Category Archives: Participatory culture

What is research anyway?

It is frequently the experience of librarians that a request is made to engage with a class in the process of research, either for a specific inquiry or to learn about a new database, to explore a new searching skill or simply to gain some research tips and tricks. This is the perfect time to stop to consider what this idea of “research” is. Why would we bother teaching it when access to information seems to be easier now than it ever was? Is it a passing skill and are other priorities taking it’s place?

To understand what research is, why it is significant and how we can begin to build a deeper understanding of how to teach research, we need to consider how the idea of research fits into the broader framework of information literacy (IL). An article by Nancy M. Foasberg will help to frame this idea (paywall). Foasberg compares the the ACRL (the Association of College and Research Libraries) Information Literacy “Standards” with the newer “Framework” that recognises that information literacy is a social phenomenon and places students as participatory learners. This article exists behind a paywall although all the information about the ACRL Information Literacy Standards and Framework are available for comparison on their website. Foasberg takes a step back to examine the differences and overlaps between a positivist epistemology (p. 704) positioning research primarily as a process of information retrieval (ACRL IL Standards), toward a constructivist philosophy where “knowledge is constructed and reconstructed through social interactions” (p 702; ACRL IL Framework).

In essence, this is a shift from understanding information as something we “get” toward something we “share”.

Models familiar to us such as the Big 6 and the ACRL Information Literacy Standards position information as something that is external to the learner. Information literacy is therefore framed as the ability to seek out, possess and use information effectively. Research then becomes a list of skills in a sequence of tasks from determining an information need followed by access, evaluation, ethical use and finally, communication.

In contrast, a constructivist understanding positions “information literacy as a social practice” (p. 700). This does not diminish the importance of the skills outlined in the ACRL Standards but instead places them in a framework that acknowledges the complex information landscape that is the reality of the social world we participate in. Expanding our understanding of information literacy in this way positions research in a framework that “better recognizes the complexities of information and information behavior, and explicitly makes space for students as participants in the process of knowledge creation” (p. 700). As a participant, the learner has the agency to “critique the social and institutional hierarchies surrounding information production and distribution” (p. 703).

What is research?

Research is the facet of information literacy that is the iterative act of inquiry where students ask increasingly complex questions that lead to answers and more questions that generate expanding lines of inquiry (p. 701). Furthermore, research, only has meaning when it is understood in the context of a conceptual understanding of information literacy. As such, it cannot be separated from other skills such as critical thinking, communication skills, self-organisation, and social skills. The framework provides a broad context where learners explore concepts such as information authority, information value, creativity, scholarly discourse, and information formats & structures.

What can this look like in the classroom?

Fundamentally, as agents in their own learning, it is a process that looks different for every student as they become active participants in their individual information landscapes. Research is a social practice; a messy, dialogic practice (see a previous blog post from 2015).  We can describe research as taking action because it positions the learner as an active agent in constructing meaning while also understanding that these insights change over time with exposure to different communities. In 1970, Paulo Freire argued that non-dialogic education is a system of oppression that entrenches societal power imbalances. Research, then, is dialogue.

Research in the classroom is not simply about the “artifacts” of information – the databases, the sources, the formats, technical systems, the media, the library or the content. Focussing on the artifacts is a view that relegates information to be simply a commodity (p. 703). Emphasising the artifacts of information leads us to position the learner in a submissive role where they are only required “to interpret the knowledge that experts produce” in published texts (p. 704). However, the artifacts of information are not an endpoint for learners. Information is a flow that we step into, grapple with, participate in, act in and influence through our participation.

A student who understands that the authority of an information source is “constructed and contextual” is one who can then question, challenge and participate in the creation of understandings of authority. The learner then joins in the ongoing debate, respecting expertise but retaining a skeptical stance that sets the stage for an ongoing evolution of understanding and meaning. This is in stark contrast to presenting authoritative sources as a static understanding that is to be learnt and revered but not questioned.

The information literate student is not merely one who can display the skills of information retrieval, use and communication but one who is in the process of actively developing their level of expertise in participation. An information literate person holds knowledge loosely with the understanding that authority, value, research and strategy change over time and across different contexts. An information literate person is one who participates in the dialogue of communities contributing actively to the evolution of information.

This does complicate the teaching of research skills and information literacy but, as I have argued previously (#complexsystems), individually we are complex systems that exist within a wide range of complex social systems. To approach complex systems from a reductionist perspective significantly limits the deep learning that can occur and contradicts the realities of our existence (find a more detailed read about the complex situatedness of information here). All “information is embedded in a social context and cannot be understood outside of that context” (p. 713). This is not a standard that can be measured, but a framework, a disposition. This does not stop corporations from advertising that it can be tested with one standard assessment but the irony of corporatisation in this field is another discussion.

The outcome of this for students is that they become participants who can change the communities that they participate in and are positioned to reimagine new futures. This is research as action, research as inquiry and research as conversation.

Here are a few examples for the classroom

Example 1: “No school tomorrow”

A quick conversation starter with a class is to present the statement: there is “No school tomorrow”. It certainly gets attention and very quickly leads to a discussion about where I heard this information, who I heard it from, why that person said it, when I heard this information and in what form that information came in. It becomes quite clear that if I overheard a group of young students talking about it, then it is quite a different proposition than if I heard it from the head of school. Alternatively, if I tell them that I saw it on a poster last year on the last day before summer holidays or even last Friday, then it holds a very different meaning and significance. While it quickly becomes clear to students that there are no plans to cancel school tomorrow, it does generate a class discussion that in many ways should be the kind of discussion we have about any information. Such a discussion emphasises that dialogue should be central to how we discover and handle information. Such dialogue should also then inform how we communicate that information emphasising the need to accurately cite (formally or informally) our sources.

