Agent-based modelling of the school library

(1956 words)

Each student represents a vast complex system and each student operates in the context of many different complex systems (or complex adaptive social systems). These systems include (but are not limited to) the classroom, the library, the playground, their sports teams, their families, their local social networks and within broad global networks. They are adaptive because these systems are in a constant state of change based on the interactions between each agent (student or adult) and choices they make. The broad categories of each social context – such as the family, the classroom and the school – remain recognisable however the interactions within and between each of these contexts ensures that no day in the classroom or library is ever quite the same. This is one of the reasons why education is such an interesting, challenging and rewarding field to work in. The life within the school library and the connections the school library makes into each complex adaptive social system the student participates in, represents a huge challenge to librarians who strive to invest in resources, structures, services and pedagogy that have the greatest impact on student learning. For example, in a K-12 school with 5 classes per year level, each with 24 students, the total number of students the library connects with is  1560. This represents over 600 families and over 200 staff making a K-12 school a vast complex adaptive social system with many interacting individuals. An “agent” in a complex system is an individual with sufficient autonomy to make decisions that impact on the behaviour of the whole system through connections and interactions with other agents. Agent-based modelling offers us a framework to begin to examine the role of the library within the complex system of the school and to provide insight into the impact the library has on student learning.

Applying models enables us to organise our thinking in different ways to make sense of the complexities of education. Models enable us to organise information without the need to constrain, deconstruct and over simplify the massive amounts of data available to us. Armed with new insights we are better able to design more effective library services, environments, networks, interactions and resources while also being able to know our impact on student experience and their learning. With so many excellent ideas and possibilities available to libraries, it can be extremely difficult to know what to do first and where to put our energy because it is absolutely impossible to do everything, all at once, for everybody. Using models to frame our thinking allows us to become more strategic in our decision making to achieve the maximum level of contribution of libraries for student learning.

“Complicated worlds are reducible, whereas complex ones are not.” The inspiration for this post.

In contrast to many existing models, agent-based modelling embraces the complexity of each student and the various contexts they participate in. Many of our existing tools aim to reduce, standardise, average and purify the theoretical frameworks so much that we are left with an understanding that is barren & devoid of life. In contrast, agent-based modelling provides us with a fresh window into the lives of our students and new understandings that can inform our dispositions and practices in meaningful and powerful ways. Agent-based modelling draws us into a careful, purposeful and methodical appreciation of the experience of each student. Rather that beginning with our administrative structures, processes, procedures and policies, we begin with the agentthe student. The interactions, responses and experiences of each agent is our primary concern because is at the level of each individual student where the learning does or does not happen. Agent-based modelling does not replace other models but it does help us to place the more traditional methods in a more meaningful context. For example, averages can be helpful signposts and alerts but averages cannot form the basis for action. Without the benefit of a complex adaptive social system perspective, our perceptions can be guided by an unbalanced emphasis on single assessments, or a limited range of pedagogical approaches or unresponsive fixed theoretical frameworks. In contrast, by it’s very nature, a complex systems perspective is adaptive, making it robust and most importantly, responsive to the learning needs of each student.

Noticing the features of a complex adaptive social system

Agents (stakeholders)

  • Students
  • Teachers (incl. coaches, specialists)
  • Families/home
  • Administrators (incl. support staff)

Features: heterogeneous (not homogenous) therefore averages, means and norms rob of us the richness and diversity that is so essential to our basic humanity.


  • Classroom
  • Library/Learning Commons
  • Playground
  • Home
  • Physical education
  • Arts
  • Languages
  • School facilitated online social networks
  • Personal online social networks
  • Online learning management systems

Features: These contexts are flexible, diverse and adaptable, therefore precise, optimised, static and homogenised frameworks limit our relevance and abstract us from the reality of the complex and often confusing contexts students operate within.


  • 1:1
  • 1:many
  • Many:1
  • Oral language
  • Aural language
  • Written language
  • Gesture
  • Lecture
  • Small group discussion
  • Collaboration
  • Cooperation
  • Feedback

Features: Process oriented, rich and complex and therefore, often overwhelming.


