What is research anyway?

It is frequently the experience of librarians that a request is made to engage with a class in the process of research, either for a specific inquiry or to learn about a new database, to explore a new searching skill or simply to gain some research tips and tricks. This is the perfect time to stop to consider what this idea of “research” is. Why would we bother teaching it when access to information seems to be easier now than it ever was? Is it a passing skill and are other priorities taking it’s place?

To understand what research is, why it is significant and how we can begin to build a deeper understanding of how to teach research, we need to consider how the idea of research fits into the broader framework of information literacy (IL). An article by Nancy M. Foasberg will help to frame this idea (paywall). Foasberg compares the the ACRL (the Association of College and Research Libraries) Information Literacy “Standards” with the newer “Framework” that recognises that information literacy is a social phenomenon and places students as participatory learners. This article exists behind a paywall although all the information about the ACRL Information Literacy Standards and Framework are available for comparison on their website. Foasberg takes a step back to examine the differences and overlaps between a positivist epistemology (p. 704) positioning research primarily as a process of information retrieval (ACRL IL Standards), toward a constructivist philosophy where “knowledge is constructed and reconstructed through social interactions” (p 702; ACRL IL Framework).

In essence, this is a shift from understanding information as something we “get” toward something we “share”.

Models familiar to us such as the Big 6 and the ACRL Information Literacy Standards position information as something that is external to the learner. Information literacy is therefore framed as the ability to seek out, possess and use information effectively. Research then becomes a list of skills in a sequence of tasks from determining an information need followed by access, evaluation, ethical use and finally, communication.

In contrast, a constructivist understanding positions “information literacy as a social practice” (p. 700). This does not diminish the importance of the skills outlined in the ACRL Standards but instead places them in a framework that acknowledges the complex information landscape that is the reality of the social world we participate in. Expanding our understanding of information literacy in this way positions research in a framework that “better recognizes the complexities of information and information behavior, and explicitly makes space for students as participants in the process of knowledge creation” (p. 700). As a participant, the learner has the agency to “critique the social and institutional hierarchies surrounding information production and distribution” (p. 703).

What is research?

Research is the facet of information literacy that is the iterative act of inquiry where students ask increasingly complex questions that lead to answers and more questions that generate expanding lines of inquiry (p. 701). Furthermore, research, only has meaning when it is understood in the context of a conceptual understanding of information literacy. As such, it cannot be separated from other skills such as critical thinking, communication skills, self-organisation, and social skills. The framework provides a broad context where learners explore concepts such as information authority, information value, creativity, scholarly discourse, and information formats & structures.

What can this look like in the classroom?

Fundamentally, as agents in their own learning, it is a process that looks different for every student as they become active participants in their individual information landscapes. Research is a social practice; a messy, dialogic practice (see a previous blog post from 2015).  We can describe research as taking action because it positions the learner as an active agent in constructing meaning while also understanding that these insights change over time with exposure to different communities. In 1970, Paulo Freire argued that non-dialogic education is a system of oppression that entrenches societal power imbalances. Research, then, is dialogue.

Research in the classroom is not simply about the “artifacts” of information – the databases, the sources, the formats, technical systems, the media, the library or the content. Focussing on the artifacts is a view that relegates information to be simply a commodity (p. 703). Emphasising the artifacts of information leads us to position the learner in a submissive role where they are only required “to interpret the knowledge that experts produce” in published texts (p. 704). However, the artifacts of information are not an endpoint for learners. Information is a flow that we step into, grapple with, participate in, act in and influence through our participation.

A student who understands that the authority of an information source is “constructed and contextual” is one who can then question, challenge and participate in the creation of understandings of authority. The learner then joins in the ongoing debate, respecting expertise but retaining a skeptical stance that sets the stage for an ongoing evolution of understanding and meaning. This is in stark contrast to presenting authoritative sources as a static understanding that is to be learnt and revered but not questioned.

The information literate student is not merely one who can display the skills of information retrieval, use and communication but one who is in the process of actively developing their level of expertise in participation. An information literate person holds knowledge loosely with the understanding that authority, value, research and strategy change over time and across different contexts. An information literate person is one who participates in the dialogue of communities contributing actively to the evolution of information.

