I rarely speak at conferences these days because I am too involved with school and also feel that I do not want to end up as one of the conference speakers who says the same thing again and again. I must admit that when asked by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) Schools Libraries Group (SLG) to open their national conference in Derbyshire, I was concerned that I would merely be replicating the talk I gave at Wellington College on a similar theme.
I was reassured by the fact that I was given a brief around the theme of ‘Enquiring Minds – The Road to Learning’.
As a pragmatist, I like to start presentations by going through what we believe is the reality of the situation we are facing. In this instance, namely reports of libraries closing down, education being affected and how reading is declining because of the use of technology. I summed up by using Sven Birkerts’ ‘The Gutenberg Elegies’ where he says of technology:
I’ve been to the crossroads and I’ve seen the devil there.
For all the eloquence in Birkerts book, I believe that this is too simplistic a position to take and I wanted to delegates to think critically over the weekend about what they will hear and to provide them with a sense of agency over the helplessness portrayed in the media. The first thinker I used was Professor Stuart Hall who argued that you must understand the complexity of a situation if you are to intervene effectively. The ‘bad news’ stories are too simplistic and if the delegates really wanted to make a difference, they should adopt Hall’s (after Gramsci) ‘Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’ way of thinking when dealing with such crude representations.
If they did, they would appreciate that there really is not a ‘Road to Learning’ but a variety of paths we could take, like EP Thompson suggested when viewing the changing dynamic of Cold War politics in 1982;
We could roll up the map of the Cold War and could travel without maps for while
By moving beyond the simplistic and reductionist tendencies of media representations, delegates could find a way to intervene effectively and make a genuine difference.
From Book to Text
Using an idea stolen from Bill Rankin, I showcased that the book in codex format was seen as a disruptive piece of technology and that the meaning of libraries also changed over time. Because of the apparent threat of technology, the response by librarians and defenders of reading has been to fetishise the book in codex format and forget that it is really the text that is important. I also illustrated that books in themselves have not always been emancipatory and I gave the example of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary which marginalised certain words and led to the creation of the ‘canon’ and ‘Standard English’ rather than just representing it (this is based on the work of Professor Tony Crowley).
By seeing the complexity of the book in codex format and focusing on the text rather than the format, we can now begin to appreciate technology is not necessarily an enemy in itself. I gave examples of the Expresso Book Machine, the work my students have done on Hans J Massaquoi and the Black Death as examples where the digital and physical codex format can happily work together to support learning and reading. The emerging field of ‘Digital Humanities’ also offers us a glimpse of the blurring that can occur when the text is given prominence rather than the format. Finally, I mentioned the book ‘Pictures At An Exhibition’ written by my friend Camilla Macpherson as unique blend of the digital and codex form because QR codes were placed in the book so the reader could experience the art discussed in the novel.
Schooling to Education
Secondly, I talked of the limiting view of education we labour under and that we needed to take a more expansive view than Ofsted criteria. I find Mick Water’s diagram from his book ‘Thinking Allowed‘ to be very helpful:
Essentially, I suggested that we needed to move away from the narrow focus on exams to a more expansive (and historically rich) notion of education. I gave the example of Berkhamsted using Key Performance Indicators to focus on education such as the number of students representing the school at sport, spend a night out camping, how many have taken part in drama productions and much more. These things are not examined as such but they make a good education and the humanists of the 15th & 16th Century would have recognised this broader meaning.
MOOCs offer an example of education beyond the exam hall to support learning (my colleague Dr Steve Redman is working on a Physics MOOC which will be released shortly). I also highlighted the Higher Project Qualification which we run in Year 9, the growing focus on Project Based Learning and the culture of drafting and how librarians could and should be part of this conversation in schools as they have a lot to offer in terms of research skills and directing students and staff to wider sources of knowledge.
From knowing to ‘Dare to Know’
My final point was not the usual plea for ’21st Century Learning’ where we can ‘look stuff up’ but a return to what Immanuel Kant suggested was the motto for the Enlightenment. This humanist desire to ask searching questions in the process of ‘becoming’ allows us to become more open to world in its complexity and I used an Invisible Gorilla Experiment video to showcase what happens when you think you know something. I also showed some of the work Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and her colleagues are doing from her talk at the Teaching, Learning & Assessment Conference, Berkhamsted. The ‘Director’ experiment highlights how hard it is to see someone else’s point of view and that our ‘knowledge’ can sometimes stop us from being very effective. One way to overcome this is through great professional development and I urged librarians to become more engaged with CPD at schools as they have access to resources and research teachers need, yet do not know how to get hold of.
My final thought was to suggest that there are no ‘quick fixes’ to the problems we face. Only by going beyond the ‘set’ paths and seeing the world in its complexity, we have a chance to make a difference.
After the keynote we moved into ‘Question Time’ which was fascinating as we had a very diverse panel including students. The young lady (in Year 10) who sat next to me was very impressive and I had a very enjoyable conversation with Claire Fox on the way to the train station.
I want to thank Sue for the invitation, the delegates for their warmth/kind words and Hannah for her help in pushing me beyond ‘Standard English’.