  • Immediate
  • Delayed
  • Formative assessment
  • Summative assessment
  • Peer assessment
  • Collaboration
  • Verbal
  • Conferencing
  • Standardised tests
  • Exams
  • Criteria
  • Iteration
  • Design cycle
  • Inquiry cycle
  • Reflection

Features: As a whole, feedback is widely networked, complex and dense with meaning. Feedback can be both positive – leading to change and compounding growth – or negative – leading to attenuation. In a complex systems framework, both positive and negative feedback can have desirable and undesirable outcomes. For example, a positive feedback loop in a playground dispute can lead to sustained bullying while a negative feedback loop can stop the validation of aggressive behaviour. Therefore …

since the terms “positive” and “negative” have such different connotations in complex systems terminology than in general lay usage, the terms “compounding” and “attenuating” respectively could be substituted to avoid misunderstanding.

Creating an agent-based model for libraries

The above lists are not exhaustive but they do begin to provide us with an understanding of the various features of the complex adaptive social systems within which students operate. A 5 minute discussion with a group of educators and administrators could expand these lists to fill volumes which only emphasises the rich complexity of the educational setting. What is important to focus our attention on are the agents and the interactions between the agents. The contexts within which these interactions occur and the feedback loops that emerge either purposefully or spontaneously, shape the ongoing change within each agent (ie. learning) and the evolution of those interactions in the future. As educators, we have a powerful influence on these interactions and the impact on each agent.

In order to create a model, we need to position ourselves in a vantage point that gives us the right view of the area of focus. For example, an area of focus could be recreational reading. We know that recreational reading has a powerful impact on academic achievement and life satisfaction. Working back from this vantage point, we can search for indicators that this may or may not be happening in the school. Between these indicators and our vantage point is a vast complex system of student reading preferences, perceptions of themselves as readers or non-readers, parental expectations, language experiences, peer pressures, teacher assessments and physical barriers such as limited access to rich library collections. A traditional approach used by libraries to increase recreational reading may be to place reading promotion posters around the library and the school. We may also run reading competitions to increase the profile of reading by trying to yell above the noise of school. The limitation of both these methods is that they don’t address the key elements of a complex adaptive social system. A poster has a very limited impact on interactions between agents and involves no feedback. Book reading competitions appear to do this however the premise of a reading competition is that it is not based on the most powerful features of reading – that is the sheer enjoyment of reading itself. The positive feedback loop of most book competitions are based on the numbers of books read which can be a positive spin-off of recreational reading but in no way is it related to the main motivation for lifelong reading. What we know from recreational reading research is that enjoyment of reading is the positive feedback loop that yields more reading. This can feel like a catch-22. How can someone who cannot read begin to read so they can begin to enjoy it and read more? This is where the complexity comes into out thinking. Our model needs to consider the various agents involved in a student’s reading experience and the impact of each of those agents on either creating compounding (positive) feedback loops around enjoyment rather than compounding feedback loops around stress or boredom. How various agents interact defines the impact on the development of the student as a reader. Reading competitions are prominent but do not address the feedback loops within the daily experience of reading for the student and therefore have very limited impact and any impact achieved is not sustained after the competition has finished.

Another example of an approach to encouraging reading is to use levelled readers. Levelled readers give us the sense that we are improving access to reading for students by helping them to find texts that are within their zone of proximal development. The problem with this approach is that the mathematics of levelling texts is a very narrow way of determining whether a book is at a level a student can read and experience the life of a reader. The zone of proximal development, the “just right” text, for a student is vastly more complex than a mathematical abstraction. If we map out our own reading experiences and the choices that we make each day, we soon discover that we choose our “just right” texts based on a vast array of factors. Our mood, how tired we are, how interesting the text is we are reading, how long the text is, our prior knowledge about the subject of the text, our previous experiences in the subject matter of that text, whether we have been forced to read that text or not, whether that text has been recommended by a close friend, the format of the text and the medium through which we access that text, and the list goes on indefinitely. This is why reading is so compelling – because it is such a rich and diverse experience. To reduce the “just right” text to an equation that determines the ease of decoding is ridiculous to an extreme. This is not to say the comprehensibility of the text is not important. It is fundamentally important however there are many other complex factors that need to come into the interactions students have with other agents for them to build a sophisticated approach to selecting their “just right” texts. Comprehensibility must be a part of these interactions however it is the diversity and richness of these interactions in a complex systems model that is important because we know that diversity, heterogeneity, process, feedback and choice are the key features of a robust complex system. Building a robust complex system around reading is what builds a robust, motivated, lifelong reader because reading is complex.

