Seymour Papert (1993) argued that the kind of knowledge children most need is knowledge that will help them get more knowledge. This epistemological concern – a concern with what knowledge is and how we get knowledge – is the starting point for our deliberations on how children learn to know, because what we think about learning, and therefore education (especially in schools), depends on what we think about knowledge.
The first thing that strikes me is that you became a librarian having been an English teacher. If you don’t mind me asking, when was that? I ask because it is my understanding that school library colleagues in the US are, by and large, specialist teachers, in that they are teachers who have specialised in school librarianship, which itself has areas of specialization. If so, this is the exact opposite of the situation in the UK, where very few school librarians are qualified teachers, and even those who are professionally qualified librarians will not have been able to specialize in school librarianship, even if they had wanted to.
What is interesting to me in this regard, is that neither your professional education/ training as a teacher nor your professional education/ training as a school librarian appears to have equipped you with the knowledge and/ or skills and/ or dispositions necessary to approach learning to know and understand through inquiry, which is an epistemological stance. Is this still the case (which it would be here), or was the transition to school librarianship perhaps not as quick as it seems? If so, how practically do teachers and librarians arrive at this epistemological stance?
Edit (10 November 2020)
I was reminded in this regard of the following from Daniel Callison’s The evolution of inquiry: controlled, guided, modeled, and free (2015, p. 39, emphasis added):
They [Barbara Stripling and Judy Pitts] tied the library to the classroom and demonstrated how the library could be a center for learning across the school. While a wide variety of learning activities was possible, the team did not incorporate inquiry learning as a model until they entered doctoral studies later in their respective careers. They were, however, early movers for involving teachers with media specialists as co-instructional designers. Stripling (2011) documented again in her dissertation that a school librarian’s effectiveness is diminished if librarians limit their role to that of resource provider, resulting in no integration into classroom instruction. … In both [their respective doctoral] studies, these two exceptional leaders in the school library instructional field found, from the vantage point of the researcher, with greater observation and analysis, that moving students as well as their teachers toward grasping the principles of inquiry was an extremely formidable task. School library media specialists are not likely to accomplish that task without a deep understanding of inquiry as well as being accepted fully into a co-instructional role. This implies extensive education in inquiry principles and application for those who seek a position as an educator in a twenty-first-century learning environment.
Might Callison have said that moving students as well as their teachers, including librarians, toward grasping the principles of inquiry was an extremely formidable task? If so, who is doing the moving?
Callison, D. (2015). The evolution of inquiry: controlled, guided, modeled, and free. Santa Barbara: Libraries Unlimited.
Papert, S. (1993). The children’s machine: Rethinking school in the age of the computer. New York: Basic Books.
I became certified to teach English and drama after finishing my undergraduate degree (majoring in Speech and Drama, minoring in English) and taking an additional year of graduate courses (mostly focused on educational theory and student teaching experiences). I learned teaching practices, but essentially nothing about the mental processes of learning. I taught middle school and high school English and drama for three years before I became a librarian. I did complete two Master’s degrees in those years – one focusing on Communications and Theatre and the other on Education: Instructional Resources (or school librarianship). With my second Master’s, I had courses on school library management, collection development, and youth literature, but limited coursework on teaching and learning.
To be honest, I never thought about the process of learning when I was an English teacher. I did try to get my students to think, but, as I said in my epistemology [see Epistemology & Learning Memo 1 | Learning to know and understand through inquiry], I did most of the thinking and asked my students to react to my ideas. I started to explore how to teach students to think only after I became a librarian. Two things happened during my years as a high school librarian that led to my focus on a research process initially and then an inquiry process – I took additional graduate education courses to lead to an Educational Specialist degree and I pursued my own in-depth investigations about topics that interested me (like authentic assessment).
The learning that I did during those 16 years as a building-level librarian was powerful because I was able to translate the theory and research into my practice. I figured out a way to implement every educational theory that intrigued me. That’s why Judy Pitts and I developed a research process and a taxonomy of authentic research products. We collaborated with teachers to design instructional lessons and units that allowed us to try out our ideas, improve them, and build on them.
My shift to inquiry and an inquiry model did not occur until I became a library administrator and completed the thesis for my Ed Specialist degree. Inquiry was the focus of my thesis and I studied it in depth. From there, I developed the model that I have continued to explore and refine ever since as a library administrator, doctoral student, and library educator.
What I realize is that my preparation as a school librarian helped me to get a glimpse of my role as a teacher, but I did not actually understand teaching and learning through the library until I pursued learning on my own and had the opportunity to implement the ideas in my practice as a school librarian.
By the time I became a professor in a Master’s of Library Science program, I was convinced of the necessity for teaching school library students about inquiry, teaching for inquiry, collaboration with classroom teachers, and the literacy and inquiry skills that all students need to learn. I know that there is increasing emphasis in graduate programs for school librarians across the United States on teaching and learning, inquiry, and the librarian’s role in integrating process skills with classroom content through collaboration. I suspect that every school library graduate program takes a slightly different approach, emphasizing some aspects more than others. I do not see a strong push toward inquiry-based teaching and learning emanating from most graduate education/school library preparation programs.
