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

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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

VIS librairy
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.

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A day in the life of a Complex Systems librarian

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A few weeks ago I wrote a post title “Complex Systems Pedagogy and the school library” and presented this approach to librarianship at the #ISHCMCE3 conference. One of the challenges of examining our practice through the lens of complex systems is that it is an abstract concept that is descriptive rather than prescriptive in nature. As a result, while it can bring a fresh perspective it can also be difficult to understand the practical implications of a complex systems mindset. This post was inspired by my first day back from the #ISHCMC3E conference when many aspects of the practical outworking of a complex systems approach were apparent in various ways. This is far from a comprehensive view of library practice from a complex systems perspective but it does serve to illustrate a few key features of how the daily running of our library that are inspired by a complex systems pedagogy.

Let’s start from the moment I am walking up to the library door in the morning to unlock the door …

Monday 28th Sept, 7:30am

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Rebranding libraries

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There are many aspects of modern libraries that are agreeable elements incorporating the more traditional aspects of libraries that to a greater or lesser extent are well accepted. What we need in libraries is a vision that not only encompasses these elements but extends and challenges the current paradigms that have defined libraries. Changing the name to a “learning commons” or “hub” is an attempt to do this but the change needs to come in the culture around libraries and the dialogues that happen around libraries (and often exclude libraries). Libraries are already the most trusted institution ahead of the military, the police, small businesses, and religious institutions (Pew Research Center ) so we mess with this brand at our own peril. We need to rebrand the library by redefining our relevance in the modern information landscape. Here are some ideas that can help libraries to do this.

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Future libraries : what publishing trends and book sales tell us about the future of libraries

Why understanding trends in publishing and book sales matters to school libraries.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post titled “The Post Digital Library: Toward the Hybrid Library” that was aimed at challenging the assumption that print is becoming increasingly irrelevant in an increasingly connected world. I would like to take this idea a little further to dig deeper into the data that underpinned this initial post. I fully recognise that the moment this post is published that the data will be outdated however the big idea is that we need to beware of our assumptions when making decisions about the future of our libraries. Up until this point, this is data that has not been brought into discussions about the role of the library in the school setting. This is a profound oversight that we can begin correcting now. While much of the data I present is based on the Nielson Bookscan research the initial prompt to find data about book sales came through information feeds I follow from a broad range of sources in the publishing sector that seemed to be indicating that the digital revolution has not changed publishing in the way we may have expected a decade ago. The more I read, the more I came to realise that the digital and print information landscape is far more nuanced than I imagined. This spurred me into searching more deeply to find definitive information to determine if the general impressions I was detecting were in fact real. The Nielson research I present therefore represents a concise summary of the trends in publishing and book sales that I have noticed both in my own experience within our own school library and within reports from around the world.

One important caveat is that to extrapolate the data I present too far would also be in error. I hope to simply present the numbers as published from a range of sources to challenge the assumptions we may have and cause us to reconsider our understandings about the role of the library. There are endless methodological issues, causal factors and compounding elements that account for the details of the data I present however it is not my intention to critique the data, simply to present it. If you find some of the data particularly interesting, the links provided will give you the opportunity to dig a little deeper. This post will also deliberately steer away from a discussion of the nostalgic features of print that these conversations will often include because, while I could write much about this (see my post on books as concept manipulatives), in management discussions where budgets are on the line and big decisions about the development of the school library are being made, appealing to emotional arguments can (rightly or wrongly) undermine the credibility of a proposal for further investment in the library.

My hope is that you will find this data reassuring but also challenging and inspiring. By presenting data that makes us stop and think for a moment, I hope that this post will stimulate a vibrant discussion about the role of the library in schools. Let’s begin.

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Complex Systems Pedagogy & the school library

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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?

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The subversion of serendipity, discovery and learning in the library

(1560 Words)

When it comes down to it, while I entirely support & endorse the careful planning of the curriculum & all the work we do to ensure our students learn & understand what is important in today’s world, the most powerful learning  are  often unpredicted moments of discovery. The moments of serendipity that come about within rich, stimulating, safe & nurturing environments within but often outside school. For example, in all our attempts to craft the ultimate guide to mastery in literacy, it is most likely the discovery of an author that is able to unlock the power of narrative for a student. Similarly, while we seek to scaffold the ultimate research environment, it is most likely to be a quiet moment of discovery that a child experiences in reading their favourite shark book that brings an enlightenment that triggers a life long pursuit.
I can’t remember when it was but I think I was in grade 1 or 2 when a police brass band came to visit our small country school in Australia. They performed a few fun tunes then each instrument was introduced in turn, they played some more tunes, then left. Nothing too spectacular however for one young wide eyed student, me, when the saxophonist stood up to play a few notes, I was enraptured. He could have been the worst saxophonist in the world for all I knew but for this young student, from that moment on I desperately wanted to hold that cool looking contraption & make that magical sound. That event taught me nothing about playing the saxophone, no theory & no technique but when I heard that saxophone, I loved it. The school, at that moment, taught me nothing but it provided the context, the setting, the access, the inspiration that was the beginning of a lifelong pursuit that continues to be an inspiration & source of great fun for me now.

Discovery in the library

The place of the library is to provide a stage for a wide range of human expression, both popular & dissenting, challenging & comforting, confronting & reassuring, unpleasant & attractive, to provide the most rich environment possible where those moments of serendipity, of personal and collaborative discovery can emerge. Continue reading The subversion of serendipity, discovery and learning in the 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.