Saturday, June 04, 2011

In Defense of Libraries


The article was timely for me, as I was thinking lately about how various applications of so-called 21st Century Learning pose challenges to traditional roles in our education system, including libraries and librarians. If you're unfamiliar with the "21C Ed" collection of ideas, don't feel left out... it is a bit of catch-phrase for anything new in education, but often includes a few basic characteristics:

-students can/should learn more independently
-students should have more choice about what & how they learn
-teachers should do less direct instruction and more direction towards resources and opportunities
-students should learn more out in the community and less in schools
-parents should have more opportunities to co-develop learning environments and designs
-all of these things should make better use of digital technology and web resources

There is no single definition, but these links provide a few different views on what "21C Ed" looks like:“21st-century-schools”-movement-is-burying-the-past-the-wave-of-the-future/ (try the reports to see the BC gov's vision for education, albeit from the last premier and with no real idea about how to bring this about -- other jurisdictions have had to either commit serious time/money or force of legislation to make these kinds of changes)

21 Signs You're a 21C Teacher (this one presents the real dilemma to me - some of these things are great and I've tried them for years, others, I think, are destructive and promote disassociation) (this positions"21C Ed" as anything innovative, especially if it involves technology; the BCTF seems to struggle between embracing innovation and change (as it needs to do from time to time) and offering critique to ideas that erode teacher autonomy or shake up the school system)

I've got criticism and praise for different aspects of these ideas from a purely educational point of view, but the Globe & Mail article reminded me it will probably be used as a cost-savings measure in our school system. The rhetoric is often buried under terms like "choice" and "flexibility." If one follows the reasoning, students of the future will need less teachers and fewer schools, and will need more apprenticeship-like opportunities, greater choice about what and how they learn, and better guidance through digital resources and and technologies. My reserved praise relates to the angle of deschooling society, an old idea that becomes more relevant when school culture supplants key aspects of family and society-based culture (see Illich's work, or Gatto's at One of my concerns, however, is that the "21C Ed" ideas seem to assume that the trend towards our students being peer-raised and emotionally detached is inevitable (see Gordon Neufeld's work on this topic e.g. video clip on parenting), and that a narcissistic technology-addicted lifestyle is conducive to deep learning and social growth. I think this trend, unexamined, is a sure way to build a dystopia. We can only deschool society if we have something better suited to educate kids in a way that leaves them whole, connected, balanced, intelligent, and useful. Allowing students to follow their own technology-enabled course of study (and personal development) will only work for a very few students, probably those who can set their own standards and start with a socioeconomic advantage.

So, how does this relate to schools and what does a library look like when the traditional roles are being challenged? If anything, "21C Ed" tries to make librarians out of all of us -- directing students to appropriate resources, effective use of educational technology, facilitating learning alongside guidance in ethics, critical thinking, habits of mind, and multiple intelligences/literacies. I'm not sure how realistic this is, but I could see it as an excuse to follow the trend mentioned in the Globe article. Librarians will likely be in a defensive position over the next few years (already have been?), alternately defending the impact they have on people and learning, or reinventing their programs to meet new challenges.

I would like to share some thoughts drawn from observations of our library at D.P. Todd Secondary School. Perhaps these traits are common at all libraries, but my experience has been shaped by the library I know. The librarian Sandra will forgive me if I idealize some of her contributions, but I also know what a dysfunctional library looks like and I'm so very glad to celebrate one that is working well and has set a positive model for the emerging librarian.

