By Brittany Soder

Planning time. For a classroom teacher, this precious part of the school day (or, too often, the night or weekend) is where the what (standards and student learning goals) and the why (educational theory) of teaching come together to create the how: a plan for the learning activities that will structure the class time and help students reach their learning goals. Any given learning goal can be reached in dozens of different ways; this is the difference between standards (benchmarks for what learners should know and be able to do) and curriculum (what actually happens in the learning environment). This is as true for learning goals in the public library as it is for learning goals in formal learning environments. A poor teacher is like a carpenter with only a hammer: limited to using the same instructional approach for every learning task (you’ve probably encountered such a teacher; their default “hammer” is the monotonous lecture). A great teacher, in contrast, has a full toolbox and can thoughtfully select the best tool for the job at hand.

The tools we will talk about in this chapter are instructional approaches, ways of orienting your instruction that are based in the broader context of instructional theory (discussed in chapters 4 and 5). The approaches discussed in this chapter will address the different tenets of these theories. These theories and subsequent approaches look very different from one another when implemented in the library classroom. As Joy McGregor (1999) explained, “A behaviorist would support using extrinsic motivation to reinforce learning activity. … Constructivists would favor active learning that often takes place in a library” (p. 33). Most of the approaches discussed in this chapter are based on the theories of cognitivism and constructivism, looking to actively engage students in their learning, and grounded in the critical theories of learning discussed in Chapter 5.

In this chapter, we will discuss five different instructional approaches: direct instruction, cooperative learning, problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, and experiential learning (for a summary of these approaches, see Table 1 at the end of this chapter). Except for direct instruction, all these instructional approaches have their foundations in the in the work of John Dewey. As early as the late 1800s, Dewey argued that “the essence of education … lies precisely in this idea that there is an intimate and necessary connection between experience and education” (Pohoata & Mocanu, 2015). This belief developed into the idea that active participation from the students is vital to successful learning; it’s an idea which is evident in most popular instructional approaches today.

Direct Instruction

Think about your own K–12 math instruction. Most likely, much of this instruction revolved around a core routine that worked something like this: The teacher presented a new topic and showed the class how to solve a particular type of problem; then, the class collaboratively solved a few similar problems, working with the teacher’s support; individual students then worked through sets of similar questions on their own; and, finally, students were assessed on their mastery of the topic. This traditional—and still widely used—model of teaching is called direct instruction, sometimes referred to as explicit teaching.

This instructional approach was developed in the 1960s by Siegfried Engelmann. Instead of focusing on student inquiry, direct instruction (DI) teaches mastery of knowledge through repetition and summative assessment. Since the establishment of DI, Engelmann and colleagues have continued to promote and advocate for the approach. Today, the National Institute for Direct Instruction ( advocates for the use of direct instruction in the 21st–century classroom. There are five key principles of direct instruction (NIFDI, 2017):

  • All children can be taught;
  • All children can improve academically and in terms of self-image;
  • All teachers can succeed if provided with adequate training and materials;
  • Low performers and disadvantaged learners can be taught at a faster rate than typically occurs, allowing them to catch up with their higher-performing peers; and
  • All details of instruction must be controlled to minimize the chance of students’ misinterpreting information being taught and to maximize the reinforcing effect of instruction.

Sometimes, the direct instruction approach is simplified as “I Do, We Do, You Do.” In this way of using DI, a new skill is taught first by the teacher demonstrating skill and explaining it as she goes. Then the teacher leads the students in a collaborative effort through the steps of the skill. Finally, the students independently practice the skill until they reach mastery. For example, if you were to teach someone how to reshelve books using the Dewey Decimal System, you might begin by demonstrating the task with five sample books before working with the learners to shelve five more sample books. Lastly, you could have the learners practice the task on their own.