This does complicate the teaching of research skills and information literacy but, as I have argued previously (#complexsystems), individually we are complex systems that exist within a wide range of complex social systems. To approach complex systems from a reductionist perspective significantly limits the deep learning that can occur and contradicts the realities of our existence (find a more detailed read about the complex situatedness of information here). All “information is embedded in a social context and cannot be understood outside of that context” (p. 713). This is not a standard that can be measured, but a framework, a disposition. This does not stop corporations from advertising that it can be tested with one standard assessment but the irony of corporatisation in this field is another discussion.

The outcome of this for students is that they become participants who can change the communities that they participate in and are positioned to reimagine new futures. This is research as action, research as inquiry and research as conversation.


Here are a few examples for the classroom

Example 1: “No school tomorrow”

A quick conversation starter with a class is to present the statement: there is “No school tomorrow”. It certainly gets attention and very quickly leads to a discussion about where I heard this information, who I heard it from, why that person said it, when I heard this information and in what form that information came in. It becomes quite clear that if I overheard a group of young students talking about it, then it is quite a different proposition than if I heard it from the head of school. Alternatively, if I tell them that I saw it on a poster last year on the last day before summer holidays or even last Friday, then it holds a very different meaning and significance. While it quickly becomes clear to students that there are no plans to cancel school tomorrow, it does generate a class discussion that in many ways should be the kind of discussion we have about any information. Such a discussion emphasises that dialogue should be central to how we discover and handle information. Such dialogue should also then inform how we communicate that information emphasising the need to accurately cite (formally or informally) our sources.

Example 2: Facebook, Google and Amazon

Why does research and information literacy matter? Three words – Amazon, Google, and Facebook. In an article titled, “The web began dying in 2014: Here’s how”, André Staltz says that what “has changed over the last 4 years is market share of traffic on the Web. It looks like nothing has changed, but GOOG and FB now have direct influence over 70%+ of internet traffic”. Furthermore, Google, Facebook and Amazon are all seeking to bypass the web to connect us via the internet and mediated by AI. Whether we believe this to be to our advantage or a threat to our freedom, there is no doubt that this should be a topic of discussion in the classroom. Who has the authority over information flows in our own lives? Is it our own research, critical analysis and dialogue or are we handing these decisions about the information we interact with over to corporations who buy and sell our data with minimal consideration for the ethics governing that market place? FB pulls billions of dollars based on the social construction of information, and it does this by providing a free service no-less. This socially constructed information has a monetary value of billions of dollars and wields unrivalled power and influence. Therefore, the dialogic nature of information is of profound significance challenging us to question how we are providing students with the opportunities to wrestle with these challenges now.

Example 3. Challenging Copyright

On page 712 of this article, Foasberg uses the example “that students may choose to question the highly restrictive, pro-corporate copyright laws that currently predominate most of the world”. While the ACRL Framework may stop short of  “critiquing copyright or calling for open access to scholarly materials, it does open up the possibility that both copyright and scholarly publishing can be challenged and perhaps changed. It hints that both the copyright system and the scholarly publication system are imperfect and temporary, encouraging students to make “deliberate and informed choices” about compliance or resistance to them. After all, students may one day be in a position to advocate for change to these systems”.


Further reading

#critlib on Twitter

HybridPedagogy is also a favourite hangout of mine for opinions and discussions about critical digital pedagogy.

Threshold Concepts & Information Literacy

Foasberg, N. M. “From Standards to Frameworks for IL: How the ACRL Framework Addresses Critiques of the Standards.” portal: Libraries and the Academy, vol. 15 no. 4, 2015, pp. 699-717. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/595062.

Library curriculum integration through a Complex Systems approach.

The challenge of mapping library integration into the curriculum

(2500 words) Authentic and meaningful integration throughout the curriculum and the learning context for students is a perennial challenge for school libraries. Learning is non-linear, therefore, while mapping specific library lessons across the curriculum in a linear format is an enticing solution it is at risk of becoming disconnected from student learning. Learning achieved during a library lesson that is not integrated broadly into the learning context and revisited frequently is difficult to retain rendering our best efforts frustrated by dislocation. Previous posts have discussed the complex nature of education through an understanding of each individual student as a complex system in themselves while also simultaneously the are also nested within multiple interacting and highly interconnected complex systems such as the classroom, friendship circles, the school, the family, online environments and beyond. The challenge then is to find ways to achieve the learning outcomes outlined in curriculum documents in a way that embraces the reality that we are working within a highly complex system. Inquiry is a teaching stance that does embrace complexity with the adaptability and responsiveness to run with the emergent nature of learning. In the book titled “Embracing Complexity: Strategic perspectives for an age of turbulence”, Boulton et al (2015) provide some key insights into how we can begin to integrate complex systems thinking into our practice. While their book does not have education as a key focus, general understandings and principles of complex systems provide opportunities for us to develop a strategic and open-ended approach to the integration of the library into the school curriculum.

