Meeting the future learning goals of schools?

Over on the School Libraries 21C blog, the point is made re “the cost of ‘modern’ resources, especially online ones”. For most NSW DET schools, it is very difficult to justify the expenses of specialist online subscription databases, especially when many topics might only get revisited every two or three years in a cyclic teaching program. Hence we tend fall back on free online material (.com, .org, .edu) and the ubiquitous Wikipedia (although the advantages and disadvantages of such material can be useful teaching points). And, of course, books… which remain viable even in a power blackout.

I perceive a move to more schools sharing campus library facilities. I assume studies are being done on the successes of the NSW “education precincts” already set up. It would be interesting to hear how those experiments are faring. (Did these end up being “libraries of the future”?)

Challenging students to research widely – via collaboratively-planned, taught and assessed Guided Enquiry activities – would seem to be a most effective way to ensure that students will be able to achieve success, especially if the pool of relevant/available resources is already limited by budget. I like the strategy where the students agree they must use a variety of resource types as they research a topic.

Making time for teachers and teacher librarians to plan their collaborations would seem to need to be a high priority, too: ie. one of the school library’s current and future primary responsibilities and functions to meet the learning goals of schools.

But… a school library can’t be setting up its responsibilities and functions in isolation. The addition of outcomes and indicators in all syllabuses puts the learner first. How often do some of us put the learners first in other considerations? Furthermore, individual school communities articulate expectations which can and should inform the learning goals for each school. The trained teacher librarian is an invaluable human resource in ensuring that learners, educators, resources and technology come together in an organised way to achieve the goals.

If the school of the future is not clear as to its learning goals, the school library of the future can’t be expected to be helping to achieve them effectively.

I really like the What did you do in school today? research findings of the Canadian Education Association. Our school has now had numerous sessions on the “development of ideas through the disciplines and through work on authentic problems”, including an excellent one-day session here with Jamie McKenzie, but I think we’d all agree that finding that little bit of extra planning time, to make lessons more focused on authentic problems is the hardest bit. The school day goes by so fast; not to mention finding more time to assess the work before students move on to create their final product. The more “authentic problems” become embedded into our syllabuses and teaching strategies, the more things will improve, but for many staff it’s a challenging hurdle. The way of the future, but we’re not there yet.

I find that a lot of what happens in my school’s library program fits with that idea of “individual and collective knowledge building”, especially in a PSP (Priority Schools Program) school. Teacher librarians seem to be well placed to help students – and teachers – to make connections, and I encourage the ongoing development of field knowledge constantly. Although my IWB has only just arrived, I have seen glimpses of amazing programs that can be used on it during brainstorming and synthesis sessions to take that knowledge building so much further. There’s just so much to learn! The way of the future, but we’re not there yet.

The IWB being placed in the library is certainly also challenging me to maximise the “effective learning time”, since each class only visits for 45 minute sessions, and our semi-flexible timetable has fewer gaps than would be ideal.

Our school has worked hard to ensure we have a positive classroom disciplinary climate” and we have regular, weekly meetings where students who slip through the learning and disciplinary cracks are monitored, discussed and reevaluated, and this helps keep everyone on track. The previous teacher-librarian was always a regular part of this committee, and I made sure I kept up that participation as part of my role when I moved back into the TL position. It’s constantly enlightening, and I know I bring a unique perspective to these meetings.

Our school also tries to have “high expectations for success”. Again, very important, and often very, very hard to maintain, especially in the face of disappointing test results. Inevitably high expectations won’t always be achieved. But you’re unlikely to achieve high results without aiming high in the first place. (But, sadly how often do we hear students, student teachers – or even TLs undergoing their post-grad work – saying, “I only need 51% to get a pass”.)

The importance of “positive relationships with teachers” is also paramount to the survival of future school librares. I do seem to put a lot of energy into that. It pays off, so I keep doing it (Pavlov’s dog.) I think some teacher-librarians still allow themselves to become marginalised in a school staff. That old adage of finding one person you can work well with, then presenting your successes as a team to the other staff, then slowly working with more and more people, is so important.

I know there are some TLs that feel they are unable to do this. (It’s never been my personal experience, and I’m sure it’s not just that I’ve led a charmed life as to what TL appointments I’ve ended up in. Building positive relationships with other staff is a crucial responsibility and, if it’s unable to occur, then it becomes a whole-school problem. Again, this is something that needs explicit training for the participants – in this case the learners are the staff, not the students.)

As Lee Cutler’s group suggest in their post on 21C, “school libraries are the ONLY facility in a school where ALL learning goals of every student and teacher of every KLA and school initiative is supported”.