I Do, We Do, You Do

See a summary of the “I Do, We Do, You Do” model in this helpful graphic created by Ellen Levy:

The focus of direct instruction is to create a learning environment where variance is minimized, which often requires learners to be grouped by skill level. Grouping students by skill level isn’t a new phenomenon; however, the establishment of standardized curriculum and lessons is a special focus of direct instruction. Another large component of direct instruction is effective teaching, as measured by acceleration of student mastery. Engelmann talks of “acceleration” and the speed at which direct instruction methods teach students different groups of skills (Adams & Engelmann, 1997). In a study conducted by the U.S. Office of Education that compared 21 different learning approaches, students taught using direct instruction outperformed students in other programs in reading, mathematics, spelling, and language (Adams & Engelmann, 1996, p. 4).

Engelmann has asserted that for maximum impact, teachers using DI should work from a shared script written by experts. This highly prescribed system dissuades teachers from incorporating creative activities in the classroom and encourages them to utilize only direct instruction program material. Engelmann has also argued that when using direct instruction, teachers shouldn’t use any other instructional approach or program (NIFDI, 2017).

Direct Instruction in Libraries

In a study on effective instruction about plagiarism, Richard Moniz, Joyce Fine, and Leonard Bliss (2008) compared direct instruction and student-centered teaching. For the direct instruction lesson, the librarian lectured to the whole class about plagiarism terms and concepts before discussing specific examples of plagiarism. The student-centered lesson involved more active learning activities, such as role-playing and small-group discussions. The authors found that there was no achievement difference between the two groups. These results might vary, however, based on the content and focus of the lessons (for example, fact-based versus skill-based instruction).

The researchers also considered the amount of time that librarian instructors have with their learners. The lessons in this particular study were one-shots instead of recurring lessons. When more time is available to develop relationships with students, understand their strengths and needs, and work on the same skills over multiple sessions, a more student-centered approach may be easier to implement and more effective than direct instruction.

The DI approach works best for teaching discrete facts or skills in a short period of time. For example, you might consider using this approach when teaching learners how to use the library’s online catalog. To help learners gain understanding and skills that cannot be easily summarized into a single right answer, however, other approaches are needed. The DI approach is also limited in its ability to account for diverse learning styles, cultures, and ability levels, making it a less-than-ideal choice for librarians working toward culturally responsive pedagogy (see Chapter 5).

Cooperative Learning

Cooperative learning is a student-centered learning approach that focuses on the development of interdependent small groups. There are five elements listed by David Johnson and Roger Johnson (2009) that define effective cooperative learning:

  • Positive interdependence: Each learner relies on every other learner in the group.
  • Individual accountability: The group of learners establishes checks to make sure that everyone is doing what they need to do.
  • Face-to-face promotive interaction: Group members encourage one another.
  • Social and interpersonal skills: Groups work to develop and practice leadership, communication, conflict-management, and other soft skills.
  • Group processing: Together, learners discuss what has worked (and not worked) to accomplish their goal or task.

The key to cooperative learning is not just putting learners into random groups and giving them a task but creating activities that help groups “accomplish shared goals … discuss material [to] help one another understand it, and encourage each other to work hard” (Johnson & Johnson, 2009, p. 68). Cooperative learning, therefore, requires a lot from the teacher in terms of developing and facilitating effective groups.

Cooperative learning looks different depending on the classroom. There are short group assignments for quick, single learning goals that often range from a couple minutes long to a class period. There are also cooperative base groups, which are groups that can meet for several years at a time. These types of groups meet regularly and “give [the] support, help, encouragement, and assistance each member needs to make academic progress … and develop cognitively and socially in healthy ways” (Johnson & Johnson, 2009, p. 69). Learners not only acquire academic knowledge in cooperative learning groups but are also able to practice and develop the healthy social skills they need to be successful people in the world. These soft, social skills are just as important to learners as academic knowledge. It’s important to acknowledge that not everything about these groups needs to be perfect. Part of effective learning is being in a space where it is safe to fail. Learning how to work together takes time and patience.

When the model is implemented well, learners benefit greatly from cooperative learning. This approach creates an environment where learners are actively engaged and invested in the learning goals. Robert Slavin (1991) reported that the benefits of cooperative learning include improvements in “self-esteem, intergroup relations, acceptance of academically handicapped students, attitudes toward school, and ability to work cooperatively” (p. 71). When groups are thoughtfully designed, learners can meaningfully interact with peers from different cultures, races, religions, ability levels, etc., and this exposure to diversity within a context where all group members are working together toward a common goal can help children and teens appreciate the value of inclusion in other contexts.