Is mapping curriculum outcomes and lessons helpful?

When looking for opportunities for the library to participate in the learning our first inclination is often to map everything out in definable stages and steps to ensure we have covered all grades and all students with all our key learning goals. Learning goals such as citation styles, advanced search techniques, writing book reviews, understanding databases or peer reviewed journal articles are examples of some common lessons librarians may provide. Mapping these lessons may help librarians to lever these lessons into the curriculum however there are many problems with such a linear approach to curriculum planning. Even as we attempt to align these lessons with key landmarks in the curriculum, mapping a long way ahead of time can lead to the sense that library outcomes are separate and disconnected from the classroom and subject learning goals. It can also lead to slicing up the curriculum over year levels creating a scenario where key learning outcomes are only aimed for in one grade level at one time. For example, when do we introduce the advanced search features of a database? If we map it out to year 9 students during an humanities inquiry, what happens to year 5, 6, 7 or 8 students? It does ensure that we can say that we have taught this skill but it is based on a linear approach to learning and curriculum design that limits the transference of learning by students.

There are clearly developmental progressions and times when certain concepts, skills or knowledge are better suited to older or younger students however progression for each student is not a straight line of constant and consistent learning. Neither is this learning going to follow a definable step by step progression for every student. Ther threshold concepts can mark a significant stages in student understanding but assigning them to one year level, subject or age level is often an arbitrary decision based on an administrative need to map and document the curriculum rather than an actual experience of learning for students.

A complex systems perspective allows us to identify key learning areas, anticipate possible developmental stages, then build a strategic approach to achieving the outcomes we are looking for. Complex systems thinking allows us to project possibilities for learning while remaining responsive, adaptable and sensitive to path dependence. That is, inquiries that may take students in surprising directions. In maintaining a loosely planned curriculum we embrace the reality that students will come to these understandings from a wide variety of perspectives, with a wide variety of individual interests and experiences. In a complex system, student learning is deeply context dependent and therefore likely to result in unpredicted emergent meaning making. There are some key features to a complex systems approach that help us to define, plan and strategise without the need to create rigid structures that have limited effect when dealing with the messy reality of learning. A complex systems perspective moves us toward being comfortable with a world that is unpredictable, frequently ambiguous and not always controllable (Pages 130 ff, “7.3 What does complexity thinking imply for managing change”). We don’t need to jettison old teaching methods but it does help us to frame approaches to education and library integration in adaptive, responsive and flexible ways.

A complexity perspective frees us to consider how learning interacts with the prior knowledge and individual histories of each student and how new connections that are made lead to the new patterns and behaviours we observe. Learning has multiple interacting causes that vary from student to student. Due to the complexity of these interactions, there are also often time delays between interventions or lessons and the outcomes we are striving for. The effectiveness of our teaching is also heavily context sensitive and will change dynamically depending on the interactions, feedback loops and connections made each moment by students. The emergent nature of complex systems leads to unintended consequences that are not always planned for which can be challenging if our expectations are rigid and defined by mapping documents rather than in response to student inquiry. Change in complex systems can also be episodic, observed in moments of rapid change followed by plateaus of observable learning or even regression. These moments can appear as tipping points where a period of time may pass where changes are unseen then when a critical threshold is met, a sudden visible change happens – the “ah-ha” moment.

