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?

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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. 

The Post-digital Library toward the Hybrid Library

Finally the world is beginning to move beyond concept that the digital technologies are the answer to everything. Finally the dust is settling after the onslaught of new digital technologies & we are able to glimpse a new future. The digital revolution has most certainly been a revolution but not quite what we had envisaged in science fiction films and books. Certainly there were elements of truth but we are a long way from the worlds of “Back to the future” or the “Blade Runner” of 2019 (disappointing in some ways, I was really looking forward to the hover board). We only need to pick up a design website, an arts magazine, a science magazine or a picture book to see that the world is moving beyond digital toward a hybrid world. A post-digital world. A world where the analogue and digital coexist, neither one is replaced nor entirely fills the role of the other yet both are heavily influenced by each other through complex interactions. Neither one works entirely independent of the other. How often does it happen that you start reading a magazine, then jump to a website to find out more, then click on a link to go further, watch a video, then go back to purchase a book written by someone you have just discovered through their online presence, then return to that magazine to read another article? It is a hybrid connected experience. Similarly in the library we are finally able to envisage a world where digital resources coexist with print and more traditional analog resources such as the beanbag in a quiet dimly lit corner. Libraries that have gone entirely digital have pre-empted a world that does not exist, the digital has not replaced the analog but has transformed it, changed it and now it has evolved and will continue to evolve. Evidence for this can be found in looking at trends in book sales. Book sales on the whole, including digital and print, are going up. Digital sales particularly in areas like mass appeal  paperback fiction are rapidly increasing – the book, the narrative text is still just as engaging as it ever was. While in the print world sales in children’s picture books are growing rapidly but so are other areas such as graphic novels. What we have are patterns of publication that are changing but nevertheless still growing. Print is showing no signs of disappearing – only changing. As a result our library has moved from attempting to be a deposit of all knowledge sufficient for an inquiring student, to providing a boutique collection of unique print titles that inspire a different response than a website or an e-book. We can now expand our resources into the electronic world particularly in reference resources through databases & e-books so that now I don’t need to stock those specialty titles in print for future reference, my students can now access resources electronically where-ever they are, when ever they need it. This means that when they come to the library they expect a different experience. And that is really what the library offers, an experience. That experience may include and often does include digital components however this all occurs in the context of beautifully bound books that inspire and create an atmosphere of creativity and exploration. So in the post-digital world, the post-digital library, we find a hybrid world where digital technology & analog technology mingle together. For this to continue the library environment needs to be nimble, flexible and adaptable yet open and carefully designed to maximise the benefits of both print and digital resources. The post-digital Library is a space and an idea that reflects the complex and connected world that we live in. This may change in the future but right now there is no indication that the near future will be any different. This is so exciting for me because I have been able to collect some of the most beautiful and inspiring books I have ever seen. I am not sure if this is reflective of the publishing industry producing more interesting texts or if I am just getting better at finding them. Which ever way, the library is filled with a never ending supply of unique, boutique creations. This is a great time to be in the world of library and information management.

Book Review : “The App Generation”, Howard Gardner & Katie Davis

The App Generation : How today’s youth navigate identity, intimacy and imagination in a digital world by Howard Garner & Katie Davis, 2014 (complete with all my bookmarks).

We can always be assured that when we pick up a book by Professor Howard Gardner, we are holding some very carefully considered and powerful ideas in our hands. I am not familiar with the work of Professor Katie Davis however after reading this book, I will certainly following her research in the future.

Visit the book website [here] for a summary & video from the authors. Although not directly mentioned, his book approaches participatory culture and connectivist theory through the lens of “app-dependence” versus “app-enablement”. These ideas are expanded upon by considering three areas of adolescent life: identity, intimacy, and imagination.

From the outset, this book sets a high standard for academic writing. The scope of the subject is clearly defined & methodologies set out in detail. The appendices further expand the transparency of the research behind this work which leads me onto a first general observation. The research draws heavily on the American cultural context which places significant limitations on how far findings can be extrapolated to other cultural & geographical contexts. Don’t get me wrong, the questions asked within the theoretical constructs the authors use to frame their discussion are extremely important & certainly caused me to think deeply about the “App generation” in my context. Suffice it to say that the cultural backgrounds, historical & technological contexts that the students I see everyday at an international school in remote South East Asia could not be more different from the subjects of the studies based in Harvard. There are most definitely commonalities but the temptation to extrapolate the research presented in this book to students outside these studies must be vigorously resisted.  For example, the technological history outlined on page 52 is distinctly western (if not American) & most certainly not paralleled by the vast majority of the world’s population particularly here in Asia. How the students I see each day have come to this technological space is so diverse that we must guard most ardently against assuming we understand their perspective. I would go even further in saying that we can draw little value from describing a “generation” in any way for fear of drawing conclusions based on stereotypes rather than the lived experience of each individual student we encounter. This may sound like I oppose the premise of this book but not so. Instead, we should apply the same inquiring mind that Gardner and Davis have applied in their context to challenge our own assumptions about the “App Generation” present in our classrooms. Their rigorous & deeply reflective approach that seeks to draw information from multiple sources to make sense of a notoriously enigmatic topic such as technology & youth is refreshing in a field such as education which is rife with myths, unchallenged assumptions & scant methodology.

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Fast Food Literacy Programs

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 corporatisation of education through fast food literacy programs


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. For example, consider the “pedagogy of multiliteracies” that “immediately shifts us from the dominant written print text to acknowledge the many varied ways that literacy is practiced in the new millennium”. Further, 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.

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Books as concept manipulatives

In this short post I would like to pose a brief musing about the role of books in the learning environment. The idea stems from two other ideas, namely, the book as a physical artefact and the use of manipulatives in the classroom such as during investigations into  mathematics concepts.

Books as concept manipulatives.
Organising information and ideas.

There are a plethora of math manipulatives designed to allow students to grasp a new mathematical concept by holding it in their hands, examining it from different angles in a hands-on experiential way.  Books, as physical objects, can similarly be considered as  “concept manipulatives“. Apart from the rich stories, informational texts & all that books represent, the physical artefact that is a book gives students the opportunity to hold ideas in their hands. This is not a print versus digital argument either. It is simply an appreciation for the physical act of grasping a book or a pile of books on a subject & organising them, categorising them, classifying them, sorting them and all the while discussing & engaging with various concepts that may relate to that subject area. Even the act of searching the library shelves for a book engages the whole body in the process of research.

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