There are, however, risks associated with cooperative learning as well. Robyn Gilles and Michael Boyle (2010) interviewed 11 middle school teachers about how they developed and implemented cooperative learning in the classroom. A major concern reported in the study was how to manage off-topic groups and students who aren’t engaged in the work. Most of the teachers talked about having to prepare or teach their students how to work in groups together. Teachers observed that students were more on-task and more likely to help their groupmates after explicit discussions on proper cooperative group behaviors (Gilles & Boyle, 2010). While all the teachers had positive things to say about the implementation, they also acknowledged difficulties and challenges to cooperative learning. Group composition in the classroom is a large consideration in setting up a cooperative learning environment, and it can take a lot of work on the teacher’s part to establish well-rounded groups that work well together.

Cooperative Learning in Libraries

Forming effective cooperative learning groups requires some knowledge of your learners as individuals, which can be difficult to attain in a public library setting. For that reason, this approach would work best for recurring programs, like Teen Advisory Boards, as opposed to one-shot programs where the librarian may not know anything about the participants in advance. It’s also important to note that small group work within the context of an instructional program may have value regardless of whether it meets all the criteria for true cooperative learning.

Co-Learning in Chattanooga

For one example of cooperative learning in a public library setting, check out this article about Chattanooga (TN) Public Library’s co-learning classes:

Inquiry-Based Learning

Another learner-centered approach to learning is inquiry-based learning, which advocates active investigation in the classroom. The central focus to this learning approach is learner questions. More so than in the previous two approaches, the teacher steps aside as the expert and becomes a facilitator of learning. In their instruction theory tutorial, Joe Exline and Arthur Costa (n.d.) traced the beginnings of inquiry-based learning from John Dewey and his suggested reforms to the existing educational system.

Typically, teachers use inquiry-based learning most frequently in math and science because experiments naturally fit the question-centered nature of this learning approach. However, through role-playing, crafting and making programs, case-studies, and simulations, the library is also a natural location for this approach (McGregor, 1999). Research has shown that learner benefits from inquiry-based learning include development of problem-solving skills and creative thinking abilities (Exline & Costa, n.d.), as well as the development of shared experiences with co-learners, the creation of an engaging learning environment, and the development of positive attitudes toward learning (Klentscky et al., 2002).

Despite being learner-focused, the work of the instructor is essential to the success of inquiry-based learning. According to Patrick Blessinger and John Carfora (2014), there is no one-size-fits-all guide for teachers when implementing inquiry-based learning. Every instance of inquiry-based learning is going to be different and require a different amount of assistance and guidance from the instructor.

Inquiry-Based Learning In Libraries

A common objection to inquiry-based learning in K–12 schools is that allowing learning to be directed by student questions is often impossible when the teacher must cover a set of standards in a short time frame. Because public libraries do not have a required curriculum in the same sense, and because the library has resources on nearly every topic close at hand, librarians have more freedom to implement inquiry-based learning in its purest form. Libraries could solicit questions from children and teens (for example, by using a suggestion box in the children’s space or posting a prompt on the library’s social media page). Then, librarians could design programming around those questions. Alternatively, programs could be open-ended (like Wonder Time, profiled below) to allow learners to investigate questions of their choosing related to a given set of resources. As you read about Wonder Time, ask yourself: What skills, knowledge, and/or dispositions could learners develop by participating in this program or one like it?


Spotlight: Wonder Time in Paducah

On Tuesday afternoons at the McCracken County Public Library in Paducah, Kentucky, children ages 6 to 14 gather to explore, investigate, and practice self-expression as part of a library program called Wonder Time (Bartley, 2018). The library plans the programs around a central theme; past themes have included sound, yoga, healthy eating, and rocks and minerals. During the program, children can explore various resources, activities, crafts, and displays related to the central topic.


