A few weeks ago I wrote a post title “Complex Systems Pedagogy and the school library” and presented this approach to librarianship at the #ISHCMCE3 conference. One of the challenges of examining our practice through the lens of complex systems is that it is an abstract concept that is descriptive rather than prescriptive in nature. As a result, while it can bring a fresh perspective it can also be difficult to understand the practical implications of a complex systems mindset. This post was inspired by my first day back from the #ISHCMC3E conference when many aspects of the practical outworking of a complex systems approach were apparent in various ways. This is far from a comprehensive view of library practice from a complex systems perspective but it does serve to illustrate a few key features of how the daily running of our library that are inspired by a complex systems pedagogy.
Let’s start from the moment I am walking up to the library door in the morning to unlock the door …
Monday 28th Sept, 7:30am
A small posse of young students are waiting outside the door of the library standing akimbo, tapping their feet, “where have you been Mr Williams?”. The library is open for any students from 7:30 (I was 2 minutes late!) until the official start of the school day at 7:50am because it provides valuable time for students to connect with the library in an unstructured and informal way. Invariably we end up in discussions about the books they are returning or the new ones they are finding. These moments build a community around literature and reading while also reinforcing a strong rapport between the library staff and the students. They feel that the library is their space and access is not mediated by their teachers, parents or library staff.
Complex systems pedagogy connections: This creates a safe and bounded opportunity for emergence and self-organisation because it is open ended, student led and voluntary. This positions our readers as experts in their own literary experience.
8:00 – 8:20am
I found a large pile of books that the Grade 2 students had selected from the shelves on Friday while I was away at #ISHCMC3E. They had come into the library to find books that related to their Unit Of Inquiry plus any books that they simply wanted to have access to in the classroom. Using Destiny Quest to search the library catalogue as well as simply perusing the shelves they found books that they were interested in.
So, on Monday morning with the help of our library assistants, we checked these books out to Grade 2 and delivered them to their class with much cheering and students singing a Santa Claus song (Not sure of the connection, I think it is like receiving gifts – which of course it is). The teacher then switched their lesson focus to discussing, sorting and organising these new books for their room. The two Grade 2 classes currently have 473 library books checked out from the library.
Complex systems pedagogy connections: The students had found these books themselves – self-directed, student led, open ended, building student agency, based on their approach to the collection and their understandings of their current unit of inquiry and recognising in a non-judgemental way their unique interests. The process of selection and resultant discussions in the classroom generated powerful engagement, differentiated access to literature and above all, provided opportunity for connection through peer feedback and self-organisation. New vocabulary, new understandings, new perspectives and new energy where the result – aka, learning. This process was disruptive, frequently chaotic yet focussed by the physicality of the books. Once again, the students were positioned as experts in their learning, the activities were open ended yet focussed allowing for self-organisation and emergence. The skills to achieve this have been gradually built over time reinforcing an iterative process where rather than running a one-off “Destiny Quest lesson”, the learning occurs over time with many mini lessons as required to help students over barriers they may be facing. Rather than having large static classroom libraries, classes are able to replenish their shelves with a rich selection of library books (and yes, we do lose some books in the milieu). This creates a rich, adaptive classroom library that is responsive to the students. Fundamental to this approach is a classroom teacher who is open to this non-linear process and able to recognise the learning that is happening.
8:20am – 8:40am
The Thai Mother Tongue teacher arrived with an armful of new books in Thai to add to the library. I arrange for reimbursement from the library budget as we chat excitedly about these fun new additions to the library. This is part of a building stronger connections with the MT teachers and the students they work with.
Complex systems pedagogy connections: Building strong connections to the mother tongue teachers helps us to build a library that is not mono-cultural but open to diverse influences from around the world. These interactions always lead me to new insights and interesting perspectives which is exactly the environment we are trying to create in the library. This is a very challenging process because each person (student, teacher and parent) brings their own unique cultural perspective which, even within one national origin, is far from consistent. Building diversity through these connections helps to build an adaptive and responsive system that reinforces a sense of agency in the library for our teachers and students.
