Teacher-librarians change with the times

Technology like tablets, e-books and smartphones have changed the way teacher-librarians do their job, says Patricia Finlay, a consultant for the Burnaby school district
Technology like tablets, e-books and smartphones have changed the way teacher-librarians do their job, says Patricia Finlay, a consultant for the Burnaby school district's teacher-librarians.

A student approached Burnaby district teacher-librarian Patricia Finlay raving about what she learned on a website she'd found.

The site touted all sorts of wonderful things a new chemical was capable of doing.

Finlay looked at the site, and the description of the chemical's makeup, and asked the student, "Do you know what H2O is?"

The amazing new chemical was water, and the site was a hoax.

The situation is an example of the new role that teacher-librarians are playing now that the Internet and high-tech gadgets have seemingly brought the world's information to students' fingertips.

"It's a tsunami of information, it's overwhelming," Finlay said.

"Just because they know how to operate a device doesn't mean they know how to make sense of what they find."

Today, in addition to introducing children to books and curating collections in school libraries, teacher-librarians are doing the same with websites and online information.

They often research and vet appropriate websites ahead of time to provide to teachers when they're covering a particular subject, just as they do with books.

But they also teach students to do better Internet searches, refine their search terms, and become more independent.

Part of the challenge is a trend teachers and librarians call "satisficing," a combination of satisfying and sufficient or suffice, said Finlay. In other words, students' approach is often "get what I need for an assignment and hand it in."

Teacher-librarians aim to get students to look deeper into their subjects.

"They can find all this stuff and make it look good in Powerpoint presentations, but if you ask them afterwards to explain it, they don't actually understand it."

So they might work with teachers to change their assignments from, for instance, "tell me about this animal" to also, "what do you think is the most important adaptation this animal has to live in their habitat?"

Arguably, one of the most important roles teacher librarians have today is teaching students critical thinking skills to help them determine whether the information on a website can be trusted.

Finlay said she teaches students how to confirm information they find with other sources and how to find out who produces the website, and their point of view.

"If you're looking for information about lung cancer, would you go to a tobacco company site or would you go to Health Canada?" she said.

Finlay stressed that teacher-librarians' role is to show students how to look at both sides of an argument, then let them come to their own conclusions. Even just talking about the biases inherent in some information sources gets students thinking critically.

And every once in a while, Finlay has fun with it, having students compare real websites with bogus ones.

She's seen students convinced, after seeing hoax websites, that Velcro is grown on a farm in California and that there's such a thing as a Pacific Northwest tree octopus.

"Some kids are more gullible," she said with a laugh.

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