We have not built a complete agent-based model here but we have begun to approach it with a modelling stance in mind. Already, we have begun to explore the potential that a complex adaptive social system approach can offer and hopefully inspired further exploration in this field.

The book “Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life” by John H. Miller and Scott E. Page (2007) has been a key inspiration for this post. “Diversity and Complexity” by Scott E. Page (2010) has also been an inspiration (see previous post here).

The age of discovery: the embodied mind, complex systems and the school library

Two recently published books bring together some important insights with significant implications for education and the school library.

Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance , by Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna, published by Bloomsbury/St Martin’s Press. The Guardian, Society Opinion.

Intelligence in the Flesh: Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More than It ThinksBy Guy Claxton Yale University Press. The Times Higher Education review.

Age of Discovery Goldin
Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance.

Guy Claxton draws on advances in neuroscience, experimental psychology and a smattering of philosophy to show us that intelligence is far more complex than the ability of a student to use pen and paper to reproduce facts for an exam. Through comparisons with the Renaissance, Goldin and Kutarna show that there has never been a better time to be alive. We are in a period of new renaissance. An education system that focusses on an accumulation of rote knowledge is therefore terribly insufficient in a connected and complex globalised world where the ability to take all factors into consideration to make perfect decisions is impossible. In the light of these two books, it is clear that a reductionist, simplified understanding of learning is of very limited relevance in such a world. We are living in a time as tumultuous and exciting as the Renaissance at the time of Columbus, Copernicus and Gutenberg. Now is a time when the archaic Cartesian dualistic view of the mind falls tragically short of recognising the beautiful and bewildering complexity at the core of our humanity.

Continue reading The age of discovery: the embodied mind, complex systems and the school library

The embodied library : learning to read

(1800 words)

Everything the school library does is in the service of student learning. Learning is change. For the most part, we are not consciously aware of all the changes that occur in our brain and body when we are learning. We can often describe observable aspects of learning such as an improvements in our accuracy in kicking a ball through the goal posts, the ability to solve a challenging math problem, a new way to fold the worlds best ever paper plane, or a new historical insight but the neurological and physiological changes in our bodies are hidden. These new skills or new knowledge may indicate that learning has occurred however they are far from providing a complete understanding of the change that has taken place. This is where understanding the embodied mind can lead us to a more holistic view of learning. Learning that we can directly observe, test or that we are conscious of is only the very tip of the iceberg. Learning is a process that involves the entire body in a complex system of interdependent subsystems. The brain is a dominant arbiter in the learning process however the brain only functions within the context of the body – as Guy Claxton explains, the “brain and the body function as a single unit” (Claxton, 2015 p 89).

The embodied mind: the brain is nothing like a computer

The brain is in no way anything like a computer (Claxton, 2015 p 89). There is no separate compartment for memories. There are no neat series of processing steps. The brain is not binary. Instead the brain operates within a tangle of electrical networks, a sea of chemical interactions and giant array of physical structures creating one of the most vast complex systems we can imagine. Not only is the brain inseparable from the body, the body is intricately involved in thinking. Learning is therefore not just a brain activity but a whole body process of change. The vast majority of the change that occurs in learning is therefore not observable. The aspects of learning that we can observe are merely patterns of behaviour or consciousness that bubble to the surface from a seething mass of impenetrably complex interactions and dependencies  (Claxton, 2015 p53). The observed behaviours, performances or thoughts we are aware of are only a very small part of the vast and complex changes that are occurring when we or our students are learning.

Learning is a complex and emergent property of the embodied mind

Understanding the emergent nature of learning is of great importance to our attempts at crafting optimal learning engagements and environments for students. All we have to go on to gain feedback about whether we have enabled learning to occur is the data we gather and the observations we make, however in reality, these are only signposts or alerts to a vast and complex underlying process of change that cannot be directly observed.