8:40 – 9:20am
As the Thai MT teacher left the library, the Diploma Business Management teacher entered the library to check out our collection for suitable books for her Grade 11 students who are about to embark on some indepth research. One of her motivations for come to the library was that a book provides a physical representation of an idea which helps students build a mental picture of what research and information in a field could look like. Our discussion led us onto how we could set the stage for an approach to the books that would help to keep their minds open for the opportunity to discover something new and to find inspiration. Discovery is the key here because research is not simply a search for an “answer” to a question – it is a process of exploration and discovery. This was a very rich discussion that will hopefully lead to a rich research experience for the students.
Complex systems pedagogy connections: This collaboration was informal and unscripted. It came about as a consequence of an open library schedule that means students, teachers and parents can come into the space at any time. While I do like to have classes and meetings booked so I can prepare ahead of time, the priority is openness, flexibility and fostering connections above order and compliance. The outcome is hopefully a more responsive library because I gain an understanding of the needs of the community and the teachers feel a higher level of ownership empowering them to access what they need.
9:20 – 9:40am
A Grade 6 advisory class comes to the library (instead of meeting in their classroom) to give them the time and relaxed opportunity to access books to read for pleasure. This was arranged via email with the advisory teacher in an attempt to build access to the physical spaces of the library into the fabric of their day. In the business of a school curriculum, these moments of open student led action can be lost. I did not have a formal lesson prepared but I did chat with the students informally and refamiliarise them with the self-checkout counter where they could check what books they had out and check out new ones. The 9:40am recess bell sounded but they lingered on in the library laying in the beanbags chatting and eventually left for morning break time with a few new books and magazines under their arms.
Complex systems pedagogy connections: While there are definitely appropriate times for direct teaching, we are setting ourselves way behind the eight-ball in literacy development and academic achievement if our students are not reading recreationally. Recreational reading is defined entirely by student choice of what they read, when they read it and where they read it. No comprehension tests, no spelling lists, no prizes and no reading programmes. This is an open system, inherently student directed allowing for self-organisation and emergence. This kind of reading leads to more reading.
9:40 – 10:00am
Secondary break time begins with approximately 20 students hanging around in the library – some playing computer games, some reading, some completing homework and some just chatting with friends. Opening the library during break times is essential for creating additional opportunities for students to connect with the library. A complex systems approach pushes us to recognise that each student approaches the library from a different perspective and different cultural background. For some, it may be the formal lesson but for others (possibly for most) it is the open student led approach that allows for differentiated access. The library renovation last year and the open door policy has helped to break down barriers and redefine perceptions of the relevance of the library.
Complex systems pedagogy connections: this is a systems approach because rather than basing access to the library on the linear approach of formal lessons, our focus is on increasing opportunities for connection. If we are confident in the quality, relevance and currency of our collection and other resources, we can be confident that if we simply facilitate connection to the library then the books and resources will speak for themselves – the library connection will be a rewarding experience for the students. In terms of my time management, I spend more time searching for the best literature and resources I can find, preparing and displaying those resources and connecting students to those resources and less time trying to “promote” them with campaigns, slogans and reading awards which are actually a disincentive despite our best efforts. The important component of this system is the quality of the resources and the connections. Essentially, this creates a positive feedback loop where rewarding interactions with the library lead to students returning for more, thereby reinforcing connections.
10:10 – 10:40am
I then strap myself in and prepare for primary break time when 60-70 students (there were 90 there on the following Monday from a total of 250 primary students) converge on the library taking us to the edge of chaos. Downstairs there was also a class of secondary students quietly reading for one of their english classes. A challenging balance but great to have the library full of students and so much positive energy. This vibrance can tip over into chaos which necessitates some closer student behaviour management because chaos is not conducive for a safe and nurturing environment.
Complex systems pedagogy connections: At the edge of chaos we can at times achieve a vibrancy that cannot be manufactured but leads to numerous emergent behaviours that I did not predict. For example, literacy groups emerge constantly as students share their experience with a book or a series of books. These groups are not formal or structured and in no way involve an adult however all the wonderful features of a vibrant literacy group are present – so why would I mess with it? These events frequently also involve an iPad or two when the students access Youtube or Destiny Quest during the discussions. Providing supervised and open access to the library at break times keeps the system open. This takes a lot of work and means I have “duty” everyday but the outcome is that it feeds an environment where the library is a natural part of the student day rather than an isolated lesson where the teacher-librarian mediates access.
