Although not a conventional presentation, Blanchelande College was shortlisted for the UK School Library Association 2023 Enterprise of the Year Award, and I include here some of the evidence that we submitted with our project, which aimed to demonstrate our thesis that the school library becomes integral to the educational process through its inquiry-centred instructional program. This was also the basis of our extended workshop at the IASL 2023 Conference in Rome, which may be downloaded from here: Recovering the Educational Promise of Inquiry.
The video summary of the project may be viewed here (4m41s YouTube clip).
I also include below our project overview, and preparatory notes ahead of a live-streamed Q&A about the shortlisted entries.
Our objective was to establish a secondary school library that is integral to the educational process as envisioned by the IFLA School Library Manifesto (2021), and as outlined in the IFLA School Library Guidelines (2015).
The school library becomes integral to the educational process through its instructional programme, which the Guidelines, drawing together more than 50 years of international research into effective school libraries, outline as essentially consisting of the following activities:
Literacy and reading promotion (includes appreciation of literature and culture)
Inquiry-based teaching and learning (includes media and information literacy)
Professional development for teachers
However, inquiry, understood in terms of the Guidelines, is both central to the programme and encompasses all of the activities that make up the programme. Inquiry is, therefore, also key to ensuring a balanced programme.
What sparked the idea for your project?
Although the College has a long and varied history, until September 2020 it had no Sixth Form or Library for the Secondary School. This was unacceptable to the current Principal, who was appointed in 2016, and he resolved to establish both at the earliest opportunity, because, as he says, “both A-Level studies and a vibrant library act as catalysts for academic endeavour throughout a school and are therefore essential for a school”. Working with donations from parents who shared this vision, and the resourceful lead of a retired builder, a small team transformed three tired classrooms and the parallel corridor into a generously proportioned Library and adjoining Sixth Form Common Room. The vital process then of appointing the College’s first librarian brought into sharp focus questions about what a school library is and does. In answering these questions, the College looked to the IFLA School Library Guidelines, which, drawing on more than 50 years of international research, envision a library that is integral to the educational process, which it becomes through its instructional programme, essentially: literacy and reading promotion (includes appreciation of literature and culture); inquiry-based learning and teaching (includes media and information literacy); technology integration, and; professional development for teachers. Inquiry is both central to and encompasses these core activities, and so the implementation of a whole-school [Reception-Year 13] inquiry-based learning and teaching curriculum became the main focus of our project, with a specific emphasis on interdisciplinary Signature Work inquiry in transition years (Year 2, Year 6, Year 9 and Year 12).
Which part of your project has had the most impact? Why?
The College offers a GCSE and A-Level educational pathway that is philosophically rooted in the values of a liberal education – specifically students who are able to increasingly think and learn independently. Inquiry has this as its end and is the means to this end. It is unsurprising, therefore, that Signature Work inquiry – an extended inquiry-based interdisciplinary exploration of an important topic that involves substantial reflective reading and writing – is a distinguishing feature of a contemporary liberal education. For students to actually develop as independent thinkers and learners, though, we need a sound instructional model of the inquiry-based learning process – in our case FOSIL – as well as an underlying framework of skills – meta-cognitive, cognitive, emotional, social and cultural – that reaches from Reception to Year 13. These skills then need to be developed systematically and progressively within subject area/ curricular teaching and learning. Our priority, therefore, was to establish an interdisciplinary Signature Work inquiry in transition years, namely, Year 2 (now in place for next year), Year 6, Year 9 and Year 12.
These interdisciplinary Signature Work inquiries firstly establish inquiry as an approach to learning and teaching in each phase of the College, and secondly, enable us to map with confidence what skills all students in transition years have been taught and how these skills are developed between transition years. An example of this is citing and referencing, which is an academic skill with a technical dimension, that is essential at a university level for extended project work like the EPQ or Extended Essay. However, we can already start meaningfully developing the skill of distinguishing between work that I have produced and work that someone else has produced in Reception by, for example, identifying the author and/ or illustrator of a book, and/ or by having my own work named.