Using data

Tests, exams, observations and other data we collate in schools are valuable systems of feedback about the effectiveness of our teaching however our response to this data should rarely be to attempt to directly address these surface features of student learning by hammering home content with more didactic worksheets and drills to repeat a skill over and over until all passion for learning is extinguished. Our response should be to go deeper, far deeper, to recognise the vast complexity and depth of the process of learning. This requires faith in the process. Didactic teaching of specific skills can have it’s place in teaching however if this is the dominant pedagogy, then we are treating students like computers with slow processors where our main task is to reprogram their circuits and cram their memory chips with the information we think they need. This is very shallow, non-transferable and unsustainable learning. “The predominant association of intelligence with thinking and reasoning isn’t fact; it is a cultural belief … that misdirects us” (Claxton, 2015 p3). Learning goes way beyond what can be captured in a test so to go deeper, our pedagogy must engage all aspects of the embodied mind.

Engaging the embodied mind : Reading

Recent research in the neurosciences has revealed much about the many subsystems of the brain and the body and recent education research has provided key insights into what is effective and what is not for learning. The challenge for us is to learn to trust these insights and engage the deeper and often unobservable subsystems of the embodied mind. For example, we know for certain that there is an undeniable and consistently demonstrated correlation between reading for pleasure (that is students choosing what, when and where they read) and the academic achievement. One of the most powerful predictors of success in adult life is a child’s pleasure in reading. Direct teaching of reading skills has its place but as adults we naturally tend toward the forms of direct pedagogy we feel we can control yet fostering reading for pleasure is by definition, not controllable.  Just because we can control a method of teaching and measure a direct outcome does not mean it is a better teaching method and it definitely does not mean it is the best way for students to learn. For example, in trying to improve student coordination, we can teach and drill the skills of juggling in lesson after lesson until all students can juggle three balls thereby demonstrating our teaching effectiveness. imageThe problem is that this is an isolated, specific, non-essential skill and it is highly questionable whether it is of such importance that it warrants hours of teaching to accomplish. Similarly direct teaching of phonics is not useless but considering the time involved in phonics programs, the problem is that it hones in on a very specific component of reading. Phonics is very important in language acquisition and literacy luring us into thinking that direct and explicit phonics programs are the most obvious way for students to learn these skills especially when data for these programs can be so readily gathered. The problem is that just because we can teach it directly and measure outcome directly does not mean this is the way students best learn phonics or indeed if it yields the sustainable literacy outcomes we are looking for. In fact, intensive reading programmes can have the effect of reducing student pleasure in reading, the exact reverse of what we are trying to achieve.

Understanding the embodied mind draws us to a much more holistic and comprehensive view of learning to read. Learning to read is not about refining our Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software (there are excellent apps for that). We know that learning to read involves building positive experiences around text, fostering conversation about story, finding the right nook that helps us become absorbed in a story, connecting with like minds, sharing perspectives, responding with creative action, pausing in shock at what we have just read, anticipating the next instalment in a series, discovering a new author, arguing with a friend about the motivations of a character, having our deepest held beliefs challenged by a great thinker, taking great pleasure in creative passion of an illustrator, discovering something new about the natural world – this is reading, this is the experience of reading, this is what draws us back to life long reading.

Notice that many of these aspects of reading involve our position in space – where we are sitting, who we are with, the location that reading takes place is often defined by when it takes place. Notice how many of these aspects of reading involve the when – the anticipation, the events that lead up to a new discovery, whether it is late in the dark of the night or in a corner of a busy school library, when we have time to stare endlessly at a beautifully crafted illustration. Notice how many of these reading experiences involve interactions with others – sharing, arguing, discovering, in shared attention, in side-by-side company. Movement and physical responses are not a disruption or subversion to learning to read, they literally embody reading. As Claxton points out, “complete stillness is incompatible with life: it is anathema” (p36). The embodied mind helps us to understanding that reading is not about decoding text, my iPad has great OCR software that can recognise words but my iPad is not able to read anything. Siri can convert any text to audio but Siri is not reading. The development of AI is therefore showing us that we are nothing like computers, reading is an experience of the embodied mind that requires high level cognitive skills that are inseparably embedded within a bodily experience that extends even beyond our skin.