10:40 – 10:50am
A grade 6 humanities teacher drops into the library to arrange a lesson in the afternoon to help the students get started on their research. A flexible schedule allows teachers to access the library with very little or no warning. The basic rule defining this is that if the library is busy or booked by another class, access is still provided as long as the two classes are not disruptive for each other. If disruption occurs we can reschedule for another time but this is in practice rarely necessary and a minor adaption of the library session for each class usually means that they can coexist happily and often leads to an energetic and engaging buzz to the library.
Complex systems pedagogy connections: Again, the focus is on connection, access and facilitation rather than order, compliance and fixed lesson structures. This enables the library to be dynamic (in the complex systems definition of this term as well as the colloquial use), responsive and adaptive.
10:50 – 11:10am
I have a few moments to gather a few resources to inspire the grade 6 students to take a less traditional approach to their inquiry into a person who has brought change to their community or society. A book by Peter Sis, another one that shows Dr Seuss in a different light, a book about modern day innovators, an example of a Malala Yousafzai biography and a range of other resources serve to illustrate different approaches to researching and presenting information.
Complex systems pedagogy connections: while I aim for emergent lesson structures, being prepared with a range of provocations is important to give the students an idea of the rewards in store for them if they dig into the library resources.
11:10 – 11:30am
A quick check of my emails, I forward on a “The Day” email to all staff, secondary students and grade 5 students. “The Day” has proved to be a very popular source of student focussed current affairs news. I monitor access to this service through the number of visits per day, week and month. Last month the site received over 600 hits from our school community however if I stop sending these emails, this figure drops dramatically to around 40 per month. Based on this data and discussions with staff and students, it seems that this service fulfils a need in our community however only if it is one-click away when received in an email notification.
I also downloaded 3 draft Extended Essays in preparation for marking them against the criteria.
Complex systems pedagogy connections: A systems approach recognises that a practical and easy connection to The Day news service is the key to it’s relevance to our school community. Traditional structured lessons and introductory sessions were not necessary – the quality of the resource spoke for itself so my focus has been on providing ready access via email. This has prompted us to consider other ways to use electronic media to connect students to key resources and services.
11: 40 – 12:30pm
Lunch with colleagues talking about pedagogical practices that transcend grades because they focus on big ideas rather than a reductionist approach.
Complex systems pedagogy connections: A great motivation for improving educational approaches is through lively discussions with colleagues and hearing how they are employing innovative approaches in the classroom. As a librarian, I have the privilege of seeing many highly talented teachers in action. Traditional library lessons where a class teacher drops students off to the library for their weekly lesson without the classroom teacher present robs them of a rich integration of the library into their daily lives. Flexible scheduling and teacher involvement in all library lesson times is a fundamental requirement for ensuring collaborative partnerships and the integration of the library into the workflow of student learning. Building these bridges for flexible collaboration practices supports a diverse and adaptive system that is responsive to the needs of students.
12:30 – 12:50pm
I head back to the library to prepare for primary lunch with 60-70 students very busily engaging with the library spaces, each other and the resources. Today was very lively – I encourage discussion and collaboration as well as silent reading however sometimes the balance on the edge of chaos tips into chaos while at other times the library is alive with an energetic but balanced buzz of activity. This can be a challenging balance to achieve as we create enough student freedom to enable access for as many students as possible. Libraries that enforce total silence marginalise the majority of kids and only provide for one type of compliant student but noisy kids need books too. What has emerged from this is that many times, a group of noisy students will discover a fun series of books and enter a period that may last days or weeks when they come to the library and settle in to a comfortable nook to read and chat quietly. They may then move onto a more energetic period but this is the natural rhythm of a students life so the library should be able to respond to these needs. Naturally, there are limits, rules and guidelines to ensure that chaos does not dominate however these are always in there service of non-judgemental acceptance of all students. This builds community and connection.
Complex systems pedagogy connections: The library at break times follows no pattern where behaviours (both constructive and destructive) emerge and dissipate in a natural flow. Boundaries, safety and respect are key to making this work when the library is so full however this system is open and allows for self-organisation and emergent behaviours. Since these are emergent, they are true indications of student engagement and learning. Another example of an emergent behaviour is the student led authorship. A group of students have begun creating their own books and asking them to be added to the library collection. Once completed, we sit down together and discuss the features of the book that will enable us to create an accurate library catalogue record. They are thrilled to see that we can now search their names as authors to find their books. This emergent behaviour was not encouraged by myself, I simply responded to the student’s own motivations and provided opportunity. This iterative process is a feature of feedback loops present in all complex systems and it has proved to be very effective especially when other students discover these books and borrow them out.