Designing for change

The disposition we need is to firstly enter learning engagements expecting the unexpected, assuming that emergence will lead to outcomes both desirable and undesirable. Our teaching moments then become defined by what we observe rather than a mindset of fixed expectations. Complexity thinking leads us to a greater focus on participation and building learning outcomes in a collaborative manner alongside students. Fundamentally this is based on dialogue and discussion – the interactions that lay at the core of a complex system. Long term goals can provide a broad open conceptual framework to guide strategic actions and prioritise planning while in the shorter term we observe patterns, behaviours and emergent factors to inform how we adapt and respond on a daily basis to student learning. Projects or specific collaborations with a class are acted on through taking on contextual and historical factors at the time of planning because these will be different for every class and indeed, every student. This will mean that learning engagements will often vary from year to year – what worked last year may not be so relevant this year. In expecting the unexpected, we observe, document and review progress to allow us to continue to mould future interactions with students in new ways to meet specific needs. We are able to experiment and pilot new approaches then observe to see if we are being effective (pg 135ff “Complexity-informed management behaviours”).

Through complex systems thinking, our expectations about what we notice as success also become more open-ended. While specific learning outcomes such as a specific new skill do remain a part of this system, the assessment of that one skill is not the only indicator of success. We know that a class can be taught a specific lesson – such as an advanced research skill – and realistically we also know that not all students have acquired and fully integrated that new skill during that one lesson or series of lessons. We also know that for most students, unless we frequently return to that skill, it is frequently forgotten and of very little long-term value – we may have taught it but it was not learned because it was not sustained. A complex systems perspective takes that learning outcome from of a one-off event and provides us multiple opportunities to incorporate it into the daily life of a student allowing us to explore it from multiple perspectives and within multiple learning engagements.

Such an approach does require that we hold many learning goals at the ready to be incorporated into learning engagements at short notice. This can feel messy and like we don’t have fine control over every learning context but over time, learning becomes more natural and integrated. It means that the teacher librarian is unable to plan a long way ahead of time because class inquiries change on a day to day basis. However, when that opportunity to connect with a class inquiry unfolds, this leads to deeply authentic learning opportunities as students are mentored by the librarian to meet the learning challenges they face. While it is a challenge to document such responsive teaching, the benefit is an experience for the learner that is connected, authentic and enduring.

Being strategic

Boulton et al (p 138) describe being strategic as experimenting and observing ways we can achieve outcomes without feeling the need to do and achieve everything at once. Being strategic also means we need to find key indicators that demonstrate if we are on the right track or if we are creating an environment with interactions that are taking us in undesirable directions.

An example: teaching citation styles

Citation is a useful example to consider from a complex systems perspective because it is frequently considered to be one of the most mundane and formulaic aspects of scholarly practice and writing. It is also an aspect of the research process reserved for the upper grades since learning citation styles is often considered to be an end point in itself. Citation is also frequently taught by the librarian who takes on the role of a citation “expert”. Citation is also taught within the extremely negative light of it being about avoiding plagiarism and from the moral stance of being a principled researcher. The teaching of detailed citation styles is usually reserved for the final 1 -2 years of secondary school while general concepts of attribution are taught in the earlier secondary grades. In elementary school, formal citation is rarely taught or may be present in the final 1-2 years in preparation for secondary school although a specific citation style is not usually taught at this time. Mapping citation across the curriculum may therefore reflect these general approaches.

This is, as I have argued previously, an extremely limited and didactic approach that misses the bigger ideas that are really behind citation. Citation is a formal representation of the idea that information is not a static form but exists as a flow, as discourse. To effectively attribute the sources of our information is to participate in a flow of ideas that takes the form of an ongoing dialogue. A work that is not cited is therefore an information dead-end robbing the reader of the opportunity to dig deeper. Once inspired by the ideas expressed in a scholarly paper, a reader should ideally have the opportunity to respond to the author but also to follow the thread of ideas to read further for themselves, to use the work as a springboard to further exploration. Therefore, citation is not simply a principled act, it is an active participation in knowledge creation and dissemination – a flow.

This more holistic view of citation fits comfortably within a complex systems approach. This is in stark contrast to seeing a research assignment as an isolated, linear and mechanistic process. Viewing research as a participation in the flow of information lifts that assignment to become a dynamic process where the broader context is of great significance and interconnected with a complex web of ideas tied together through dialogue between researchers, readers, experts, novices, and the general public. A complex systems perspective also recognises the emergent nature of ideas over time and how those ideas are modified by new discoveries, societal biases and individual perspectives. Within this context, citation becomes an important and dynamic means to participation in this dialogue over wide geographic locations and over wide ranges of time.