All this considered, it is clearly a very incomplete reading pedagogy that is focused on narrow aspects of reading such as phonics and decoding. To provide a comprehensive reading pedagogy we need to provide a learning environment and process that sees reading as embodied. The library must be embodied. To do this we must play the long game. Focusing on short-term interventions can at times be effective in pushing over a hump in a learning journey but the big changes in learning occur over long periods of time. A love of reading that we know sustains a life time of reading and learning is not something we can teach. It is a spark that emerges from within each student and it is a spark that we cannot create. This is hard for parents, teachers and librarians to accept. We desperately want to light that spark, to be the ones to ignite a passion for learning and reading but we cannot. What we can do is create every opportunity for that spark, when it comes, to survive and grow. We do this by building positive experiences around literature, maximising access to high quality compelling literature, fostering deep conversation around literature, watching for signs of interest in a genre or subject and feeding that interest, leveraging technology to connect students into ideas and inspiration. And yes, sometimes it does require sounding out a word but as long as it is in a context and at a time that is directly relevant to honouring student led inquiry. As a stand alone it is like teaching a student to juggle – of some benefit but very limited.

The embodied library is a library that participates in the embodied mind of each student. Practices, procedures, and rules that do not contribute to a holistic experience for students need to be stripped away. The focus must be on understanding the student and how our pedagogy and practices encompass the embodied mind. The embodied mind is a complex system compelling us to avoid reductionist theories and open our minds to deeper learning experiences for students.

Further reading

Claxton, Guy. Intelligence in the Flesh: Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More than It Thinks. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2015. EBL. Web. 15 May 2016.

@GuyClaxton on Twitter

Rowlands, Mark. The New Science of the Mind: From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2010. Print.


Rebranding libraries 2 : in with new, in with the old.

Social media and new digital channels ensure that our connected world is always evolving. Branding in the commercial environment is no longer about projecting a message to an audience, it is about connections between people. This is where the traditionally commercial role of branding and the role of libraries converge. Libraries are still about books, knowledge and ideas but both the format, the medium and the modes libraries work across have expanded exponentially. imageEmbedded in this expansion are the ways in which the library connects with people and more importantly, the ways the library connects people-to-people, ideas-to-ideas, needs-to-needs. Advertising agencies are no longer isolated in silos working to a brief provided by a company CEO, they are getting into the shoes of a company and into the shoes of the customers, connecting networking, working across platforms, focusing their message, and co-creating with their clients.
This is where libraries have always been and where they are ideally placed to meet the needs of patrons in a connected world. For libraries, branding is an important piece to this puzzle and is an often neglected one. Branding a library is not about projecting a new modern face and it is not about sending the right message. The message is what libraries do. In this context, branding is about making connections between what people do and what libraries do. imageLibraries do things in society that no other organisation or system does. Libraries offer an experience, a collaborative space, an inspiration, and a story that no other physical or virtual space offers. Leveraging branding and marketing strategies offers useful insights into how libraries can make more authentic and meaningful connections within the community.


Some lessons from the world of marketing

1. Research

Continue reading Rebranding libraries 2 : in with new, in with the old.

Student Agency : revisiting “Choice Words” by Peter Johnston

Building a sense of learner agency in the library begins now.

(1700 words)

Whenever I consider the concept of student agency I am always drawn back to Choice words : how our language affects children’s learning” by Peter H. Johnston, 2004. In particular, chapter 4 “Agency and becoming strategic”, in a very concise & practical way clarifies what student agency is, what it looks like and how we can have a powerful impact on learning.

“Children should leave school with a sense that if they act, and act strategically, they can accomplish their goals. I call this feeling a sense of agency.”

“The spark of agency is simply the perception that the environment is responsive to our actions, and many researchers argue that agency is a fundamental human desire.”

Choice Words : How our language affects children's learning
“Choice Words : How our language affects children’s learning” by Peter Johnston

“This desire for agency persists throughout life and is so powerful, that when people feel there is no relationship between what they do and what happens, they become depressed and helpless.”