Example 2: Facebook, Google and Amazon

Why does research and information literacy matter? Three words – Amazon, Google, and Facebook. In an article titled, “The web began dying in 2014: Here’s how”, André Staltz says that what “has changed over the last 4 years is market share of traffic on the Web. It looks like nothing has changed, but GOOG and FB now have direct influence over 70%+ of internet traffic”. Furthermore, Google, Facebook and Amazon are all seeking to bypass the web to connect us via the internet and mediated by AI. Whether we believe this to be to our advantage or a threat to our freedom, there is no doubt that this should be a topic of discussion in the classroom. Who has the authority over information flows in our own lives? Is it our own research, critical analysis and dialogue or are we handing these decisions about the information we interact with over to corporations who buy and sell our data with minimal consideration for the ethics governing that market place? FB pulls billions of dollars based on the social construction of information, and it does this by providing a free service no-less. This socially constructed information has a monetary value of billions of dollars and wields unrivalled power and influence. Therefore, the dialogic nature of information is of profound significance challenging us to question how we are providing students with the opportunities to wrestle with these challenges now.

Example 3. Challenging Copyright

On page 712 of this article, Foasberg uses the example “that students may choose to question the highly restrictive, pro-corporate copyright laws that currently predominate most of the world”. While the ACRL Framework may stop short of  “critiquing copyright or calling for open access to scholarly materials, it does open up the possibility that both copyright and scholarly publishing can be challenged and perhaps changed. It hints that both the copyright system and the scholarly publication system are imperfect and temporary, encouraging students to make “deliberate and informed choices” about compliance or resistance to them. After all, students may one day be in a position to advocate for change to these systems”.

Further reading

#critlib on Twitter

HybridPedagogy is also a favourite hangout of mine for opinions and discussions about critical digital pedagogy.

Threshold Concepts & Information Literacy

Foasberg, N. M. “From Standards to Frameworks for IL: How the ACRL Framework Addresses Critiques of the Standards.” portal: Libraries and the Academy, vol. 15 no. 4, 2015, pp. 699-717. Project MUSE,

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.

Proxemics and The Embodied Mind: The hidden dimension of learning.

(1500 words)

img_6512There 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.

  1. Proxemics
  2. The Embodied Mind.

Continue reading Proxemics and The Embodied Mind: The hidden dimension of learning.

Academic Honesty lessons using a complex systems approach

(3500 Words)

Complex systems thinking provides a holistic framework for discussing Academic Honesty with students. Complex systems thinking leads us away from hierarchical structures of power and authority toward an emphasis on connections, dialogue and individual autonomy. Complex systems thinking embraces individual identity and diversity where students construct their own meaning through respectful and meaningful interactions with their peers. Rather than attempting to homogenise student understandings of academic honesty, a complex systems approach provides a rich context for individual and shared understandings to emerge by fostering interactions, collaboration and iterative feedback.

The imperative from the class teachers: “We are concerned that academic misconduct may be on the rise and while teachers have discussed this with students having someone different to lead some sessions with this grade level may help them to understand academic honesty better and understand the importance of academic honesty with the hope that their behaviour will improve”. So the librarian was invited to take two sessions with this grade level which included 29 students.

Purpose of the lessons:

Continue reading Academic Honesty lessons using a complex systems approach

Complex Systems Pedagogy & the school library

(3500 words)

How can a complex systems pedagogy enhance student learning?

How is a complex systems pedagogy relevant to the classroom and school library?

This article will explore the theoretical ideas that underpin an understanding of complex systems.

We will inquire into the relevance of an understanding of complex systems in education.

We will apply these new understandings to examine the impact of a complex systems on the library, teaching and learning.

I owe a great debt to the book edited by Mason, Mark, “Complexity Theory and the Philosophy of Education”. While I have explored complex systems in many fields over the years this book was a great help in applying these concepts in the education setting. I have included further reading at the end of this post.


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.

What is a complex system?

Continue reading Complex Systems Pedagogy & the school library

Theoretical concepts behind the role of technology & libraries 

The role of technology requires some deep theoretical underpinnings to guide our thinking.

Participatory Culture (Henry Jenkins)

Participation empowers us for civic engagement, moving us from being information consumers to becoming creative contributors & sharers. Librarians as information specialists (this has always been the key role of the library) are now (should now) be in the thick of this new diversified information landscape that provides opportunities for engagement and participation.

Connectivist theory (George Siemens)

Knowledge, now more than ever, is based on our ability to connect, collaborate & network with knowledge when we need it rather than storing knowledge just in case. The skills AND knowledge required of us & our students to navigate our increasingly connected information landscape are continually adapted & refined. Having a staff member whose role is (and has always been) devoted to understanding & building capacity in information literacy is vital in any community or organisation.

Multiliteracy pedagogy (Jim Cummins)

Technology provides immense possibilities for information specialists to support diversity and student identity through engaging and supporting a rich multilingual environment. It is a profound challenge for librarians to provide connection to resources that recognise the broad cultural diversity in our schools. Supporting multilingual pedagogy (Jim Cummins) is fundamental for student engagement in globally connected education environment.