With this in mind, it may still be appropriate to map key moments in the curriculum that the formal aspects of citation are taught however this mapping should be seen as something akin to basic landmarks on a road map. In the same way that a journey cannot be experienced simply by reading a road map and must be travelled, experiencing moments of being lost and moments of discovery, similarly, citation fits into a much larger concept of information as a flow. As early as preschool, students can experience the discourse of ideas by beginning to recognise the significance of the sources of information. For example, it is a big moment for them to discover a favourite author and that they can act to find more stories by that author. They can also experience the dialogic nature of information through sharing their experiences of story with each other and the wonder of new information. This dialogic nature of information, ideas and inspiration continues to develop in sophistication throughout their years of schooling and beyond as they develop as an inquirer, as someone who builds knowledge while always being at the ready to evolve or discard that knowledge as more insights are gained. While formal citation styles may not become a common practice in their later life, attribution and participation in information flows through dialogue will remain at the core of their life experiences. Therefore, citations styles as an isolated lesson is largely irrelevant. In contrast, stepping into a flow of ideas is a transdisciplinary practice of participation in a landscape of information that will be a life long experience.

Conclusion

Teaching citation therefore provides a useful example for the limitations of the linear mapping of lessons by the teacher librarian within the curriculum. While there are key moments within the curriculum for teaching specific skills such as citation styles, the most important and enduring learning occurs over large spans of time. Specific skills such as citation styles taught as discreet lesson may still have a place but they should be situated within a connected, holistic and dialogic context. A complex systems approach assists librarians to conceptualise the significance of big ideas such as information literacy throughout a student’s schooling. Keeping our eyes lifted up to these big ideas that transfer across disciplines and ages enables us to provide input, resources and support that build toward learning that will extend far beyond the school walls. The integration of the library in the curriculum is then seen as a support to the broad learning aims of students rather than occurring in isolation and disconnected from the learning life of each student. The library can then be seen to contribute to learning rather than being attributed to isolated lessons. Embracing complexity is a powerful world view enabling us to let go of rigid structures and with confidence accept the emergent nature of learning.


Further Reading

Boulton, Jean G., et al. Embracing Complexity: Strategic Perspectives for an Age of Turbulence. Oxford University Press, 2015. https://global.oup.com/academic/product/embracing-complexity-9780199565252?cc=us&lang=en&

5 Lessons for libraries from the world of retail

It is a great relief that the digital versus print debate is becoming a thing of the past and our discussions are becoming far more nuanced. Siôn Hamilton has captured some important aspects of this nuance in an article he recently wrote for TheBookSeller.com, “What 15 years at Foyles taught me about the future of bookselling” (June 21, 2017). While retail and libraries do differ profoundly in purpose, philosophy and method, Hamilton brings a number of critical insights about the nature of human experience, discovery and the pleasure of reading a physical book, that are relevant to both book stores and libraries.

There is no doubt that digital technologies have shaken the publishing world to its core and transformed our reading habits. Gaming, social media, ebooks, online shopping, smartphones and tablets, home delivery, search engines, curation algorithms, advertising algorithms, big data, physical books, and most significantly, the almost infinite ways that all these media are interconnected continue to make change the only constant. Hamilton cuts through this swirling world of publishing and retail to offer some insights that have implications for libraries.

Lesson 1 : good design

Continue reading 5 Lessons for libraries from the world of retail

Opportunities for libraries exist in a complex network of connections, interdependencies and feedback loops.

[2700 words]

The human brain has 86 billion neurons with an average of 1000 dendrites per neuron building a network with trillions of connections. The human brain is therefore one of the most extensive complex systems known to man. Embodied cognition goes further to consider the brain located within the human body where the compounding variables impacting cognition expand exponentially as we consider the complex interactions between the brain and the body’s many interconnected systems (here is an interesting discussion about AI & the role of embodied cognition). Zooming out a little further, we can observe that this embodied mind  does not exist in isolation but lives within complex social networks of friendships, the classroom, family, acquaintances and social networks. Each of these social networks exist within evolving physical and virtual contexts with profound a influence on individual and collective cognition.  Zooming out even further the connections between social groups in a local area, city, region and global contexts place each individual within an ever deepening array of interconnected networks. This is the nature of complex social systems where we observe complex systems nested within other complex systems producing a fractal phenomenon where zooming in or out reveals complexity at every level.  In considering these levels of complexity we are undeniably led to establish that our students exist as a complex system and simultaneously within vast nested complex systems. Reductionist approaches can be an important aspect of a complex systems approach but in isolation, reductionist science is in stark contrast to complex systems thinking.

