As many sessions at the Australian School Library Association conference recommended using reflection as a powerful learning tool, I have decided to act on it. So I have built on my existing knowledge of using Twitter and made my first Storifys. From these I have written about the basic ideas and resources of each session of the two-day conference to share with other teacher librarians who were not as fortunate as I to be there. Finally I am writing a reflection on the conference and the future of education and school libraries as I see it. This are the opinions of a second-career teacher, turned teacher librarian who has never had a permanent job and at the moment doesn’t even work in a library so make of it what you will.
I attended the ASLA conference in Brisbane last week, read blog posts from an attendee at the concurrent SLANZ conference and have been following the twitter feed of the Libraries for Future Learners conference in Sydney. A common thread to all of these is that school libraries need to be at the forefront of the technology tsunami coming our way. We need to change our teaching priorities from the 3Rs to the 4 or sometimes 5 Cs Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking and Creativity (+/- Cooperation). We are told that 70% of entry level jobs will become automated and that a post graduate qualification together with self taught high level other skills will become the minimum to acquire a secure high paying job. As an educator, teacher-librarian and mother of young adults I have a number of concerns: how are we going to up-skill all our teachers in time; the digital divide between the digital adept and the digital illiterates is going to grow; what will it mean to society and the individuals if the majority are unable to find secure, well paid employment: and finally if the majority are doomed to be underemployed what other skills should we be teaching them.
The Digital Education Revolution in NSW began in late 2008 with all public year 9 students being given laptop computers, high speed broadband to all schools and professional development to teachers, the NSW Quality Teaching Framework dates back to 2006.However a recent study by the OECD Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection found no improvement in literacy , numeracy and science in the PISA tests over that time. My suggestion based on teaching in country primary schools and my children’s experience in a country high school is that integration of the technology was extremely patchy between schools and subjects. Teachers continued on teaching the same way with worksheets and textbooks and in many schools still are. Having had 7 years of professional development in ICT myself over that time I can attest that we have all heard about the importance of producing students with the skills needed for the hyper-connected, digitalised societies of the 21st century. So why are some schools still using worksheets and textbooks, why are some schools cutting back on school library services when they are needed more that ever, and why at a conference attended by the committed teacher librarians prepared to spend their holidays at professional development like the ASLA conference were 80% of participants writing notes by hand and only about 5% tweeting.
One of the problems is the ASLA School Libraries Research Project snapshot of Australian teacher librarians shows that teacher librarianship is an overwhelmingly female occupation comprised of an ageing demographic with almost 90 per cent of the survey group aged 40+ years, almost 80 per cent aged 45+ years, 55 per cent aged 55+ years and 10 per cent aged 60+ years. Only three per cent are younger than 30 years. The second problem reported by the same research is that 1/3 had not had any professional development in the 12 months prior to the survey. This is not to say that all older female teachers /teacher librarians lack the confidence to use technology effectively in the classroom but I know myself that as an older second career teacher I only made the jump into technology when forced to by the M.Ed (TL) program 5 years ago.
I think we also need to ask ourselves whether the current way we do teacher professional development is working. How many times can we go to a conference, say “that was really great” and then not change any of our practices? Reflection, commitment to experiment with a new skill, and then a follow up to see how it worked needs to be built more into the professional development. I know that this is present in the BOSTES PL website but I usually fill this in up to a couple of years after I have been to the conference, and I assume I am not atypical in this. So what I think will work better is that instead of being lectured to by “sages on the stage” is Teachmeet type PD of local teachers showing ideas that have worked in their classes. Sages can be just a bit intimidating so people need to see what ordinary teachers/teacher-librarians are doing in classes and schools just like their own. Or a group of teachers/teacher-librarians plan a unit/lesson together then observe it being taught, before meeting again together to work out how to improve it. That way everyone gets buy in. Yes it is expensive but how much money has already been spent on traditional PD without behavioral change. Until we see life long learning and self learning in our teaching population, how can we expect to teach it to our students?
The digital divide is part of the bigger problem of educational inequality between high and low SES areas and rural and city areas. Students from low SES backgrounds from low SES schools on average end up 3 years behind students from high SES backgrounds from high SES schools. Broadband internet in the country is far more expensive than city areas. 15G used to cost me $120/month on the mid North Coast 3 years ago and when I moved to Canberra $120 would buy me 500G /month. Low SES areas have less discretional income to spend on internet and computers, less educated parents, less experienced teachers and high teacher turnover. If the only people who can compete in the digital tsunami wave to come are the digital elite then the students in rural and low SES areas have no chance. Having lived for 15 years in a low SES area on the Mid North Coast I know that academic success is NOT a level playing field. I hate to think that the vast majority of the students I have taught will not achieve a secure and high paying job. Unfortunately I have few ideas on how to fix this. Implementing Gonski would be a good start, as would attracting high performing teachers to rural and low SES school perhaps with higher pay, funding school libraries well and rolling out the NBN faster to rural and low SES areas.
Assuming Tyler Cohen, author of “Average is Over” is correct and the majority of the population, including most of the current middle class is going to be underemployed in low paying jobs in the not too distant future, what is that going to do to society. Are the dystopia novels in our collections going to come true in our lifetimes? Having a large permanent underclass with no hopes of improvement is not a good recipe for social stability. If the majority of our students (despite our best efforts to teach them the 21st C skills of creativity, communication, collaboration and critical thinking and assuming that the schools manage to change in time) end up time rich and income poor, with casual jobs and multiple micro incomes, what other skills should we be teaching them so that they will live happy and fulfilling lives? I am thinking growing vegetable gardens, cooking, building, entrepreneur skills, music, but how do we mesh everything together. In this regard I think I like Erica McWilliam’s idea of the school and public library being like the 17/18th century coffee houses the best. Places where one goes for self-directed, non-curriculum learning, intellectual stimulation and debate and companionship.
Changing the behemoth that is our education system to suit the future needs of our students, is what the NMC Horizon Reports would call a Wicked Problem. It is big, multifaceted and seems impossible. However there are many wicked problems in the world, including two I care deeply about, climate change and refugees. Two years ago both seemed unsurmountable, public opinion and government policy was firmly against them. Today I think each of them might crack like marriage equality has in the USA, in Australia 80% of people are in favour (it is just government dragging the chain). Changing our school libraries and ourselves to be the places and people they need to be to give our students the skills of life long learning in a world of continuous change is as much as challenge as changing our education system. So I think we should take notice of what works well for the climate change and refugee activists; encourage small steps, share ideas that work well and good news stories, keep positive, use social media and keep the value of school libraries visible. I also thank the teacher librarians and educators who have seen what the future holds and have been exhorting change and promoting school libraries for so many years.