Moreover, this has inevitably led to increased opportunities for curricular inquiry-based work, whether full inquiries or not, in other subjects and year groups.
In what way(s) does your project meet the needs of your school / the schools you work with?
Because students who are actually engaged and empowered inquirers are the embodiment of a contemporary liberal education, the project is vital to the College achieving its aim of providing one. Furthermore, because inquiry-based learning and teaching is central to and encompasses the librarian’s instructional programme, the library is integral to the College’s educational process. In this way the Library fulfils its educational purpose – framed by the IFLA School Library Guidelines as “improving teaching and learning for all” – without neglecting its moral purpose – “making a positive difference in the lives of young people”, which includes the Library being a welcoming and safe space, and in which the well-documented benefits of reading for pleasure are extended to all. Moreover, because inquiry is heavily dependent on reading, both non-fiction and fiction, the Library has become bound up in the identity of the College, which not only now identifies itself as a reading school, with reading engagement and reading enjoyment on the rise, but also as an inquiry school, with inquiry as stance and process reflected in key policy documents and teaching staff appraisal.
What’s been the best response from students towards your project?
Although the inquiry process includes reflective thought in each stage of the process, it includes a stage for formal reflection of both product and learning process. Because this is a vital part of the inquiry process, we do not rush it. Consequently, we are witnessing growing insight from students into themselves as increasingly independent thinkers and learners. Of particular interest is the connection that students are making between the process of their learning and the outcome of the process of their learning. For example, a Year 6 student, in preparing his final presentation on his Signature Work inquiry, suddenly realised that the problems he was experiencing with his presentation were not linked to his presentation skills, but to a poor grasp of what he was trying to say. He then went back to address this gap in his knowledge and understanding, which resolved the problems he was experiencing with his presentation. Also, because the interdisciplinary nature of the Signature Work inquiries meaningfully links curricular work across more than one subject, students are able to make powerful connections between their subjects, and so experience their learning in subjects more coherently. For example, a parent at a Signature Work celebration event for Year 6 was effusive about the fact that her daughter had been struggling with Maths because she couldn’t see the relevance of what she was doing, but linking it meaningfully to work in Art and Design, English, ICT and Science had really helped her to understand its practical value and opened the subject up to her.
Who were your key supporters and how did you get them on board?
Two of our key supporters are the Principal, who had the vision for a library that was integral to the educational process, and the Director of Studies who then worked with us to make this a reality, for example through policy documents and the formal INSET programme, which we help shape and deliver. This enables us to form deep collaborative relationships with classroom colleagues, which is vital to our long-term success. To get them on board, we needed a clear vision for a library that was integral to the educational process, as well as a practical strategy for achieving this. In this, the IFLA School Library Guidelines were essential, because they establish the conditions that are necessary for an effective instructional programme, which we then needed to be disciplined about implementing in a balanced way. It was also vital for us to keep these and other key supporters, such as the Governors and parents, updated on our progress, which we tied to measurable outcomes (such as the CREST Bronze Award for Year 6 and the GCSE English Language NEA for Year 9), without those outcomes becoming ends in themselves.
If you could give one piece of advice or tip for someone looking to embark on a similar project, what would it be?
Simon Sinek makes a compelling case for starting with why, with our purpose or reason for existing, because people buy deeply into why you are doing something rather than what you are doing. For us, the library exists to enable students to come to know and understand the world and themselves in it as the basis for their responsible participation in community. This aligns the fundamental purpose of the library with the fundamental purpose of school. Furthermore, this process of coming to know and understand is a learning process, specifically an inquiry-based learning process, and it depends heavily on reading in its fullest sense, both non-fiction and fiction. This, then, is our identity, and it gives rise to and shapes everything that we do, both within and beyond the Library, and this would be our advice: be sure of your identity, and then be purposeful about all of the activities that are necessary to give full expression to it.