“Yet some neuroscientists think it is time to tackle the challenge. They argue that we will never truly understand how the mind emerges from our nervous system if we break the brain down into disconnected pieces. Looking only at the parts would be like trying to figure out how water freezes by studying a single water molecule. “Ice” is a meaningless term on the scale of individual molecules. It emerges only from the interaction of a vast number of molecules, as they collectively lock into crystals.” Carl Zimmer, 2011

Reductionist scientific approaches seek to reduce variables and study individual micro components to understand the whole, however, while this research is incredibly powerful, it is not until we take a step back to consider a system as a whole that we understand the meta significance of these component parts. For example, studying an individual neuron provides us with no clues as to how consciousness & self awareness emerges. Similarly, it is only in the context of the behaviour of the beehive that we are able to begin to understand the purpose and patterns of the flight of a bee (see this article on systems thinking in the classroom).

Features of a complex system

While all the complex systems highlighted here – from the individual to the global – differ widely in the detail, they all exhibit the key components of a complex system. That is, individuals (neurons, people, or subsystems such as classrooms) and feedback loops via connections and interactions between these individuals. This results in a deep interdependence between these individuals where the behaviour of one individual is inextricably entwined with the behaviour of the other agents they interact with. The resultant behaviour of the whole (brain, body, classroom, social groups, school, society, and the global community) becomes an emergent property that is determined by these interactions.

This is in contrast to a hierarchical system (such as authoritarian regimes) where order is imposed. Also in contrast is a mechanical system (such as a car motor) where the output is predictable. A motor requires the input of fuel and a linear chain of mechanical processes to produce a known output – we push our feet on the pedal and we know the car will accelerate. These are complicated systems and they are systematic but they are quite different from a complex system. A system like the Dewey Decimal System is a clearly defined and complicated system of organisation but it is not a complex system.

The notable features of a complex system are defined by the interactions and feedback loops between individual entities. These interactions give rise to a number of defining features of a complex system. Complex systems are self-organising where patterns of behaviour are emergent, that is, observed behaviours are the result of interactions between individuals. The rules that define complex systems are rules that impact the interactions between agents. Patterns that emerge from complex systems are therefore difficult – if not impossible – to predict. Learning, whether considered at the individual level or organisational level, can be considered to be an emergent property and therefore, on a deep level impossible to predict. Learning that we are able to define ahead of time – such as learning that is tested by regurgitating facts – is a whole different class of learning and one of the reasons we may feel that this type of learning is shallow because it is disconnected from authentic and meaningful contexts and engenders very little personal relevance. On the other hand, emergent learning, includes the understanding and meaning that an individual student draws from the learning context. The apparently simple idea of “1 + 1 = 2” will mean many different things to students as they apply that idea in different contexts. As educators, we are able to craft learning environments, provocations, experiences and direct instruction to set the stage for learning by increasing a student’s opportunities to be exposed to and interact with new ideas, however, the personal new understandings, meaning and purpose students gain from that learning context cannot be predefined.

For deep learning to emerge the core elements of a complex system are necessary prerequisites:

Individual agents acting with choice (student agency) + interdependent connections building feedback loops = emergent learning.

Implications for libraries

The implications of complex systems thinking for libraries can be considered in light of the interdependencies that exist for students at various levels. Complex systems thinking draws us to consider the agents – that is, the students – in the many different environments and contexts they move through in a day. Student centred practice is therefore at the core of complex systems thinking because we are always considering the student in context. It is the agents and the interactions they have that lead to the patterns and behaviours we observe. Organisational structures, such as scheduling or staffing arrangements, that do not consider the impact on the experience of the student is at risk of missing significant impacts on the interactions students have throughout their day and therefore the learning.

At the micro level is the thinking and embodied cognition of each student. At the meso level are the immediate connections the student has with others and at the meta level we can consider the action of multiple interacting systems (see more on the micro-meso-meta levels of interaction). These interdependencies are present in the connections and feedback loops within these systems so to consider one element in isolation is to miss the very essence of the existence of that element. The librarian as an information specialist has a key role to play in these different levels of interaction. Information science has a long history closely entwined with the development of complex systems so in many ways librarians are well placed to engage with complex systems thinking. To understand the role of the library in learning, we can consider the impact of the library at the micro, meso and meta levels of interaction within the immediate and larger context of learning.

