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.


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.

4 thoughts on “Library curriculum integration through a Complex Systems approach.”

  1. Absolutely! Like how you’ve incorporated the idea of IL threshold concepts, it is the philosophical underpinnings we need to discuss before going into the mechanics of these things. This approach however requires a lot of autonomy and flexibility in the system, and I can see how the “mapping” occurs out of a fear that without the mapping it will not occur…


    1. Thanks for your comments Nadine. Yes, it does call for autonomy and flexibility which are not always a given. IL threshold concepts – can you detect the influence of the @librarianedge ?


  2. YESSS! I love the way you highlight the significance of context and emergence in student learning of info literacy concepts. Your example of citation formatting brought the theoretical to the concrete in a very useful way. We recognize the complexity of inquiry in research, how messy and iterative it is, which is why librarians need to be immersed in collaboration and co-teaching. We need to be in the room where it happens so we can see where students are stumbling and give mini-lessons on the spot. It’s fabulous when classroom teachers trust us enough to let us in and participate in that messiness with them.


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