Problem-Based Learning

Closely related to inquiry-based learning is the approach of problem-based learning (PBL). This approach comes out of the medical field in the late 1960s. Problem-based learning was a response to medical students who faced difficulties adjusting to real-world practice after the more sheltered environment of the classroom. In this method, learners are introduced to realistic and practical case studies where they can obtain authentic problem-solving experience (Allen, Donham, & Bernhardt, 2011). The biggest difference between problem-based learning and inquiry-based learning is the focus on realistic problems as the heart of PBL lessons.

 Problem-based learning shares many aspects with cooperative and inquiry-based learning. Just like in inquiry-based learning, the instructor’s role in the classroom is to facilitate discussion and assist learners with problem solving. An additional, and critical, role for the instructor in the PBL approach is to develop in-depth, real-life questions that prompt thoughtful work from learners. As in cooperative learning, learners typically work in small groups throughout PBL; this way, they don’t have to rely only on the instructor as the main authority in the classroom and can also learn from and teach their peers. The aspects of student engagement at play here include “active, collaborative, student-centered, and self-directed learning” (Allen, Donham, & Bernhardt, 2011, p. 26).

The stages of problem-based learning are iterative and circular. In the article “What is PBL?” Jeffery Mok (2009) described in depth the different steps of that make up this approach:

  • Set up the group dynamics: Complete introductions and agree to ground rules.
  • Problem identification: The instructor encourages learners to summarize the problem in their own words.
  • Idea generation: Learners begin to brainstorm answers and ask questions about their gaps in knowledge.
  • Learning about the issues: Learners are prompted to reflect about what they need to learn and where they will go to learn.
  • Self-directed learning: Learners research and work to process the information that they have found.
  • Synthesis and application: Learners review their information, thinking about credibility and validity.
  • Reflection and feedback: During this last stage, learners reflect on the overall process and give feedback on the success of the group, as well as their own process in solving the problem.

All steps except the first and last are iterative and can happen continuously and in any order before a problem is solved. For example, if a learner is researching a question they developed, and they stumble upon something new they want to research, they can go back to the problem identification stage.

Problem-Based Learning in Libraries

Problem-based learning is an approach that works well with the information literacy curriculum. Some librarians are already incorporating this approach in the library classroom and have noticed more student-student and student-instructor/librarian interaction with PBL compared to typical library lessons (Cheney, 2004). Debora Cheney (2004) argued that as they implement PBL, librarians should collaborate with other educators to develop effective and successful instruction. Don’t be afraid to reach out to other teachers and partners to work on an interactive lesson. Teams help develop effective and successful lessons.

Because of its focus on real-world problems, PBL may be an especially valuable approach to use for equity-focused instruction. Using this approach with children and teens can help them understand and respond to injustice in their own communities, which builds not only their information literacy skills but also their empathy, self-confidence, and sense of responsibility toward others in their community.


Spotlight: Hartford’s Teen-Led “Unconference”

Librarians Gabbie Barnes and Tricia George noticed that the teens who visited the Hartford Public Library’s YOUmedia makerspace were angry. As Barnes explained, “it felt like every day there was some new, horrible thing that they needed to unpack when they came to the library” (Hughes-Hassell, 2018, n.p).

Those “horrible things” included serious societal problems like verbal violence and racism as well as more localized issues like school uniforms and the quality of college prep programs in Hartford schools. To help teens process their anger in a productive way, Barnes and George helped them plan what the teens called an “Unconference.” The teens who led the planning process for this event (all of whom are youth of color) conceived it as their “opportunity to come together about injustices happening in our community, in our schools, and in our lives. We will co-create a space for everyone to brainstorm solutions and speak up against everything that’s pissing us off” (Youth Affinity Action Squad, 2017, n.p.).

The event centered on a 90-minute session in which small groups of participants were invited to brainstorm creative solutions to ten problems identified as priority areas by the teen organizers, who named themselves the Youth Affinity Action Squad, or YAAS!. The brainstorming sessions were followed by Shark Tank style presentations. The program also featured youth-created poetry and songs, a community art project, and a button-making activity. The Unconference highlights the usefulness of the problem-based learning approach for youth-led, activism-oriented instruction in public libraries.


