Harold Howe said that what a school thinks of its library is a measure of what it feels about education (1967). This insight is as profound as it is counterintuitively simple, because if we want to change the way people think about the school library, we have to start with how they feel about education, which, in turn, requires us to be clear about how we feel about education. Somehow, I think, we have lost sight of this.
I am delighted, therefore, that loose collaboration with FOSIL Group member Elizabeth Hutchinson and #LibraryStaffLoveLearning around FOSIL and inquiry based learning has resulted in a more structured collaboration aimed at clarifying how we feel about education in order to change the way people think about the school library.
Although there is much to unpack even in the preceding sentence, what struck me in this document is the following, bearing in mind that our working definition of inquiry is “a stance of wonder and puzzlement that gives rise to a dynamic process of coming to know and understand the world and ourselves in it as the basis for responsible participation in society” (Stripling & Toerien / FOSIL Group, 2020):
LIBERAL LEARNERS NAVIGATE THEIR CURRICULAR AND COCURRICULAR EXPERIENCES WITH INTENTIONALITY, GUIDED AND MENTORED BY FACULTY AND STAFF AS THEY MOVE ALONG LEARNING PATHWAYS THAT GIVE THE LIBERAL EDUCATION OF EACH STUDENT ITS UNIQUE SHAPE. That uniqueness comes to full flower in an immersive, inquiry-based exploration of a significant problem that is defined personally by the student. Typically, these are problems amenable only to provisional solutions, which must be worked out collaboratively by bringing to bear evidence-based reasoning and considered judgment. They touch perennial questions about what it means to be human and include more immediate problems of social justice that are crying out for solutions on campuses and in communities, across the country and around the world.
The revolution will not be televised.
AAC&U. (2020). What Liberal Education Looks Like: What It Is, Who It’s For, and Where It Happens, p. 19.
Howe, H. (1967, February). On Libraries and Learning. School Library Journal, 13, p. 28.
I am hard-pressed for time at the moment, but am grateful for and excited by this opportunity to begin discussing how we feel about education and, therefore, think about the school library. Having chosen this important and helpful document, some context from the AAC&U page that the document is downloadable from might be helpful.
Recalling Neil Postman’s contention that “without a transcendent and honorable purpose schooling must reach its finish, and the sooner we are done with it, the better”, the AAC&U’s advocacy for “the economic and civic value of liberal education, its relevance to students’ career aspirations, and its essential role in equipping students for lifelong learning, civic involvement, and personal flourishing” is a promising place for us to start.
This advocacy for a liberal education “is grounded in equity and inclusion”, a deep concern shared with the IFLA/UNESCO School Library Manifesto and the IFLA School Library Guidelines.
Moreover, “this signature AAC&U publication clearly describes the learning all students need for success in an uncertain future and for addressing the compelling issues we face as a democracy and as a global community—regardless of where they study, what they major in, or what their career goals are”. More specifically, “liberal education is an approach to undergraduate education that promotes integration of learning across the curriculum and cocurriculum, and between academic and experiential learning, in order to develop specific learning outcomes that are essential for work, citizenship, and life”.
This closely aligns with our working definition of inquiry as a stance of wonder and puzzlement that gives rise to a dynamic process of coming to know and understand the world and ourselves in it as the basis of responsible participation in community.
By way of clarification:
The “liberal arts” are a specific set of disciplines (the humanities, the arts, and the natural and social sciences). “Liberal arts education” is an education grounded in the liberal arts. A “liberal arts college” is a type of higher education institution whose curriculum is designed to provide a liberal arts education. A “liberal education” includes study of the liberal arts and is the approach undertaken at most liberal arts colleges, but it is not exclusive to those disciplines or that institutional type.
Of particular interest to us are the key components of a contemporary liberal arts education, and especially (but not exclusively) the signature work:
Essential Learning Outcomes: a framework that defines the knowledge and skills required for success in work, citizenship, and life and that can be used to guide students’ cumulative progress through college.
High-Impact Practices: specific teaching and learning practices that have been widely tested and shown to be beneficial for all students, including and especially those from demographic groups historically underserved by higher education.
Signature Work: an inquiry-based exploration of a significant problem that the individual student identifies and defines, that is conducted over the course of at least one semester, and that involves substantial writing and reflection.
Authentic Assessment: an approach to learning outcomes assessment that uses rubrics to evaluate the work students produce across their diverse learning pathways and whose results inform efforts to promote student success.
While the AAC&U’s focus is American colleges and universities, a liberal education is not limited to American colleges and universities – in fact, the impetus for this discussion came from the fact that my specific context is positioning inquiry-based learning within a liberal PK-12 (UK Years Reception-13) education.
Postman, N. (1996). The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School. New York, NY: Random House.
My starting point with this document was to consider the question: what is a liberal education? How are we defining this?
My understanding based on this reading is that liberal education is not just about filling a student’s mind with facts. Indeed, this is something directly linked to an illiberal education on page 20 where they are talking about testing and say: “To assess the outcomes of an illiberal education intended not to free the mind but to fill it…”
Instead, the object of a liberal education is to encourage students to think for themselves. To learn how to think, rather than what to think.
