Stop Learning, Start Thinking!

That title is probably a bit counterproductive coming from someone who is involved in an organization that spends a fair amount of its time planning professional development programming (ACRL MD, that is). But, I stand by the statement, inspired by a pretty amazing TEDxTeen talk given by Jacob Barnett, a “child prodigy and mathematics genius“.

Stop learning. Start thinking.

It’s not that I think we, as librarians, shouldn’t learn. In contrast, our profession values the importance of life-long learning – a value with which I undoubtedly agree. However, I think this desire to learn often inhibits our ability to act.

I am reminded of my own experience as an undergraduate student learning the craft of music composition. I used to spend copious amounts of time trying to “learn” how to write music – reading textbooks about music theory, harmony, and instrumentation; learning about the thought processes and practices of other composers; and, of course, listening to a lot of music, waiting to discover the secret to it all. I am sure these all contributed greatly to my ability to actually write music, and I would strongly suggest intense study to anyone interested in such endeavors, but they also greatly inhibited my ability to actually compose. I was hindered by information overload, disproportionate expectations related to my years of experience, and a general lack of confidence in my ability to emulate my idols. I was in school, so I’m pretty sure I was still learning something, but I remember a distinct moment where I threw aside the entire musical canon, made peace with music theory as a “means for understanding” rather than a set of rules, and entered my most prolific period of writing music (none of it good, in retrospect). By thinking about what I had learned, I was able to put that knowledge to work in a way that satisfied my needs rather than attempting to appease the lofty expectations of my exaggerated idols.

So much of the way we are raised and educated emphasizes learning, sometimes at the expense of thinking. We learn to walk, learn to communicate, learn to be polite, learn (or attempt to learn) math and science and the arts, learn to play a sport, learn to drive, learn to catalog (or not), learn to research, and learn best practices for ‘x’ variety of tasks. Now, how often were you encouraged to think about the effectiveness of your communication methods, what it means to truly be polite, or whether accepted cataloging practices were really the best way of doing things? Learning is part of us, regardless of whether or not we think of ourselves as someone who enjoys learning, and learning how things have been done often overshadows the importance of considering why things are.

The same thing happens in our libraries. Why is it that the majority of academic library websites have a tabbed search box and why hasn’t Google caught on to this? Why do so many of our professional position titles end with the word “librarian” and why don’t corporations end their professional titles with the word “businessman” (gender implications aside)? How many times have you been asked to “find out how other libraries are doing ‘x'”? Now, compare that to how many times you have been asked to “sit at your desk and think about ‘x'”. It’s probably pretty imbalanced, yet the latter is crucial to new developments and breakthroughs in academic librarianship. This imbalance isn’t without cause, though; most of us are already working long hours, juggling too many priorities, and dedicated to the sound approach of following best practices. And, it’s much more difficult to justify taking a nap as an exercise to boost your creative thinking than it is to justify time spent researching best practices. As a profession, we need to reclaim our “thinking time”. The next time you embark on a mission to learn how other libraries are doing something, mark your calendar to devote equal time to think about what you have learned, claim ownership of that knowledge, and explore your instincts.

Jacob Barnett isn’t telling us to stop learning and make uninformed decisions. His own work is definitely informed by the learning he has done. Rather, he’s telling us to take control of our learning, prioritize what it is we actually need to know in order to do what we want to do, and create the time to think about what we learn.

So, in addition to learning opportunities (which are important!), I hope that ACRL MD and other library organizations and institutions will take on the task of facilitating thinking, creating opportunities to share and develop ideas that will cause truly remarkable breakthroughs in the profession. I think we’re taking a step in the right direction by creating opportunities for individuals to network with each other – both around topics in librarianship and more informally managed discussions. Talking with each other is an important component! I would love to hear any ideas you might have about how ACRL MD can provide a balance between thinking and learning in the profession.

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