Experiential Learning

True to its name, experiential learning focuses on the use of experience in the learning process. In his study of experiential learning, David Klob developed the learning cycle framework, which is composed of four components: concrete experience (actually having an experience), reflective observation (reviewing the experience), abstract conceptualization (making conclusions about or learning from the experience), and active experimentation (trying new things based on your learning) (Klob, 2015). Through this recursive cycle, “learning arises from the resolution of creative tension among these four learning modes.” (p. 51). Like problem-based learning, experiential learning also emphasizes the importance of reflection throughout the learning process, pointing to the importance of critical thought for learning.

Klob, like other researchers, credited the theoretical underpinnings of experiential learning to the work of John Dewey. Dewey’s writings on active learning and student participation connect much of experiential learning to the classroom. Common educational methods like internships, field experiences, and simulations can all be classified as forms of experiential learning. This approach is especially common in higher education, with many colleges and universities sending students out to real workplaces to gain firsthand experience with the theoretical material discussed in the classroom. Instructors who rely on the experiential learning approach believe that learning does not happen in a vacuum but instead is the culmination of personal development, education, and experience (Klob, 2015).

Experiential Learning in Libraries

While there isn’t a lot of writing on experiential learning and libraries, you can probably think of many ways that experience is embedded into different programs and lessons. For example, Teen Advisory Boards often give participants hands-on experience with library governance, and makerspaces give children and teens the opportunity to design and create physical objects through an exploratory process. As with problem-based learning, experiential learning can also be particularly valuable for equity-based instruction. Translating abstract topics such as racism or homophobia into concrete experiences, such as designing a town hall where community members can discuss these issues, is a powerful way to help young people create enduring understanding of these complex topics.


The classroom is changing, and learning approaches give teachers and librarians the theory and vocabulary to innovate and take chances. It’s important to understand that the public-librarian-as-instructor is a recent phenomenon. A lot of research on the instructional approaches presented in this chapter is embedded in traditional conversations around instruction in formal learning environments. As librarians develop a stronger instructional role, we will also need to develop and research these topics, explicitly linking them to library instruction.

Below, you will find a table that compares the five instructional approaches we have discussed here. We recommend using this table to assess your library’s current instructional offerings and to help you plan future offerings. Each approach has benefits and drawbacks, so a strong instructional program will rely on multiple approaches across the range of its learning activities.

Table 1. Comparison of Major Instructional Approaches

Instructional ApproachDescriptionBenefitsDrawbacks
Direct InstructionInstructor presents standardized material, which learners then practice until mastery is reached.Does not require advanced knowledge of your learners; easily accomplished in short time periods; shown to be effective for learning discrete facts and skillsDoes not account for diverse learners; very little flexibility; does not take learner interests into account; not great for complex or open-ended topics
Cooperative LearningInterdependent small groups work together to reach a shared goal.Individuals learn from and with each other; diverse learners can each contribute something different yet critical to the group; social skills are learned in addition to academic skills and content knowledgeRequires knowledge of learners as individuals to create effective groups; time-consuming; group norms and expectations must be established before work begins for maximum impact
Inquiry-Based LearningLearners engage in active investigation of questions that they have developed.High levels of engagement because learning is linked to existing interests; individuals can learn from and with each other, the teacher, and through experience; encourages the development of critical thinking skillsTime-consuming; can go in unexpected directions, which is a challenge for planning
Problem-Based LearningLearners collaboratively explore and develop solutions to real-world problems.Problems are authentic and relevant for learners; diverse learners can each contribute something different yet critical to the group; social skills are learned in addition to academic skills and content knowledge; great for exploring social justice issuesTime-consuming; instructor must carefully develop (or help learners develop) appropriate problems that are addressable in some way; can be unpredictable
Experiential LearningLearners make meaning from their own personal experience and from reflecting on that experience.Encourages critical thinking; helps translate abstract concepts into concrete terms; helps prepare learners for decision making and problem solving later in lifeSometimes requires resources and partnerships beyond or outside of the library; can be time-consuming; difficult to control what learners gain from the experience


Next Page


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