As I admitted, I did not really learn about inquiry in my own graduate education. Rather than focusing on pre-service preparation of school librarians, I think we might be better served to focus on supporting continuous and collaborative in-service education. The role of professional organizations, national and international standards, and accessible professional development may be pivotal in bringing the profession of school librarianship to a new level of understanding and implementation of inquiry principles and practice. The conversations facilitated by the FOSIL Group are an example of the collaborative effort that will have an impact.
This reminds me of John MacBeath’s observation that one of the most important lessons to come out of more than forty years of literature on school failure is that “teachers must recognize the limitations of teaching and become much more sophisticated in their understanding of learning”. MacBeath – Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge – made this observation in 1993, and one could argue that we have become much more sophisticated in our understanding of learning, and arguably we have. However, for this to make any actual difference to learning, one would also have to argue that we have become much more sophisticated in our teaching for learning, especially independence of learning through inquiry, which is arguable.
There are no doubt many and complex reasons that combine to make “moving students as well as their teachers toward grasping the principles of inquiry an extremely formidable task” (see first post above). While these need to be addressed, perhaps we first need to take step back and ask why the effort required for this extremely formidable task is both worthwhile and an urgent necessity. What is at stake if we don’t make the effort, or make the effort but do not succeed?
I happen to be reading Neil Postman’s The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School, in which he writes (pp. x-xi):
Without a transcendent and honorable purpose schooling must reach its finish, and the sooner we are done with it the better. With such a purpose, schooling becomes the central institution through which the young may find reasons for continuing to educate themselves.
Might these be connected?
MacBeath, J. (1993). Learning for Your Self: Supported Study in Strathclyde Schools. Strathclyde : Strathclyde Regional Council.
Postman, N. (1999). The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School. New York: Vintage Books.
I do agree with Postman’s statement that “schooling becomes the central institution through which the young may find reasons for continuing to educate themselves,” but, as a librarian, I see two other important goals that schooling should accomplish. My first thought turns to the independent learning skills that young people need to develop and practice during their school years. Having reasons to continue learning beyond school is only half the battle, because our young people will not be able to realize their desire to educate themselves if they do not have the critical thinking, literacy, and inquiry skills they will need to do that. No one should graduate from school without the ability to ask good questions, find authoritative information to answer their questions, evaluate the credibility and accuracy of the information, seek and assess multiple perspectives, form their own opinions and draw conclusions based on evidence. The skills that librarians assume responsibility for teaching will not only prepare their students to educate themselves, but also to participate actively and ethically as members of society.
A second goal for schooling that goes beyond Postman’s vision is the acquisition of deep understanding about important concepts in the various realms of knowledge. To me, effective schooling is not the accumulation of information or even knowledge. I believe that students must transform knowledge to deep understanding by making it their own, learning to apply concepts to new situations or challenges, and presenting the expressions of understanding to the world. Actually, that’s why I am so committed to inquiry. The process of inquiry enables the learner to develop and express new understandings with self-confidence and personal voice. Inquiry experiences during school provide a foundation of understanding about the world and lead to the continuing quest for developing new understandings beyond the years of schooling.
Obviously, I take a much more positive view of the value of school than Neil Postman. But I recognize that most schools struggle to deliver the three-part value that I have outlined – reasons for continued self-education, the skills of independent learning, and deep understandings about the world. That’s a tall order of reform needed. Where do we start? Do we need a revolution or an evolution?
So, schooling may become the central institution through which the young may find reasons for continuing to educate themselves if it can be imbued with a transcendent and honourable purpose. Inquiry – understood as a dynamic process and stance of being open to wonder and puzzlement leading to knowledge and understanding of the world – broadly provides such a purpose, for, as Balzac declared, “the world belongs to me because I understand it”. However, this depends on students developing the skills that enable inquiry, and this over their time at school and within the context of subject/ content area learning.
A tall order indeed.
This brings to mind Thomas Kuhn’s The structure of scientific revolutions (1996), in which he describes how paradigms – “constellations of beliefs, values, techniques, and so on shared by the members of a given community” (p. 175) – shift, or collapse, when they become overwhelmed by anomalies that they cannot accommodate/ account for. I guess for those who can read the signs, the paradigm shifts (reform), which is never comfortable, while for those who can’t read the signs, the paradigm eventually collapses (revolution), which is always traumatic.
One of these anomalies is the widespread belief that it is either content or skills. You, following Dewey – experiences [that lead to “genuine education”] must include both “acquisition of the organized bodies of information” and “prepared forms of skill which comprehend the material of instruction” – are adamant that skills must be integrated into the teaching of content to enable learners to comprehend information and build knowledge. In fact, one of the considerations that drew me to your model of the inquiry process was the underlying framework/ continuum of skills that enables the inquiry process within subject/ content area learning. This, in my opinion, is a phenomenal undertaking and achievement, and one of the outstanding features of the Empire State Information Fluency Continuum. With reference to the indicators (skill sets) below, might you shed some light on how this continuum was initially developed and has since evolved?
Kuhn, T. (1996). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: Chicago University Press.