There are a number of references as well to lifelong learning and also to the object not being just to equip someone for their first job after graduation, so there is a sense that a liberal education does not stop on the day of graduation, but continues on throughout life as they – it is hoped – actively engage in a positive way with the democratic process and societal problems.
Having defined that, how does that then link to our discussion here at FOSIL?
One possible point is this one on page 19: “…an immersive, inquiry-based exploration of a significant problem that is defined personally by the student. Typically, these are problems amenable only to provisional solutions, which must be worked out collaboratively by bringing to bear evidence-based reasoning and considered judgment.”
Which sounds like a very FOSIL-like statement in itself.
Liberal education is about being guided and supported to find out for yourself. It sounds and reads like a pipe dream! Teachers in the UK are so ingrained into ‘teaching to the test’ that any change in this direction is years away I feel. What was highlighted for me was that many of our students are already opting for a liberal education when they go onto higher education. Nursing and engineering to name a couple. It must be extremely hard for those students to change their way of learning at such a late stage in education. We need to think about how we can give a little of this liberal education to our students now.
Reading this publication made me think about what we are currently able to achieve in our schools today. The argument that the current structure does not allow for any inquiry learning is a good one and very difficult to push back on. However, I do see within our school’s windows of opportunity. Year 7, 8 and 9 all have space for projects and then we also see the EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) and EE (Extended Essay) again in year 12. Primary schools are full of learning through projects. I do think many teachers who create ‘projects’ or research opportunities would like a different structure to what they have already. FOSIL can give this to those who are open to it.
What I find the most difficult when supporting teachers with these types of projects is to work out how to support the marking. I once helped a teacher do a project on ‘how technology has changed the world’ asking students to create a PowerPoint presentation at the end. Not one that they actually presented but was just full of the information they had found. As I write this I now realise that this was my problem… We should have been asking them for what they had learnt! (see I am learning all the time 😊) The problem, that I had not appreciated at the beginning was the impossible task of looking through 120 Powerpoints so even if our students had done the work there was no time to assess their learning or give feedback. So for these students, what was the point of the process?
This is not just about trying to change to a liberal education but about our ability to understand the process ourselves in order to help teachers to try something different. If we can share our learning and understanding ourselves we are more able to support our teachers by giving them the process and helping them to recognise that sometimes there is a better way to support their student learning.
I’ve been thinking about this article, and your comments, for a few days. I agree with Elizabeth that there is capacity for this at some stages of UK schooling but in my experience even our primary schools are so tied to sats that they struggle to move away from drilling data into children.
I spent yesterday morning in Inset training with my school who are focusing on a new ‘school vision’ with a post covid lilt – Re-connect, Re-engage. A significant part of the morning was spent talking about how, in years 7-9 we have an opportunity to run interdisciplinary units and what those might be. This arises in our school, as a consequence of running the IB’s middle years program which seeks liberal education at all stages and seems to work best in project based, inquiry focused teaching.
However enthusiastic the teachers are about this and about a similar approach in the 6th form for the Diploma students, they all agree that we have a gap to breach at GCSE where we are simply cramming facts again. I love working in an IB school for this reason, the opportunity to look at the interdisciplinary units and work with teachers to embed Fosil and implant the IB’s research skills (attitudes to learning) is really engaging. I am aware I am all talk, I still struggle to get beyond the Library admin and find enough teacher facing time to enact any plans. I do think that simply being included in Inset has to be a step forward.
I really can’t see how a UK education without the IB could be liberal in the sense the article talks about. Such a sea change is required to move away from the national curriculum and a culture of ever increasing tests, to embrace a skills based, inquiry led education and I do not sense a hunger for it or an understanding or it beyond a very small number of people in my echo chamber. I am not pessimistic but the authors are clearly struggling to implement this in higher education in the US, I suspect Elizabeth is right, it is many years away here.
I grew up on cyberpunk science fiction, which deals with the moment when the future collapses into the present. This is our moment, when this future is both many years away and collapsing – in bits and pieces, here and there – into the present around us.
This, I think, is the twofold value of this document, both of which the discussion so far has touched on.
On the one hand, it reminds us that what education is for, and how we go about it, is contested. In this regard it is helpful because it enables us to more compellingly add our voices to this debate at whatever level we are given a voice, which may prove decisive at that level. The reason for this is that a contemporary liberal education as described in this document is fundamentally aligned with inquiry as we understand it, which means that we can use either to inform and strengthen the other. Think globally and act locally, but in the knowledge that enough local change can bring about global change
On the other hand, because a Signature Work, which by definition is inquiry-based, is a key component of a contemporary liberal education, we can either argue for a Signature Work where there is an openness to liberal education, or we can argue from a Signature Work, where it already exists (such as the EPQ), to a liberal education more broadly.
I will illustrate this more concretely, hopefully later this week.