At this point, it is also important to recognise that the emergent properties of a system are not always desirable. Bullying can be the consequence of a positive feedback loop that reinforces power imbalances, disrespect and abuse. Our role then is to consider the various factors throughout the various levels of a complex system that contribute to the emergence of bullying. We are then able, at all system levels, to craft contexts that enrich the feedback loops and connections between agents toward healthy interactions.

In contrast, an isolated once a weekly/fortnightly visit to the library for a lesson disconnected from the life of the the school and other learning contexts greatly limits the impact we can have on learning. Direct instructional lessons or mini lessons do have their place but only in the context of the wider systems of connection that impact the whole learning experience of each student. To have the most profound impact on student learning is to have an impact throughout the various contexts that each students passes through, not just when they are in the library. For example, a librarian who is able to impact the parental understanding of the power of recreational reading and ways to foster pleasure in reading is a librarian who will have a powerful impact now and throughout that child’s life. In the classroom, discussions informed by compelling texts from the library that challenge individual’s world view and invite debate ignite informed interactions between students. This can only happen if the librarian is given time to research and inquire into the very best inspiration, diverse perspectives and creative endeavours the world has to offer – a strong and diverse print collection is a fuel for interactions within a lively complex systems. Library interactions that are embedded within the learning life of the student bring the power of the library into meaningful and relevant perception of the student. On the school wide scale, it is important for the library to be a part of the information landscape of the school – the website, communications between the school and home, student to student interactions and staff to staff connections. When the library is seen as a means to achieve all their goals and fuel inspiration and endeavour then the library is having a broad, deep and lasting impact on all the subsystems and therefore a deeper impact on learning. Relegating a librarian to limited roles, constricting resource budgets, and isolating the librarian from interactions within the school drastically limits the impact the library can have on the learning of every student. An integrated, embedded library is a library that fuels an energetic learning experience for students.

Student agency

At it’s core, the integration of the library into the learning life of students is based on enabling voice and choice for these agents. Student agency is a vital aspect of a functioning complex system at every level. On the individual level, students need agency to learn. For example, using reading levels to restrict choice (censoring) in selecting books in the library may feel like it is directing students to comprehensible texts but it is in effect limiting the thinking involved in selecting texts, limiting the depth of discussion around literature and story, and missing the rich complexities embedded within the experience of story that inspire, challenge and impel readers to act. Frequently, when a student comes to the library with instructions from an adult to select a text at their reading level, the discussion we have is difficult to move beyond reading level codes to the real wonder of story and new ideas. Reading levels are an example of an imposed top-down hierarchical framework that fundamentally limits the potential of a complex system. Reading level evaluations of our collection are helpful in ensuring we build a diverse and relevant collection but turning those reading levels on students is an act of oppression. A complex systems perspective still recognises the importance of comprehensible texts but takes a more wholistic view that also considers text in the context of the interests, passions, personal experiences, and motivations of the individual. A connection a student establishes with a book through their own choice driven by their own motivations is a connection that is sustained far beyond the conversation with the librarian. The result is reading for pleasure that has far reaching benefits for student learning.

The library environments should also be designed to enable serendipitous discussions about books and ideas. Artefacts, media, furniture, images and student work on display can all be configured to fuel student discussion and collaboration. Interactions that are not reliant on the librarian to directly lead (only nurture) are interactions that will continue beyond the library and be sustained in ongoing conversation. This requires that the librarian releases direct control of these interactions enabling the students to build these connections themselves. Since these connections are not artificially contrived or imposed, these connections are generative in nature because they are based on the intrinsic motivations of students. Our task is to provide an inspiring context that feed the complex system by infusing the student environment with the best of human creativity and ideas.