“Teachers’ conversations with children help the children build the bridges between action and consequence that develop their sense of agency. They show children how, by acting strategically, they accomplish things, and at the same time, that they are the kind of person who accomplishes things.”

Continue reading Student Agency : revisiting “Choice Words” by Peter Johnston

Proxemics and The Embodied Mind: The hidden dimension of learning.

(1500 words)

img_6512There are two fields of study that I would like to bring together to create a deep but accessible framework to examine the impact of the environment on student learning. Of particular interest to me is the impact of the presence books on learning in combination with other technologies however this framework could be applied to many other aspects of the learning environment.

  1. Proxemics
  2. The Embodied Mind.


The field of proxemics is based on the work by Edward Hall in the 1960’s. In his book, “The Hidden Dimension” (1966) he states that “man and his environment participate in molding each other” (p5) and “in creating this world he [she] is actually determining what kind of an organism he [she] will be” (p5). The language that Hall enlists in talking about the spaces we inhabit emphasises with rich clarity the complex role our environment plays in shaping who we are. He talks about “the language of space” (p91), “the dynamism of space” (p114) and situational personalities (p115) and in describing Japanese gardens (pp153-154) he states that “the study of Japanese spaces illustrates their habit of leading the individual to a spot where he can discover something for himself”. image 14While much of his work has been enlisted in the study of social interactions (see his descriptions of the “intimate” 20cm, “personal” 120cm, “social” 365cm and “public space” 365cm+ spaces), “The Hidden Dimension” compels the reader to go further in considering human environments as very real expressions of humanity as well as exerting a powerful influence on our humanity. Greenberg et al have taken this further by analysing the role of technology in human spatial engagements. As people move through physical spaces through various levels of proximity, connectivity mediated by technology now strongly influences our interactions as never before. Peterson et al. has considered the relationship between proxemics and human-computer interactions by taking the Hall definitions of personal space and applying a situational space model to examine and analyse interactions and mediators in a given situation. Proxemics therefore continues to provide a basis for examining human-human and human-technology interactions using a range of proxemic notation systems  (Hall 1963, Pederson et al. 2012) that in a modified form could be used to examine learning environments.

The Embodied Mind

The hypothesis of the embodied mind poses the question: is consciousness and subconscious cognition only a function of the brain (known as the Cartesian Cognitive Science) or do cognitive processes extend beyond the brain, beyond the skin and beyond what we can sense (Non-cartesian cognitive science)? (Rowlands 2010). Cartesian cognitive science is based on the idea that mental processes – such as perceiving, remembering, thinking and reasoning – only exist in the brain. By contrast, the embodied mind draws us to consider mental processes as, in part, including the environment that lies outside the brain. image 44The embodied mind thesis goes further than just recognising that cognition is influenced by the environment but poses that cognition is inextricably linked to the human body as a whole, the context of the body and beyond (the “extended mind”). This means that the how we move, manipulate and interact with our environment, to some extent, actually constitutes fundamental functions of cognition. While watching young children, adolescents and adults in the library, it actually becomes difficult to imagine a form of thinking that does not involve interacting with the environment and manipulating objects (such as books) as an intrinsic component of thought. If the thesis of the embodied mind is accepted, the concept of the environment as the third teacher (Cannon Design, Capacity Building Series Ontario)  is of even greater significance than may have been originally thought.

Bringing Proxemics and the Embodied Mind together

Everyday I observe students interacting with spaces, with each other and with objects (such as books a range of other technologies) in a very complex social and spatial dance. The interplay between the environment and the students has a profound impact on their interactions and actions. This is not a one-way interplay since they also exert their own influence on the environment around them. These interactions seem so tightly bound to their states of mind and their processes of thinking that the thesis of the embodied mind seems intuitively obvious. The way students physically manipulate books and other technology in the library appears to form a scaffold for their thinking to such an extent that it is like watching their cognition itself. For example, anecdotal observations in the library indicate that given a variety of technologies (books, pencils, paper and iPads), the students will move fluidly between them all, switching and engaging with their environment and each other in a flow of play that is so much a representation of their cognition that it appears to actually constitute a core component of their cognition. While in other spaces in the school where laptops and static desk arrangements dominate the room, students will converge on habitual stereotypical behaviours such as primarily using laptops for research on the Internet with minimal collaboration or consideration for other research methods. My hypothesis is that if we fill these classrooms and the library with a rich variety of appropriate technologies, invite students to bring their own and provide support with classroom configurations that foster a wide variety of research strategies (e.g. observations, data gathering, interviews, collaboration, visual note-taking, reading etc), then student behaviour will become far more diverse, differentiated and student led. The result will be differentiated, deeper, diversified and engaged thinking.

