I recently had the opportunity to speak at the Jefferson County School District Tech Share Fair on the topic of school libraries and learner agency. This is a topic near and dear to me, after working in school libraries for many years, I understand that libraries are the heart of learner agency in a school. Here are the highlights from my presentation, and the slides are embedded below. I’d like to thank Buffy Hamilton, “Fancy Jantzi,” and the Alaska Library Association who shared so many wonderful pictures of learner agency in action in libraries under a Creative Commons license on Flickr.
I want to share with you today two documents you may not be familiar with, but hopefully, you will start to see that these documents can serve as a road map to the Learner Agency you are seeking for your students.
The first of these is the AASL Standards for the 21st Century Learner.
In 2007, the American Association for School Librarians came out with a new mission statement and standards. These standards were not meant to stand alone or to be carried out just by the teacher-librarian in a school, but need to be owned by everyone in a school setting, through collaboration with the teacher-librarian.
The mission statement embodies the very definition of Learner Agency. The library PROGRAM, (which reaches into every corner of the school), exists to EMPOWER students to be
- Critical Thinkers
- ENTHUSIASTIC readers
- SKILLFUL researchers and
- ETHICAL users of information
The standards document contains just 4 active standards, that can be summed up with these 4 verbs:
21st Century Learners can:
To accomplish each of these, they must access or use
- Dispositions in Action
- Self-Assessment Strategies
Although we did not label it as such at the time, I believe now that this document was foundational in defining a learning environment where Learner Agency can flourish.
In the Spring of 2008 – a group of teacher-librarians, technology teachers, classroom teachers from every level, administrators, and CDE personnel were convened in Colorado to dig deeply into the new standards. The group unanimously agreed to adopt the AASL Standards for the 21st Century Learner.
The next steps would be to organize into subcommittees to create an action plan to carry out the new standards.
A vision committee was the first to form. Here is what they came to realize:
Too frequently in schools, the focus is on content rather than skills. Assignments don’t require students to think at higher levels. Students are not given choice in how they learn, or how they show their learning. Library schedules are fixed and student time for independent exploration and self-directed learning is limited.
It occurred to the group that to give students an opportunity to practice and master these new standards, to truly empower our students, something within this learning environment needed to change.
It had become clear that something was missing in all of the content standards, educational plans, and accountability processes in education to assure students could really develop into 21st century learners.
The vision subcommittee pondered over what they could communicate or create to help Colorado educators realize that something needed to change so students truly would be able to develop these 21st century skills.
The group identified this simple fact: LEARNERS HAVE RIGHTS!
So much of a student’s school experience is contained within boundaries of time and place. Students stop their learning at the end of a unit or class period. They don’t think of themselves as learners outside the classroom walls. Yet, they are learning all of the time.
We needed a way to communicate not stop—but GO!
Here is where the group started.
A vision statement was drafted:
We ALL exist to inquire, create new knowledge, share knowledge and participate productively, and to pursue personal and organizational growth.
The new standards speak of responsibilities –but what about RIGHTS?
The Vision Sub-Committee members were: Jody Gehrig, Gene Hainer, Jody Howard, Becky Johnson, Stevan Kalmon, and Wendy Lee.
Jody Gehrig lead this effort. Sadly, she lost her battle with cancer in February, 2010, but her passion for empowering students to learn lives on in this work.
From Jody Gehrig:
These are learners who have a right to learn. if we as teachers want to be effective with our learners, WE must take the responsibility to construct inquiry learning experiences for them that allow them to blossom as learners. These experiences go much farther than just illustrating the right they value most. We as teachers and learning community leaders must guide their work so they can develop into 21st century learners.
At this point, their work was passed on to a new group, The Learner’s Bill of Rights subcommittee, also chaired by Jody.
After an intense brainstorming session, followed by a great deal of wordsmithing and refinement, the Learner’s Bill of Rights was born. Let’s take a closer look – and see if you can see Learner Agency come alive in these simple statements.
The Learner has the Right to… Question and be Curious.
Students come to the library every single day with questions. What book should I read? How can I find information on this or that? Why do some nations not have daylight savings time? Why is the sky blue? And so on, and on, and on!
In classrooms, I think this is quite different. Content has to be covered. Standards met. Schedules adhered to.
During the last 3 years, I had the opportunity to observe in hundreds of classrooms in my district, specifically looking for examples of 21st century learning in action.
Sadly, I can probably count on one hand the number of times a student asked a question, other than just to clarify what needed to be done for an assignment.
Yet teachers find ways – such as through question walls using post-it notes – for students to ask their questions, which later could be addressed in class, or students might be given time in the library to seek answers.
We must find ways to keep student questioning and curiosity alive inside the walls of our school – where support systems exist to help students in their pursuit of answers.
