Student Agency: A Paradigm Shift in the Role of the Library in Learning

(1779 words)

A core belief in my approach to the role of the library in learning is that it involves empowering student and teacher agency. In many respects, libraries still retain the traditional pillars of library service, expertise and resources (see the IFLA School Library Guidelines) and continue to stand strongly behind ideals such as freedom of information and freedom of human expression. The required paradigm shift in the role of the library comes when we consider how the learning community is empowered to engage with the library. The basis for this paradigm shift embodies the very meaning of learning. That is, simply learning the content and ideas that the library hosts is not enough but learning how to access these ideas is critical. Many traditional approaches to learning in the library do aim to support this process of learning however in reality, many patrons feel that the library is a closely controlled and a fiercely protected space that is

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Putting the technology in the hands of the students to search the library catalogue enables them to control what they access in the library. The catalogue app displays book covers making choice intuitive.

dominated by librarian-mediated access. Often, as a revered space, there can be a heavy sense that the administration of an ordered library is the most important feature of the library experience. These traditional features of the library remain important but we need to ask which of these features dominate the culture within the library itself and the culture surrounding the library. I wrote a post a while ago about the perfect library and posed the idea that it is about focus and getting the balance right to ensure the library is achieving the key outcomes it is striving for. Student agency is one of those critical outcomes that must define how we go about running our libraries.

Student agency refers to a sense of ownership, independence and self determination that leads a student to feel empowered to take action. In the learning context this looks like a student who feels supported and secure enough to take risks, to ask questions, to fail, to apply critical analysis and take action based on their understandings and beliefs. Choice is crucial to a sense of agency. In contrast, narrow, authoritarian and predefining contexts curtail this sense of independence and limit student influence over the process of learning. Building a sense of agency in our students is integral to developing an inquiry learning context based on questioning, critical analysis, meta-cognition, reasoning, problem solving and creativity.
Coming back to the role of the library in learning, student agency clearly becomes a necessary focus that defines how we run a library. Where job descriptions for librarians can look more like a manifesto of the modern cosmopolitan superhuman the key to unlocking these documents is to discern which of this list of positive attributes, skills and tasks will have the most profound impact on student agency and therefore learning.

Each element of the role of the library is important and should define the role of the librarian however not in equal proportions.

Trying to achieve all of these guidelines and expectations in equal measure is neither realistic nor desirable. An example may help to illustrate what I mean. These may be controversial for some readers so if you feel I am being unbalanced here, please respond and enter the discussion.



Co-planning with teachers that empowers the them to lead student access to the library resources with more authentic connections to their learning is in contrast with the library time being a release time for teachers. Release time for teachers is vital however there are far better ways of finding this valuable time for teachers than using the library as a timetable management service. This is a practice based on administrative ease and is disconnected from learning. Creating the context where teachers and students develop a sense of library agency that leads them to actively engage, collaborate and creatively explore the library with a developing sense of expertise is incredibly powerful in connecting learners to a world of ideas and inspiration. This can feel threatening for us librarians as we may feel our role is diminished however, quite to the contrary, this is when our role has achieved the highest levels of attainment – when our patrons demonstrate agency in their use of the library.

Connecting learners to powerful sources of information

Instead of trying to convince students and teachers that a particular database is useful for them by running training lessons showing them every feature, we could spend our time improving access by making that source “one click” away. For example, by employing marketing strategies to facilitate ease of connection promotes a sense of student agency because it enables discovery. In the end, the key performance indicator for learning is when our students leave our school they actively seek out specialist databases in their own fields. This is sustainable. How can we measure this sustainability in our schools? We could “advertise” the database (e.g. during a traditional introductory lesson or a mobile campaign) then monitor the number of hits and the usage of that database. If usage peaks during the lesson but then trails off immediately after the lesson with few students returning (a low return rate), then the effectiveness of that lesson for learning is questionable. Maybe if we spend less time planning and running librarian focussed lessons or lectures for students and in contrast spend more time coaching teachers in the use of that database then we are starting to build a more sustainable model. If the database is truly relevant, then once teachers understand the value of that source and know how to access it within the classroom then that database will be promoted long after the librarian has left the classroom. Another approach is to refine the library homepage with FAQs, how-to videos, quick-links and other windows into that source. This could be combined with a social media or email campaign with curated stories utilising a simple narrative to connect students to the ideas and information waiting to be discovered in that database. Usage data from that database could then provide some key indicators about website traffic and usage. More data could be collected from submitted assignments about the quality of the information sources the students are referencing. Maybe the librarian could run an audit on student sources of information cited in their “Works Cited” lists to determine if improved access to a database is leading to them using that information in their inquiries. While there is nothing wrong with direct teaching of databases, a shift in focus that enables us to determine if students are empowered by how we connect them to these sources helps us to ensure we are not just delivering our message but whether we are actually building a sense of student agency.

Meeting student learning needs through the written, taught & assessed curriculum

To effectively support student learning librarians must become intimately familiar with the written, taught and assessed curriculum. Sometimes this will involve collaborating on curriculum reviews or it may simply be reading through course guides, the scope & sequence documents to build a deeper understanding of the needs of the students and teachers. A librarian who has an understanding of the curriculum frameworks will be better positioned to provide appropriate, timely and adaptable support to students who come to the librarian for assistance. This requires the librarian to be familiar with the LMS (learning management system) of the school so when a students asks something like “I need a book about the respiratory system”, a quick reference to the task guidelines on the LMS can help the librarian to engage in a discussion that is more relevant to the student’s needs. Building a deep understanding of the pedagogical philosophy of the school also ensures that the librarian is using the same language of learning that is occurring in the classroom. This in turn fosters student agency through seamlessly integrating the library into the life of the student. Students are empowered because the same questioning and critical thinking is just as relevant and connected to the library as it is in the classrooms.

Toward a complex systems model

A focus on student agency in the running of the library does take time and requires careful planning, implementation and learning on the part of the librarian as we attempt to build the skill set required. The outcome is a paradigm shift that can lead to measurable and sustainable learningVIS librairy

outcomes. Building student agency is also a move away from the direct teaching model toward a complex systems approach which considers the role of the library more broadly in the school community. It is a move away from a linear stand-and-deliver, “I taught it therefore you should know it” model in a paradigm shift that moves the expertise of the librarian into a coaching role. Less direct teaching and more student (and teacher) self directed access can feel like it is minimising the role of the librarian and decreasing their importance in the school however I would argue that the complete opposite is true. This behind the scenes approach may not be as visible as a more traditional leading from the front of the classroom model but in reality it requires a higher level of knowledge and skill to facilitate. Building responsive, resilient and sustainable libraries requires a complex systems approach that builds student agency through increasing focus on connection, feedback, diversity and relationships. This model alsoVIS librairy

deconstructs the power structures institutionalised in an authoritarian library administration inviting the students into a collaborative relationship that acknowledges student identity and actively promotes personal agency.

Student agency defining the role of the library

This paradigm shift in fact requires a highly skilled librarian. Someone who can work in a team as an enabler who gets out of the way of the learning when it is snowballing, who understands the advantages and disadvantages of each database (or other service) they offer and with a high level of expertise is able to curate a balanced and inspiring array of resources. This is not a diminished role of the librarian. On the contrary, this requires a high level of information science expertise, curriculum knowledge, understanding of the process of learning and interpersonal skill to connect with their community.
This paradigm shift is a demanding role for the librarian but exciting because it brings the pillars of the library tradition into the modern context with the power to have a profound impact on learning throughout a school community.
Student agency must be a defining force in our libraries.

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