Meaning Making – Critical Commentary

Introduction:

The educational context of this portfolio is a primary school library. The building is situated close to all classrooms and most playground areas but surrounded by gardens which render it a quiet sanctuary, slightly apart from the bustle of the playground. The Reimagining Learning Spaces Report separates space “having an address and place is about living in that address” (p.25). Whilst the space is wonderful, the place does not meet the requirements of the vibrant twenty first century learning community that is developing at this school. What is living in this place is a contradiction, hard and uninspiring surfaces, hard inflexible furnishings and a competition between traditional teaching methods and those which are responsive and inspiring to the children and community.

Wider Educational Context

The ASLA/ALIA Standards of Professional Excellence for Teacher Librarians is the most relevant policy to this environment as it details the “professional knowledge, skills and commitment” required for teacher-librarians such as myself to work at a level of excellence, best meeting the needs of the learning community of the school. It describes a teacher-librarian as “building effective library and information services and programs that contribute to the development of lifelong learners” (p.1).

However, more close examination of this document reveals a lack of detail in its promotion of the provision of appropriate learning environments for the learners and the style of curriculum it espouses. Standard 2.1, in particular is specifically targeted at “Learning Environment”. It states that excellent teacher-librarians

“create and nurture an information rich learning environment…..

provide access to information resources….

foster an environment where learners are encouraged and

empowered to read…for understanding and enjoyment…..

and appreciate the dynamic nature of ICTS and their role in education” (p.2)

 

Standard 2.2 goes on to stipulate that “programs should be responsive to the needs of learners” (p.2), but neither standard details what this environment should look or feel like, how the environment can empower learners, or what the needs of current day learners may include. Standard 3.1 involves empowering “others in the school community to become lifelong learners” (p.3), without really considering what that may mean, or entail.

 

Print, television and social media are filled with research and discussion on the learning, social and emotional needs of today’s students. The dichotomy between those who espouse “traditional learning” and those who see it as an anachronism developed for the industrial age is often filled with emotive speech. However, current educational research and curriculum documents promote the concept of the “21st century learner”, who is innovative and creative, a flexible and independent thinker who collaborates with others (Helfrich, 2014, Australian Curriculum General Capabilities, 2010,Melbourne Declaration, 2008). It is believed that the concept of collaborative, inquiry based learning is the pedagogical style best designed to nurture these capabilities in today’s students (Bland, Hughes, Willis, 2013, Australian Curriculum General Capabilities, 2010,Melbourne Declaration, 2008). Sheninger and Murray (2017) explored the change from students being told “what to learn, when to learn it, and how it should be learned” (p.54) to the myriad of instructional strategies offered in today’s classrooms. Some in education thought that the simple inclusion of technology would be the panacea that cures all ills; however it is realised that quality teaching and learning in the 21st century involves a careful balance of many more facets than that simplistic solution. Successful pedagogical solutions to develop students who are 21st Century Learners involve developing opportunities to empower students to own their learning experiences, to work both individually and with others, to interact with concepts and problems in order to develop greater knowledge and understanding, to generate various solutions and to evaluate possible eventualities. This form of learning is not cultivated in the traditional “sage on the stage, chalk and talk” which is supported by large groups of students sitting still and silent in their seats at fixed desks. Historically, libraries were seen as the most silent spaces, where physical and social interactions should be kept to a minimum. Freedom to learn involves the freedom of movement. The library space should be stimulating, flexible and facilitative, it should not just accommodate teaching and learning, but inspire quality teaching and learning throughout the school.

Implications

It is apparent from both my own observations (see VAST Heuristic and Learning Space Reflection) as well as those of current students (see Children’s Reflections and Requests), that the current place is not conducive to the teaching and learning needs of the school community. Whilst there is some flexibility available, there are also other restricting considerations. The space is constantly being used, but often by competing groups. It is used as a teaching space for the teacher-librarian, a reading space for all, a teaching space for a numerous small group and individual learning support teachers and officers, a community space for parents and a revitalising, relaxing “chill out zone” during break times for students. Any redesign of the space will need to consider the needs of all these groups.

However, more pertinent questions need to be asked. One, “What kind of person do we want our students to become?” the other, “What kind of learner do we want our students to become?” These questions would need to be carefully considered. The School’s Mission Statement (uncredited in the interests of confidentiality) includes providing a “quality education based on an all-embracing curriculum that is engaging and empowering” and for “each individual to build confidence by developing their talents in our happy, safe and secure community”.

Foote (2017) urges us to ask what messages children receive when entering and using the library place. Ongoing experience in the library and using the VAST Heuristic has enabled me to more carefully consider this. Students currently see the library as a devalued area, it is old, grimy and in need of a weed and a “facelift”. As soon as they walk in the door they are confronted by a vast expanse of fixed tables and chairs, sending the message that traditional, quiet teaching and learning is the preferred pedagogy. The noise level is often overwhelming, especially for students who are already vulnerable to distraction or overstimulation. The lack of soft, quiet spaces for reading or quiet contemplation, or for small group discussions gives the message that these activities are not encouraged.

La Marca (2004) describes the teacher-librarian as the “enabling adult” who creates an environment (including ambience and physical layout). Those who follow the Reggio Emilia approach describe the learning place as the “third teacher”, which motivates, nurtures and informs practice as much as a parent or teacher (Thornton and Brunton, 2015). It is my goal to create “a flexible space allows students to use the space in a way that fits their needs” (Lemmons, 2017, p62). It is important to recognise that these needs will be physical and social-emotional, as well as intellectual.

McWilliam (2011) looks back to the Age of Enlightenment, when people met in the comfortable surroundings of the coffee shop to ponder and discuss ideas, to argue and collaborate. She suggests that the learners of this century would benefit from the opportunity to move away from the hard, uncomfortable furnishings of industrial age classrooms and return to the enabling environment of café society. An environment which is collaborative and connected, engaging, adaptable and creative requires furnishings that offer flexibility, adaptability, moveability, and comfort, where technology is easily accessible but not overpowering. The café concept could be an inspiration when redesigning the library to better fit the needs of the whole school community.

Conclusion

This library contains a great deal of possibility and promise. It could be a place where students develop a love of reading and learning; engage in curriculum guided learning, but also in self-directed curious inquiry, either individually or with peers; relax with friends and develop greater social bonds. It could also be a sanctuary where students with learning, behavioural or social challenges can feel safe and secure, and able to develop their skills. It could also be a community hub, where parents and teachers meet both formally and informally, a display space for children to present their learning. The possibilities are endless, but planning will need to be consultative and careful (Clark, 2011).

 Image:
Anni Gold (2017)