Teaching and Learning Together: The U-M Library's Festival of Learning

librarians cutting paper at a table
Annette Haines teaches library staff how to make books.

Guest post by Emily Puckett Rodgers, Special Projects Librarian

While learning about knitting or cake decorating may not seem like professional development to most people, the act of teaching and the act of learning can be very powerful, especially if it is interest-driven. The staff at the University of Michigan Library are deeply involved in supporting learning at all levels: the identification, access and organization of information to inform learning, the instruction of techniques to support learning, and the provision of tools and services that can drive learning. However, not all of our staff (over four hundred) often engage in the act of learning and teaching ourselves.

Constance Steinkuehler, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin started out studying online games and literacy. What she stumbled upon was the fact that when students are genuinely passionate about learning more on a subject, their learning intensifies and opportunities for teaching can arise. Often our professional development opportunities put us in the professional learner’s seat and we don’t always get the chance to embody the teaching role or be a student of the world. We’re also starting to pay attention to how learners drive their learning outside formal learning settings, as seen in the research done by the Connected Learning Research Network.

In a large university library with several distinct divisions, it can be hard to gain a holistic picture of how all the pieces fit together, even for the staff. We have opportunities to learn and to teach more about each other through social events and speed-networking events, but these can either lack a hook (an incentive to walk up to someone you don’t know and start chatting) or are still role-based (The question “what do you do?” can be daunting to start a conversation around). As one of the world’s leading libraries, we are expected to be forward thinking and innovative. According to Tim Brown, CEO of Ideo, this state often requires three things: curiosity, an open mind, and a trusted space to take risk.

These features, supporting passion and participatory based learning and connecting library staff based on interest rather than responsibility, catalyzed my interest in organizing the University Library Festival of Learning, held in August 2013. Upon administrative approval, an interlibrary committee was formed to organize the Festival of Learning and it took place in August 2013.

A call for sessions was posted and we had over twenty staff from almost every unit propose a teaching session. Many of these staff had never formally taught before but we required that they provide learning objects and develop some sort of lesson plan for their students. Some sessions were lecture based and others were hands-on. Many teachers brought supplies for others to use to create things like handmade books, jewelry, knitting, and origami. This gave each teacher an opportunity to embrace the role of an instructor and define what they wanted their peers to gain from the experience. By stepping into the role of ‘teacher,’ these participants were given the challenge to create an experience both fun and informative for their peers. This setting developed a safe space to take what otherwise may be a daunting risk (getting up in front of others and being responsible for ‘teaching’ them something). This skill can be applied across several settings from team-based projects and committee work to representing the library on a local or regional scale.

From the learner perspective, this gave library staff a chance to connect with their peers on a topic that was interest-driven rather than professional. Regardless of rank, responsibility, or role, all the participants in a single session came together based on a common interest. This interest can now fuel additional conversations and possible collaborations across units. As an organizer of the Festival of Learning, I got to know library staff across physical locations and units that I might otherwise never work with. I was able to connect with managers and staff who have years of experience compared to my few years at the start of my career. Because of this introduction, I can now call on them if I have a question or a need from their domain of responsibility.

This opportunity gave over 150 participants from across the library an outlet to: embody and practice teaching, connect with their colleagues, and forge new relationships. You can read more about this event from the perspective of maker culture on the MakerBridge blog.

If you could teach anything other than what you teach at work, what would you teach?