 1.f. specifies that the information literate student “recognizes that existing information can be combined with original thought, experimentation, and/or analysis to produce new information.” The discovery that the student makes his own knowledge is one that comes at the Relativistic position.
We can't expect students to be okay with getting results tangential to their search topics. We must understand why they are always looking for that 'perfect' article that sums up their ideas perfectly. We must try to think about this when were serve our students. If we do want to help them develop, we should be explicit about how they can combine thoughts and ideas in article to support their own thoughts and ideas. We must do so in a concrete way, and always realize that when they check the "scholarly" limiter in a database, to them it may mean, "These articles represent 'right' ideas," not "These articles probably come with a lot of supporting evidence and reasoning."

Yay, RUSQ! Great article!

That said, it take a great deal of time and patience and the ability to listen to, observe, and diagnose student actions and responses to determine if they fit the characteristics of any given stage. It is reminiscent of the kinds of experiences my wife, a social work student, encounters while at her field placement during therapy sessions.

Hmm.. The librarian as information therapist... I like!

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