Sounds good to me. “Developing intellectual engagement” (re the Canadian Education Association’s findings) may well be a good umbrella term for what future school libraries will be able to do best.

What does a school library of the future look like?

This is such a daunting question.

A few things come to mind:

The future is now. Or at least by the end of next year.

Building the Education Revolution (BER)
is here, whether we asked for it or not. For schools such as mine, which has “made do” with an old, portable library module (the school was supposedly promised it would be there for only three years, until a permanent brick building was erected, but it’s been at least 16 years now, I’m told). The “Primary Schools for the 21st Century” program is bringing us a new library (hurray!), but it won’t be quite what we’d always envisaged. (We’d assumed we’d, one day, have a new administration building, with a library on top. Now, new building regulations say that any new multi-storey public building must have an elevator, to ensure equity, and that takes such a concept out of our price range.) So, it’ll be single storey, on the site of the old portable, with an annexed room – to make up for the fact that we won’t be getting that new administration building we’ve only ever dreamed about, and desperately needed.

But that’s only the structural stuff. What has my brain whizzing at the moment is how much input and choice schools and staff will have on the internal layout of these new libraries. What does a 21st century school library need, and will it be expected to keep us happy in five years time, ten years time, or even as we approach the 22nd century?

My school’s current administration building is over 90 years old. When it was built, did people imagine it would still be being used as a school building nearly 100 years later? (If only they’d known then that we needed more than one power point in each classroom; what a saving we’d have made!) Because we live and work in the building every day, we usually only think of it in terms of its inadequacies. But to others, it’s a building of uniqueness. Attempts to revamp it would, no doubt, attract the attention of heritage-conscious locals.

Similarly, the portable library reminds me of its inadequacies – every time the floor bounces on the way to answer the telephone, and every time we complain about our lack of storage space, or when two or more classes are in the library at once. I can assume the new building will have a sturdy floor and adequate storerooms, but what internal layout and devices do we need to ensure our new library will be able to cope with the changing nature of how students need to access information?

I glance at my handy-dandy iPhone and am bewildered by the many functions it has, most of which I’ve never had time to explore in the eight months or so that I’ve owned it. My iPhone lets me locate myself on Google Maps (I’ve found some rather tricky addresses with ease, which is great when you’re a pedestrian and unlikely to have a Gregory’s directory on hand). I am never without a digital camera. I can check my emails and update my Facebook page whenever I’m bored. By clicking any URL in an email, I am taken immediately to the website being recommended. I can play all the iTunes music that’s ever been downloaded to my laptop at home, because my iPhone downloads all changes for me every time I plug it in for a recharge. I’ve bought things on eBay while on vacation using my iPhone, and paid for them with PayPal. I can instantly check four preset timezones to ensure my four library “newsroom” clocks are always accurate. A downloaded clever application keeps track of my extensive DVD collection, and automatically links me to IMDb on the ‘Net whenever I require cast and crew information about movies in my collection.

Most amazing is the “Mobile Me” program which enables my trusty iPhone and dependable Apple laptop to talk with each other – and exchange the latest changes to my calendar and address book – whenever they come into proximity with each other! No wires required. And, as I said, I suspect my iPhone does thousands of things I haven’t yet discovered.

I assume that, within a few years, everybody will have something similar (and smaller, and more powerful). Including our students, who’ll be quite blaze about having one. Such an ICT marvel shall be as important as wearing a wristwatch was until recently. When so much access to so much information can come with just one little device, I find it overwhelming to even try to imagination what we may have at our fingertips in five years time, let alone ten or twenty years.

As we know, our students are not usually daunted by touching a button to see what something can do. It’s the adults who sit there, sometimes frozen in fear, attempting to be brave enough to tackle the new technologies. There are still some teachers out there who’ve never sent an email.

We, and our students, are going to have access to an enormous amount of information, and soon no one may see a school library building as their first port of call. Hopefully, though, the concept of the school library (some of it virtual) as the hub of a school’s information needs, and the place (again, some of it virtual) where users can be guided to navigate information overload successfully, will remain paramount.

It seems to me that our school library webpages, online pathfinders, blogs, wikis, moodles, etc – and whatever else is yet to come in the virtual world – are going to be just as important, or more important, as the new BER library buildings.

The physical BER library buildings are what the public will see, and probably how they will judge if the money was well-spent. The important stuff may be (virtually) impossible to see from the outside, or even from the inside, because much of it may be virtual.

The discussion continues at School Libraries 21C.