Meeting place: The Market of Ideas
Our library is fortunately positioned at a crossroads in the school, especially for staff... some schools have libraries tucked in a corner or are tangential to the traffic. The result for us is an inflow of people and ideas all day long. It is by the librarian's desk (which is not hidden in a back room) or the circulation counter where many staff pause and work something out. It is a neutral ground for a good argument, or a critical examination of a school issue -- the classroom is too private and "turfed" for staff discourse, just as the hallway is too public and unmediated. The librarian often finds herself playing facilitator, referee, and instigator (e.g. when new ideas are needed), or simply someone to ask how's it going and mean it. Many students, especially seniors, head to the library to orient themselves in the morning or wrap up loose ends at the end of the day. It is our only lecture hall (grad meetings, guest speakers, etc.) and is one of the few places that can be easily reconfigured to suit a purpose. Like a marketplace or town square, the "meeting-place" quality extends into ideas as well as physical encounters. The librarian resides at the centre of the collaborative culture of our school, bridging school-wide goals and programs precisely because she has to deal with every kind of idea and problem, not just those specific to a subject area. While this relationship between librarian, ideas, and passers-through often begins with a book, it invariably progresses to other media and a deeper conversation. Our librarian knows the reading habits of kids because she knows the kids -- they arrive with a completed book and she asks them about it, what they liked and didn't, what they want to try next. She often has a next book waiting. In return the students open up and provide the kind of introspective reader-response English teachers would pay for. The "mode of literacy" is not just about the books, it can be about what the students use on their phones and ipods, the knitting (and knitting books) set out for students who need to unwind, the start of a video editing or cartooning project, the book and media displays that coincide with current events, and the websites recommended to put a twist on someone's line of inquiry.

Skills and Contexts
As a true learning lab for the school, the library has become associated with two ends of a spectrum that are often missing in a classroom -- research skills based on critical thinking (separate from curriculum), and deep curricular contexts explored through sourcework (that are often beyond what "comes up" in the classroom). These are the zones in which the librarians shine and apply diverse strategies: storytelling to model self-inquiry, table-by-table group brainstorming and division of tasks, decoding a special photo or passage or map, preparation of websites and webquests to redeem the time spent at computers, small group circle-time to work out issues. Because the librarian knows a bit about almost everyone that comes in, she can match resources, learning objects and webtools to individual students -- the practice of personalized learning. Behind the scenes is some expert resource selection (books, digital tools and media, etc.) that requires intensive collaboration with staff and students. The library has been culled of what doesn't get read or used, and is replenished with requests and artfully anticipated hits-in-waiting. The librarian is also the usual suspect for the introduction of new technologies -- 7 years ago it was educational blogs, now it might be a request for e-readers or a pro-d session on apps. In some magic time between class visits and needy students, the librarian also finds time to set-up Olympic-themed events with books, displays, and big-screen live coverage, a tea party for the royal wedding (with books, displays, big-screen coverage and those little sandwiches), or a Harry Potter Event, a card-making station set out for mother's day, and so on. The librarian isn't trying to "get through" curriculum or teach Socials, Science, or English. She is offering cause & effect, pattern recognition, assessment of significance, interpretation of meaning, application of judgement, comparison of sources and evidence, and venturing into multiple intelligences. As a classroom teacher, it becomes easy to beat the same drum and try the same tricks, but the librarian starts with the premise that a trip to the library is a chance to explore ideas from a fresh perspective, to gain something for the teacher and students that can't be had just a few feet away in a different room. It is the emphasis on critical thinking and deep contexts that sets the library apart from the classroom which has the added burden of a curricular calendar and a fixation on evaluation.

Island in the Stream
Libraries are often a place for students to take a break from the intensity or monotony of classroom experience -- the librarian and her space round out the "whole education" students receive at school. Like an island, it is a calm place to stop moving and reflect on the journey -- read something, talk to someone, look something up, get caught up, spread one's things out and get organized. Some students on spares really do look like they've just clambered out of a swamped canoe -- the library is the safe place where they can get their act together before facing a tough class or difficult conversation with a teacher. The librarian walks this island and offers help, comforting words, a voice of experience, listening, and a fresh perspective. She seeks out the students (and staff) who are most in need and takes a very human approach to coaxing some productive action -- less formal than a counseling appointment but usually more one-on-one than a classroom teacher can afford, a balanced "boundary-zone" in which the practice of empathy is viable. Students enter high school and have a kind of conversation with themselves that lasts for 5 years -- they pose questions about their own relationships, reading, thinking, emotions, body, behaviour and gather "evidence" each time they come to school -- they live the teenage life but they also imagine it endlessly, playing out possibilities and speculating about "what-ifs." This all takes place in secondary schools which overwhelmingly are fragmented and chaotic. Staff find it difficult and sometimes unattractive to build 5-yr relationships with students, and yet the students beg this continuity from us -- they may constantly be pushed towards their peers, but I think we'd be surprised how many would soak up any time their parents had for them (if they weren't so busy) and, failing that, from other caring adults. The library forms one of the few welcoming spots where the students can attach and make sense of that five-year questioning -- and the librarian is a key part of that conversation -- a caring person who can often suspend judgement (e.g. doesn't have to assign a grade), but is nonetheless an adult with the long-term growth of students in mind.

