“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.”
“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.”
There 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.
I am going to begin with a sceptical note. Complex systems theory has experienced an increasingly rapid rise in popularity in the social sciences and by extension is also gaining significant traction in education. In the milieu of fads and trends in education there are a plethora of claims made for the effectiveness of a particular approach that can yield the learning outcomes we are all in education to achieve. I am always cautious of a new programme packaged by the large learning corporations or promoted by individuals whose income depends on the adoption of a particular approach so in presenting complex systems in education I ask that you employ the greatest level of critical analysis and sceptical inquiry. This presentation is designed to challenge assumptions, open our minds and give us a more holistic view of our classroom and library practices. The value I see in a complex systems approach is that implicit within the theoretical framework is an open and holistic view of students and the educational context we are part of creating for them. Any theoretical framework that seems to lead to an unbalanced focus on single elements or purports to be a panacea is highly suspect because education is not simple. There is an undeniable complexity to the task we have as educators. When you consider the diversity of students within a single class, the thought that a single approach will meet all their individual needs instantly appears ridiculous. Herein lies the strength of a complex systems approach because at it’s very core is the embracing of the complex, the dynamic, the unpredictable, the intangibles and the challenges of working with children who bring a vast array of prior experiences, expertise and characteristics that come together to make them a collection of unique individuals.
This post will not be surprising coming from a librarian but still, it needs to be said. I call it Fast Food Literacy (#FastFoodLiteracy). I am talking about the prepackaged and heavily marketed reading programs produced by the big educational publishers. They are attractively packaged and so convenient that a school can purchase a large levelled reading set or online program at the push of a button. In contrast, to build a library collection of a similar size takes many hours of carefully reading reviews by trusted sources and researching authors to ensure the very best of what the world has to offer in literature is available to the students when they need it. A library collection built in this way is also tailored to suit the unique needs of that school community. How could a generic levelled one-size-fits-all reading package possibly meet the needs of every school community around the world?
The analogy with fast food seems so obvious when reading sets arrive in their brightly coloured cardboard prboxes with the easy access flip-lid.
This corporatisation of education is extremely concerning on many levels. The pleasure of reading is transformed into a literacy commodity purchased for consumption. Students are placed on a conveyer belt in production line of literacy education. The sell is that it is personalised or differentiated with the subtext that if you are really serious about literacy education, regardless of what you are doing now, you need the proprietary package. The branding instills a sense of security that is based on marketing strategies rather than a deeper concept of literacy. Schools earnestly striving to demonstrate that they take literacy seriously are drawn to this sense of security in a brand because it is a tangible but this security is shallow and false. The approach of Jim Cummins builds a far more sophisticated view of literacy and language that has relevance to a world wrestling with multiculturalism, plurilingualism and diverse semiotic codes. Among the most worrying concerns is that the corporately driven programs turn the focus from building student agency to a model where students are programmed. Student agency is replaced by response to stimuli (at best). Literacy is removed from the learning environment and diced up into fragmented chunks. There are so many unchallenged assumptions in this approach that it is hard to know where to start (or finish). I would also bundle textbooks in with these fast food curriculum resources but that is another discussion. In contrast, reading that is embedded in rich contexts of inquiry ensures that meaningful understandings are built and endure. “Learning happens best when learners construct their understanding through a process of constructing things to share with others.” (Jonan Donaldson). This is entirely absent in the fast food reading programs and textbook curricula.
recognising, valuing and investing in student identity is a necessary prerequisite for engaging students in learning. Language learning that does not build on the “cultural capital” of our students or connect to individual student identity is destined for a stagnant, linear and “authoritarian kind of pedagogy” (The New London Group). Another key component to a multiliteracies pedagogy described by Cummins is interdependence across languages where strong understandings in one language can transfer to another language. This is a capabilities based pedagogy that sees strengths in any language as a valuable basis for intellectual and creative linguistic development in other languages.