The School Librarian as Learning Alchemist

Transforming the Future of Education

February 26, 2015


The landscape of learning is changing. Children and young adults learn not only in school but fluidly across home, school, peer culture, and community. This transformation in learning and the school environment has prompted educators to ask challenging questions about how to de­velop learning spaces to meet these needs within the some­times competing economic, social, and political realities.

At the same time, school librarians continue to serve their communities by linking children, young adults, and teachers with both the information they need and the skills to use it. We’ve identified three trends that we see as most affecting the role of the school librarian in the near future.

Information on demand

In the near future, there will be a significant reduction in physical library space and collections. Educational tech­nology is becoming more mobile, embracing one-to-one laptop or tablet initiatives and bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies. Young adults also have access to their own devices: According to 2013 Pew Research Center data, some 37% of teens aged 12–17 own a smartphone and three-fourths use mobile devices to access the internet at least occasionally. More and more schools are shifting their policies about the use of these devices in the class­room away from rigid restrictions—and many educators are incorporating them into their lessons.

Even as some schools move to virtual collections, the op­portunities for school librarians to influence learning will actually increase. When a collection is housed in the cloud and accessible through mobile devices, the school librarian has a greater capability to enhance learning. Colorado teacher-librarians Phil Goerner and Krista Brakhage

report such augmented reality programs as Aurasma allow students to use their devices to scan physical objects and receive interactive help and instructions. Responsive tech­nology, or the internet of things, allows us to connect di­rectly to objects and record real-time information, such as cost or temperature. School librarians thus control a limit­less collection that taps into devices and data around the world, enhancing the research experience for students.

The importance of mobile devices in school adds to the need for school librarians to serve as policy experts for their districts. The BYOD movement, for example, can influence several school, district, local, state, and fed­eral policies, such as those regarding access, copyright, filtering, usability, and privacy. Filtering is perhaps the most salient example, as student use of personal devices has taken the control of internet access away from school administrators. The urge to protect children and young adults on school devices and Wi-Fi must be carefully weighed against the need to teach them how to safely use the internet. Much of the information on the success of BYOD comes from companies with a vested interest in these products (for example, Intel Education’s K–12 Blueprint). School librarians must advise other educators impartially on these issues.

Students at I.S. 228 David A. Boody School in Brooklyn, New York
Students at I.S. 228 David A. Boody School in Brooklyn, New York, work together on a lesson.

Connected learning

The connected learning model makes use of networked technologies to promote education that is academically oriented, peer-supported, interest-driven, production-centered, openly networked, and grounded in a shared purpose. New media can support connected learning by increasing student access to knowledge, providing timely feedback and individualized learning experiences, and connecting youth to a network of individuals with expertise in areas of shared interest. The model supports learning in a variety of subject areas, including STEM subjects, but its major benefits are in out-of-school learn­ing environments. For example, US public libraries are embracing the connected learning model by creating learning spaces and labs, thanks in part through funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Unfortunately, school is often the place that young people are forced to disconnect from ecosystems of learn­ing that they most enjoy, resulting in a rupture between in-school and out-of-school learning. School librarians

are best situated to overcome this barrier as the “con­nected learning person” on staff, trained to embrace technology and youths’ interests and trends.

Most connected learning models in school libraries take the form of after-school or time-bound programs and clubs that focus on actively creating, making, tinker­ing, producing, experimenting, remixing, decoding, and designing. School librarians can transfer these experi­ences into formal learning by offering more lenient technology policies and mobile learning, and by conduct­ing research that supports the success of connected learn­ing, ever-expanding technology, and new standards. The scientific and mathematical practices and dispositions that Common Core State Standards and the Next Genera­tion of Science Standards require in preparing students for college and careers are perfectly suited to the con­nected learning environment.

From learning in situ to learning in the wild

Children and young adults lack the skills to evaluate the information they find on the open web. As they move away from controlled information resources, students must develop critical thinking skills. School librarians are spearheading a shift from learning in situ to learning in the wild. Librarians will likely move away from expensive, underused subscription databases and cumbersome key­word searching to teach students how to search effec­tively on the open web. This shift places a renewed emphasis on three key roles that librarians play in teach­ing students how to evaluate the credibility of information, respect copyright, and protect their privacy.

Indeed, these concepts formed the basis of Standard 3 of the American Association of School Librarians’ Stan­dards for the 21st Century Learner: “Share knowledge and participate ethically and productively as members of our democratic society.” School librarians can encourage learning by fostering critical thinking skills, developing an ethical framework for creating and sharing information, and ensuring personal privacy.

Students will need to understand the process of creat­ing and sharing information responsibly. A 2014 study by researchers at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research showed that 88% of teens shared an image online re­cently, and a surprising number of children under the legal age of 13 are online and sharing information in social media contexts. Many of them are sharing information, intentionally or not, that their parents would prefer they keep private. These trends point to the need for youths to undertake a deeper understanding of ethics and privacy, skills that are rarely taught by teachers and parents. How­ever, the school librarian can and should be the educa­tional leader in developing these dispositions that will aid in intellectual growth and responsibility.

The school librarian of the future

William Gray School - Teach To One, Chicago, IL
Students at William P. Gray Elementary School check monitors for personal daily updates and assignments as part of their Teach to One: Math program.

Even though the primary purpose of the school librarian continues to be access to information, the new mix of mobile technology, personalized learning, and expanded learning spaces makes providing access more compli­cated, necessary, and exciting than ever before. The school librarian of the future will be the learning alchemist in the school, directly involved in transforming the physical and virtual spaces for learning in the school, leading shifts in technology and media-enhanced learning, and build­ing robust partnerships with community anchors. In tandem with public librarians, those working in museums and after-school clubs, school librarians will ensure that learning—as educational researchers Ola Erstad and Julian Sefton-Green put it—is “lifewide, life-deep, and lifelong” for all children and young adults.