Filling the Leadership Gap
Our district and secondary school administration are tasked with being educational leaders, and yet this is a part of their jobs they often do not get to. Most of their time is spent on the "business" of education, a variety of duties related to the community (e.g. student discipline and follow-up, parent inquiry, policy & process discussions, ministry requirements, etc.), the management of staff, and indirect efforts at affecting learning. Elementary admin seem to have more direct involvement, although they have many duties that pull them away from educational leadership as well. What's missing is the inspirational role, the task of teaching teachers. So who takes up the slack? Much of it goes undone or left to chance (e.g. follow-up on professional development, delving into school data, matching resources to teacher's expressed needs, etc.). The rest is delegated -- just as some administrative tasks that used to be shared responsibilities have been downloaded to counselors, many other educational leadership tasks are now completed by teachers and librarians. For the latter, these functions include review of professional material related to the craft of teaching and specific subject areas, assessing teaching and learning resources with a school-wide perspective, establishing a research (or inquiry) focus for staff practices, voicing the educational arguments and student perspectives in discussions involving budgets (particularly technology), judging trends in education (problems and possibilities) and setting new paradigms into motion, connecting the individual and collective learning trajectories and educational goals of teachers with relevant resources, and taking a lead role in the value-setting events in the life of a school (e.g. network ethics, plagiarism, cyber-bullying, tone at staff meetings, etc.) Suffice to say that if a librarian is good at these things, the school has a solid foundation for staff morale and program longevity, and that if these functions are absent the school runs at an emotional, professional, and educational deficit. it is often the librarian who picks up the pieces of a poorly or hastily planned initiative, plan, or dictate and makes it staff-friendly or gives it a pedagogical backbone. Administrators, Curriculum staff, and School Boards groups should thank librarians routinely and emphatically for taking up the torch when their part is finished. Our current teacher contract negotiations face demands for more management rights by the government's negotiator BCPCEA, in part to lubricate their plans for "21C Ed", but I don't think they realize how scared and unqualified a huge part of "management" is to take this on. If we want change is has to be a partnership and can't be administration directing teachers to use the latest jargon, which is where the commitment to change usually ends. Please correct me if I'm describing an isolated phenomenon, I would love to see the exceptions to this "torch dropping" become the norm.

These roles for librarians range from concrete to abstract, but all are invaluable in the culture and journeys of students and staff. If librarians were simply wardens of books, replacement teachers for resource-dependent class activities, and cataloguers, then their role would and should be in jeopardy. Similarly, if the librarian is concerned only with learning technology and new digital tools, she will again become superfluous as this is everyone's business and her only edge is that she has more time to evaluate resources. I would make the case, however, that the emerging librarian is someone our schools need more than ever. She is grounded in principles of learning, moves deftly through the terrain of ever-changing resources and technologies, has a mind to the whole development of others (intellectual, physical, emotional, social), is able to connect people to ideas using a variety of tools, anchors the professional development of staff, loves the kind of knowledge and passion for the world that comes (in one form) from the written and spoken word, and has created a welcome, safe place for thought, growth, research, and experimentation. In short, she nurtures the boundaries between all the disparate pulls in our learning communities, and both moderates the difference and spurs staff and students into thought and action. I don't think these qualities are new or "21st Century," but I do think they are the ones we should celebrate when we look at the role libraries play in the future of our education system, and not the books or the technology. My school would be heartless and cold without the library and librarian. Still, the promise of new interactive, personalized technology and the necessity for critical examination and experimentation is well suited for the library, and is probably one of the future criteria by which library programs will be judged. In the midst of this, the librarian's continuous learning curve relates somewhat to resources and technologies, but more importantly to finding the rich existential boundaries in which she cultivates habits of mind and meaningful relationships with staff and students.

Further reading:
Libraries in the Internet age

Area school libraries still popular, even if things are changing

The Role of Librarians in the 21st Century

Technology is changing role of librarian into that of a teacher

School Library Journal's 2011 Technology Survey: Things Are Changing. Fast.

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