12:50 – 1:00pm
After a busy lunch time in the library, the students have moved furniture, built nooks for themselves, left books laying around, pencils lay next to half finished masterpieces and generally the library looks well loved. We do involve students in tidying the library at the end of break because this is a part of building community around the library however there inevitably remains a significant amount of tidying to be done. This very basic task is very important because preparing the learning environment has a dramatic impact on student behaviour and engagement. A messy and ill kept space naturally leads to more disruptive behaviour and less engagement with the books and other resources. On the other hand, a well presented array of books entices students to grab one and sit down to read while furniture that is thoughtfully organised draws students into different parts of the library to settle into a variety of activities.
Complex systems pedagogy connections: Paying careful attention to the library spaces is a non-linear approach to managing student behaviour and encouraging reading. Rather than establishing clear “rules” of the library as the sole means for managing student behaviour, we consider all aspects of the system.
1:00 – 1:30pm
Secondary lunch supervision in some ways follows a very similar path to primary break times however, naturally, their behaviour follows different patterns. These behaviours are self-organising and often lead to new emergent patterns.
Complex systems pedagogy connections: Anyone who has teenage children or works with teenagers knows that forcing certain behaviours results in compliance but not necessarily to engagement that is the key ingredient for learning. Barriers to teenage student access to the library have been broken down and at break time and after school, the library is frequently full of secondary students engaged in a wide array of activities. While my adult self wills them to read the rich selection of books I need to hold back on this linear approach and consider the long-game here. With these barriers to the library broken down, collaborating with these students during more formal class times is a much more natural connection.
1:30 – 2:00pm
Final preparations for the Grade 6 students to enter the library involve creating a comfortable and informal space for them to gather while I introduce a range of options for them to pursue.
2:00 3:00 pm
When the Grade 6 students arrive I introduce them again to Destiny Quest to search for books, we revisit EasyBib.com to explore the “Research” and “Projects” features. We also revisit Encyclopedia Britannica online and have a quick look at InstaGrok for fun. With these options and the framework of their investigation, the students each go their separate ways as they consider the needs of their investigation and chose a path that suits them. Both their teacher and I catch up with the students to solve technical problems (remembering passwords is forever the challenge but manageable using web-browser features). Our roles as teachers is more as mentors and facilitators enabling differentiated inquiry.
Complex systems pedagogy connections: Differentiation is a natural fit with a complex systems pedagogy because it recognises the individuality of each complex system that is the student. As facilitators we are using a non-linear approach where we create a rich and engaging environment that the student is able to explore freely.
3:00 – 3:20pm
School is finished for the day but the library remains open to the school community so it is rapidly filled with secondary students, children and families. An impromptu meeting with a Grade 12 student happens when she comes with some questions about intext citations for her Extended Essay.
Complex systems pedagogy connections: A non-linear approach opens the opportunity for students to consult with me about various academic issues such as citation. An open door policy builds this rapport and enables support at the point of need. This is fundamental to providing a student centred system but can be difficult because I always need to be prepared to be interrupted during times when I am focussing on library administration. A linear approach that always requires bookings ahead of time limits access and access is vital.
3:20 – 4:00pm
The remainder of the day is filled with supervising secondary students in the library and attending to parents with primary students as required. Having an iPad in my hand enables me to remain in the library spaces while I check emails and cover basic administrative tasks so I am less likely to be buried away in my office.
Complex systems pedagogy connections: These open and informal times in the library are fundamental to building community and open access which in the end is a core function of all libraries. The indefinability of “community” is in itself closely tide to the complex systems thinking. Building community is a multifaceted and complex task because it is about building connections and an ephemeral sense of belonging. The library can play a key role within the school in building a strong sense of community.
In summary, this post has been far longer than I planned however there is so much more I could have written. This is the very nature of a complex system – it is fractal in nature meaning that the deeper you go, the more you discover. Approaches to library management that are reductionist and linear can be appealing because of the apparent logic however the reality is that the individual student is a complex system, their immediate class and friendship community is a complex system, the school is a complex system and the context in which that school is located is a complex system so in order to build a relevant library we must consider a complex systems approach.
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