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.

The human mind in no way like that of the computer based on binary information systems.

Intelligence in the Flesh: Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More Than It Thinks by Guy Claxton (2015)
Intelligence in the Flesh: Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More Than It Thinks by Guy Claxton (2015)

Knowledge, insight, discernment and wisdom are unique features of the impenetrable complexity of the human mind compelling us as educators to raise our eyes from industrial models of teaching to embrace the vast educational opportunities in a diverse and connected world in the throes of a new Renaissance.  In such a world, knowledge does remain important however an education system that focusses on the accumulation of facts is frighteningly insufficient. Facts and knowledge do indeed help guide our attention toward the things that matter and to inform our future information gathering efforts however simply memorising facts without dialogue, without application is irrelevant to a life in the world we and our students find ourselves in. In the context of such a rapidly evolving  world, it is not only impossible to know all the facts or to understand all the components of the most significant challenges we face before we can act, it is not necessary. The “intelligence in the flesh” seething beneath our conscious awareness is capable of immense intuitive cognitive power providing we feed and nourish it adequately. In a connected and fast paced world we don’t need to attain all the knowledge and skills to achieve great things but we do need the motivation and courage to dive into a challenge that may feel like it is beyond us. We need the courage and ability to reach out to connect with the the people, expertise and skills required to orchestrate meaningful solutions. Not to orchestrate actions in a prescriptive sense but to orchestrate in a jazz improvisational sense where, with the right people, in the right setting, with the right connections, trust and combination of abilities, amazing and unexpected solutions can emerge. Clearly, a reductive grade based eduction system is irrelevant for students in a world that demands a far more expansive view of intelligence.

The expanding role of the library

The library has a critical role to play in this context. Publishing trends and sales are showing that despite the rapid expansion of digital information technologies, ebooks are becoming less popular and publishers are scrambling to adjust to this unexpected reality. Publishers had assumed that digital texts would render print irrelevant however the reality is far more nuanced.

Publisher sales down as ebook sales decline

Books are back: printed book sales rise for the first time in four years as ebooks suffer decline

Printed book sales rise

As E-book sales decline, digital fatigue grows

Our world is now hybrid – connected, complex and multimodal. Our world is not entirely defined by our smartphones. Similarly, a view of libraries as being a repository of facts and information is naively simple, inaccurate and inadequate. If this was the case then online resources would have rendered libraries irrelevant and print collections would be unnecessary however this is not the case. Libraries have always embraced the complexities of the embodied mind and the murmurations of a digitally connected world because fundamentally, libraries have always been driven by a mandate to connect to a world of ideas and tap the vastness of human creativity. This is not new for libraries and it is why, despite the dour predictions of futurists, print media and physical libraries remain. Libraries and print media have not remained unchanged however. Even though the idea of the embodied mind may not have been articulated as a rationale for change, libraries have continued to evolve their physical infrastructure and collections in response to the complex needs of people in a changing world.

For libraries, this has meant stocking diverse and rich print collections that are not fixed but nimble and evolving. It has meant infusing the library with a rich array of magazines that keep a consistent injection of current information into the physical space rather than assuming that digital information is the only place for this. Libraries build a physical infrastructure that fosters serendipity and challenges our thinking. A library culture invites purposeful inquiry. Libraries foster a way of life that incubate discovery and inspire attention, focus and motivation.

From Captain Underpants to Tolstoy to Dickens to PewdiePie to LoL to Dawkins to Trump – the library is physical and virtual place where ideas – the good, the bad, the exciting and the downright frightening – are brought into the light of public discourse, debated, studied & laughed about. Libraries curate a shared academic stage which does not gloss over society but digs deeply into the world around us to find new inspirations & solutions to build a more informed, skilled and meaningful world. Libraries are a physical embodiment of our attempts to recognise and fulfil our human potential.

This is the future of libraries – one that embraces the complexities of the embodied mind trying to make sense and meaning in a connected and vastly complex world in the throes of a new Renaissance. Rather than cowering under challenge and overwhelming complexity with resistance to change, libraries need to lead the way toward empowering our students to take informed action; to have the confidence to take that first step into a challenge with the hope of finding happiness, fulfilment and meaning.

To play our part in this, libraries must provide an inspiring launchpad for ideas, thinking, reflecting and knowing.

This is also a time of Renaissance for libraries.

Practical ideas for school libraries

  • Leverage digital technology to connect students with print.
  • Leverage print to connect students with digital resources.
  • Rotate and vary the magazine subscriptions.
  • Implement a responsive purchasing model to keep our collections vital and relevant.
  • Be vigilant about the culture in the school library. E.g. Foster healthy conflict resolution (conflict is normal part of life but bullying is damaging and destructive).
  • Don’t make the library about the librarian or the importance of the library itself but focus on the creativity of the contributors, the power of ideas, and excitement of discovery.
  • Remove barriers to access both physical, emotional and personal.
  • Ensure the library is a natural part of classroom discussion.
  • Infuse the school with books from the library that are rotated frequently by library users (not the librarian). Make the library books a key part of students and teachers curating their own environments. Make it easy and natural.
  • Fill the library with quirky books.
  • Build the wow factor at the entrance to the library with enticing front facing books that are constantly changing.
  • Have conversations about literature and reading rather than “teaching” at students and parents about nebulous “library skills”.
  • Take an inquiry stance to building a library culture by wondering and asking questions. What books do you buy? How you use digital books? If you could have any magazine in your home, what would it be about?

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