A more specific example

Anecdotal observations in the library have indicated that given a wide variety of spatial and technological resources (including books, magazines, comics, iPads, tables, lap-tables, couches, beanbags, floor cushions, pencils, scissors, and paper as well as resources the students may bring into the library) the students will access all of these in a flow of play and interaction. Sometimes utilising all of these resources at the same time or, more often, in a tidal ebb and flow as fads come and go. b3516-philips2bimageStudents will sometimes converge on a particular collection of books, or a favourite Youtuber, or an origami club or a stage performance with costumes brought with them from the classroom. Everyday we tidy and arrange furniture, technology and books in slightly different ways to invite students to engage with the library in different ways. As a result, different interactions occur, diverse uses of the spaces emerge and different ways of thinking happen. The result is learning.

Teenagers and technology preferences

I wonder, do teenagers choose digital technologies in the classroom because:

  1. they are expected to by the teacher (a confirmation bias based on the assumption that teenagers do in fact prefer digital technologies for learning)?
  2. It is the technology that is within arms reach or close by. The time of going to interview someone or visit the library requires purposeful decision of the teacher to “allow” this level of mobility.
  3. School virtual and physical structures strongly imply certain student products such as only electronic submission of summative assessments (in the form of Microsoft Word or PDF documents).

Therefore, opening up and extending the classroom so students are encouraged to move within the room and beyond it may similarly open and extend thinking. Do such environmental changes fundamentally alter their cognitive processes and therefore their learning?

Possible Framework


Utilise the metrics and frameworks of proxemics to observe, gather data and analyse the spacial parameters of students in a particular location.

Embodied Mind

Observe, gather data and analyse the impact of altering various components of space on student thinking.

The consideration of the environment as the third teacher with a powerful impact on student learning is not new however using the metrics and frameworks of proxemics to examine the impact on student cognitive function that involves the science of the embodied mind offers some significant opportunities for action research in learning environments.


Hall, Edward T. “A System for the Notation of Proxemic Behavior”. American Anthropologist 65 (5): 1003–1026 (October 1963). doi:10.1525/aa.1963.65.5.02a00020
Henriksen, Danah, Jon Good, and Punya Mishra. “Embodied Thinking as a Trans-disciplinary Habit of Mind.” TechTrends 59.1 (2015): 6-11.Proquest. Web. 24 Mar. 2016.
Pfeifer, Rolf, Josh Bongard, and Simon Grand. How the Body Shapes the Way We Think: A New View of Intelligence. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2007. PDF.
Rowlands, Mark. The New Science of the Mind: From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2010. Print.





Academic Honesty lessons using a complex systems approach

(3500 Words)

Complex systems thinking provides a holistic framework for discussing Academic Honesty with students. Complex systems thinking leads us away from hierarchical structures of power and authority toward an emphasis on connections, dialogue and individual autonomy. Complex systems thinking embraces individual identity and diversity where students construct their own meaning through respectful and meaningful interactions with their peers. Rather than attempting to homogenise student understandings of academic honesty, a complex systems approach provides a rich context for individual and shared understandings to emerge by fostering interactions, collaboration and iterative feedback.

The imperative from the class teachers: “We are concerned that academic misconduct may be on the rise and while teachers have discussed this with students having someone different to lead some sessions with this grade level may help them to understand academic honesty better and understand the importance of academic honesty with the hope that their behaviour will improve”. So the librarian was invited to take two sessions with this grade level which included 29 students.

Purpose of the lessons:

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[ Never underestimate the library element ] by Philip Williams, Librarian