The learner has the right to… Have personal ideas.
A friend once suggested that this might better be stated as “EXPRESS” personal ideas. This is a great idea, too – but as I recall, the reason our committee settled on HAVE personal ideas is that we believed that somewhere along the way in formal educational settings, students forget that their ideas matter – and it is really OK to have personal ideas and opinions! Once they get in touch with those personal ideas –then, yes! Let’s help them express them!
The learner has the right to… Choose how To learn and share understanding
Choice. Where, oh where, does this fit in a standards-based, scope-and-sequence world? Creative teachers find a way.
And—Thank goodness for school libraries!
Libraries have always been about giving students choice in what they read and how they learn. Multiple genres, points of view, fiction and non-fiction, print or digital. Today’s libraries add multiple ways to show understanding, to showcase the student voice, create in makerspaces, and share with a global audience.
The learner has the right to… Plan and participate in learning at an appropriate level.
This IS learner agency.
Students set learning goals, following their own learning passions. They go about meeting those goals – and have the appropriate level resources available to help them meet those goals.
School libraries are essential to this learner right.
The learner has the right to….Grapple with challenging ideas or concepts.
In school libraries, students can find the resources and help they need to go beyond class requirements – or simply explore a topic they are passionate about. In libraries, students explore topics in-depth, and strive to make sense of ideas and concepts.
The learner has the right to…Access information and resources needed.
This is a primary mission for school libraries.
If students decide on the topic, ask the questions, decide on the materials to access and the procedures to follow, they are curating and meeting a personal information need, analyzing and drawing conclusions . The more students have control over their inquiries, and it is linked to their own personal questions, the higher the students’ agency.
The learner has the right to…Participate in and contribute to a learning network.
In libraries, this might be face-to-face networks, such as book clubs, or the teacher-librarian might make arrangements to share with a group of students on the other side of the world, through technology such as Skype, such as the case with this young man who is sharing his poem with a group of students in Africa.
The learner has the right to…Think critically, solve problems and make decisions.
If we want our students to think critically, we have to design learning that allows room for students to think critically. Not lecture. Not listening to videos. Students need to do hands-on problem solving. And, they have to care about the outcome. If you want them to dig deep and think hard, then add a good dose of real-world relevance to your learning scenario.
The learner has the right to…Make mistakes and learn from them.
Have you ever wondered exactly what it is about gaming that attracts us?
A student made this comment, “In the classroom, I feel like I’m being forced to learn. When I’m gaming, I feel like I’m using ‘it’. I don’t feel myself being forced. “
Gaming is not just a safe environment for students to make mistakes and learn from them –its fun! Many of our libraries are recognizing the importance of this, and setting up gaming spaces for learners. Here, students are empowered to learn – on their terms.
If Learner agency = empowering students
And Agency specifically is the power to make choices – this is what happens in school libraries every day!
Teacher-librarians create the conditions and the environment where students are empowered to solve their own problems and find answers to their questions. Students collaborate, network, share, and grow – not just to meet the requirements of a class, but also following their own needs for understanding.
- Carolyn coming into the library trying to find everything she could about the state of Virginia. She was going to move there with her family at the end of the school year.
- I remember Janelle, whose mother with diagnosed with breast cancer. She had so many questions and concerns. She didn’t understand what was happening to her mother, why the treatment made her so sick. She struggled with finding information online, and when she did, it was too hard to understand. In the school library, she was able to find books written at a level she could understand, and get the support she needed in this difficult time.
- I remember Robert, who learned about Japanese internment camps during World War II in class, and was surprised to learn from his father that he had a relative who was sent to one. The textbook information was limited, and so he sought help in the library to find the information he needed, to learn in a deeper way since he discovered this personal connection.
- And then there was Jason, who was fiercely proud of his air force father – and just wanted to learn everything that there was to learn about the air force, jets, and flying. He sought to understand why his Dad was deployed in Iraq, and sort through the multiple mixed messages in the newspapers and online about why this was right, and why it was wrong.
There are a million other stories just like these of how the school library has helped children with their personal information needs.
Nick Rate, principal at Kumeroa-Hopelands School in New Zealand described learner agency with these words: Enabling, empowering, self-monitoring, goals, feedback, meta-cognition, active, responsive, self-directed and meaningful.
- In school libraries, students are enabled.
- In school libraries, students are empowered.
- In school libraries, students practice self-monitoring
- In school libraries, students set personal learning goals.
- In school libraries, students receive feedback.
- In school libraries, students practice meta-cognition.
- In school libraries, students are active!
- In school libraries, students are responsive.
- In school libraries, students practice self-direction.
- In school libraries, student find meaning.
Libraries are essential to Learner Agency.