This leads us onto the resources we are making accessible to students. Canned information sources such as the many student focussed databases are useful but extremely limited because they are not produced by real authors, real artists, real illustrators, real journalists, and real researchers. This is mostly because this level of human creativity and human endeavour is time consuming and expensive. For example, famous children’s authors produce text at a far slower rate than education companies. Education companies produce texts at volume and are distributed on vast scales because this is what is required to make their business viable. It is therefore a business imperative that drives the creation of these texts – not a human desire to create, to share ideas, to share real story and to challenge thinking. It is therefore up to the library to ensure that we reach into the real complex system that is the diverse and interconnected world of real thinkers and creators, people with real experience who are deeply invested in making authentic and lasting connections with their audience. Searching for this authenticity and connecting our students to these inspirations is one of the most powerful ways we can feed the learning at micro, meso and meta complex system levels. A librarian that has the time and support to gather the best the world has to offer and bring these into the school context is able to have a powerful influence on student learning.

Another powerful way to foster feedback loops and amplify the agency of individual students is to display student creativity in the library space. For this to be effective, it needs to be timely. Connecting to what is happening in classrooms and always being ready to notice opportunities to extend what students are doing to present in the library (QR codes, videos, student made books, and writers’ celebrations are a few examples). Presenting student work is an iterative process where learning is fed back into the learning context enabling the feedback loops of sharing, reflecting and collaborating. The creators can see and reflect on their work in a public space, while other students can observe the learning in action and benefit from student perspectives and processes. This fosters a complex system of feedback loops between students, between classes, between teachers and with library resources.

Another example of feeding a complex system of interactions can be in setting up a document scanner connected to a projector + a microphone enabling students to select a book to read to an audience. With very little structure and an open mic platform for reading, the stage is set for students to connect with other students through story. Similarly, providing basic technology such as a video camera on a tripod with a microphone plus technical support to use the equipment enables students to interact in the act of creation. This can be set up as an open activity where students can create anything and share it openly. Anything can happen. The librarian’s role is to ensure interactions are respectful and supportive while helping with technical elements. The content is decided by the students.

The power of complex systems thinking is endless

Complex systems thinking is powerful because children are complex systems. Complex systems thinking is powerful because children exist within many complex systems. To embrace these contexts and the complex interactions that happen throughout the students’ day is how we can have a deep impact on learning that is sustained beyond the library, beyond the classroom and beyond the school.


Further reading

Claxton, Guy. Intelligence in the Flesh: Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More than It Thinks. New Haven: Yale UP, 2016. http://yalebooks.com/book/9780300208825/intelligence-flesh
Mithen, Steven. “Our 86 Billion Neurons: She Showed It.” The New York Review of Books. N.p., 24 Nov. 2016. Web. 12 Mar. 2017. <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/11/24/86-billion-neurons-herculano-houzel/>.
Rubin, C. M. “The Global Search for Education: Learning for a New World.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 20 Oct. 2015. Web. 16 Mar. 2017. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/c-m-rubin/the-global-search-for-edu_b_8338464.html
Zimmer, Carl. “100 Trillion Connections: New Efforts Probe and Map the Brain’s Detailed Architecture.” Scientific American. N.p., Jan. 2011. Web. 12 Mar. 2017. <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/100-trillion-connections/>.

Recreational reading = play = action

The National Library of New Zealand describes recreational reading as an “act of play“. Recreational reading is reading that we select for ourselves with no reports, no grading, no rewards or comprehension tests (Krashen, 2004).

“According to Nell (1988), reading for pleasure is a form of play that allows us to experience other worlds and roles in our imagination. Holden (2004) also conceived of reading as a “creative activity” that is far removed from the passive pursuit it is frequently perceived to be. Others have described reading for pleasure as a hermeneutic, interpretative activity, which is shaped by the reader’s expectations and experiences as well as by the social contexts in which it takes place (e.g. Graff, 1992).”

Clark, Christina, and Kate Rumbold, 2006

Continue reading Recreational reading = play = action

Libraries = hope

(1000 words)

Building a library is fundamentally a hopeful endeavour. This hope is not based on a collection of books that are themselves hopeful. Hope is embedded deep in a collection that represents diverse perspectives and a breadth of human creativity. In bringing a collection together that gives voice to an array of ideas, beliefs and values, the fires of public discourse are fanned into life. Librarians will not enjoy, agree with or even like many of the titles hosted in the library but this is how it should be. The library does not represent the perspective of one person or institution but represents a diverse range of ideas that can be studied, examined, debated, disliked or loved. The library is a community space where the light of public scrutiny and discourse can wrestle with challenging concepts. Continue reading Libraries = hope