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Fostering Constructivism in School Libraries Brian Farrell – February 27, 2011 University of British Columbia

There are many physical components of a school that are key in establishing an



effective learning environment. While school libraries have always generally been valued as important pieces of the learning puzzle, with recent advancements in electronic resources and students’ corresponding eagerness to use electronic research tools, these facilities have come under greater scrutiny in terms of their relevancy in a modern, learner-centred school environment. Developed correctly though, the physical school library space and the resources it provides are still very necessary should a school wish to foster effective constructivist learning. Constructivism, in a very generalized sense, states that learners are able to create knowledge based upon their own individual experiences, ideas, and interactions. Learners are recognized as individuals, each of whom processes and creates knowledge in a different way, but who are also impacted by the behaviour and interactions that occur within their larger group and in their environment. Simply put in practical terms, “Constructivism refers to educational practices that are student-focused, meaning-based, process-oriented, interactive, and responsive to student interest.” (Johnson, 2009). In the context of school libraries, the picture is similar. As has been noted by Ross Todd (2001); “Constructivist learning is not merely teaching a raft of information skills. Its focus is on engaging learners in active inquiry, where, through the complex interaction of technical, constructive, evaluative and affective learning processes, learners are motivated to establish engaging, personally meaningful questions that will direct their inquiry into an information search task either imposed by the teacher, or one where self-selection of task focus is required.” As a physical learning space then, a school library can be critical in creating the most effective environment for constructivist learning to occur. School libraries are often one of very few central communal spaces in a school, and their very nature as a knowledge



repository invites independent and guided inquiry. For learners to be effective in creating a sound understanding of the world around them, they require access to knowledge resources, and a comfortable and effective learning environment that can inspire and enhance inquiry. There are two distinct components of effective constructivist school libraries spaces that need to be examined; the physical plant and layout of the facility, and the learning resources that it provides access to. The professional library staff that organize, teach, and manage in these spaces are of course also incredibly critical to ensuring a library’s success, but could easily be the subject of another larger independent inquiry. This paper will focus instead on the school library itself, and examine how it can be used effectively to create constructivist learning.

Resources When one imagines a school library, it generally goes without saying that such a space would be home to a large number of books. Students increasingly use electronic resources though, and the validity of having a large book collection available is being challenged more and more often. This is not a recent phenomenon, as research has been highlighting the decline in circulation of books and overall library usage for the past decade or more (Carlson, 2001). Provided they are current, cater to the reading level of students, and are easily accessible though (to be discussed further when we examine the physical library space), books are still integral in fostering constructivist inquiry. Books should be considered part of the puzzle of resources integral in a constructivist library since they allow for a great deal of independent inquiry and knowledge development.

FOSTERING CONSTRUCTIVISM IN SCHOOL LIBRARIES - FARRELL While perhaps not always having the most current information available on a subject, books are still one of the most credible forms of information available to learners, and key in instilling the higher order constructivist ideal of thinking critically about information.


What other resources then would a student expect of a school library? One recent survey of students in mathematics programs (an area that is not immediately thought of in the context of libraries where subjects like history and languages are more commonly correlated) found that students expected their library to provide access to learning tools such as advanced calculators, computers, and software, subject textbooks and related print resources, as well as tutorial assistance (Betne & Castonguay, 2008). Expanded to other disciplines, this list could likely include things like cameras, portable audio and video devices, audio books, maps and atlases, learning manipulatives like dice, scales and measuring tapes, and even building blocks and playing cards depending on the age level of students involved. While not thought of as traditional resources of school libraries, all of these things can be helpful in learners constructing knowledge and developing a concrete understanding around more abstract concepts. While not requiring a physical library space to hold them, online and electronic resources are incredibly important for today’s learners. Electronic databases that include research and scholarly journals, subscriptions to online news sources and periodicals, access to streaming educational video and audio content, and e-books are increasingly available from school libraries. Again, these do not require a physical library space as they can generally be accessed universally across a school campus, however they do often require management and instruction from trained staff, which, more often than not,

FOSTERING CONSTRUCTIVISM IN SCHOOL LIBRARIES - FARRELL means librarians. In an age of instant access to a wealth of information through the


internet, it is increasingly important that libraries provide access to online resources such as databases, as there is a large range of credibility in the resources found by simply searching online. Judging the value and merit of this information is a critical skill for information literate constructivist learners, and so libraries need to provide guided instruction in developing these skills. Whatever mix of resources a school library ultimately chooses to offer, it should be with an aim to expose learners to the broader world around them. Learning is culturally influenced (Jegede, 1995), and so for learners to have a broad perspective of the world around them, they need libraries to provide a range of books and other resources that represent global perspectives and a range of opinion. This is particularly true in developing knowledge about literature and writing, but can also be said to be relevant when talking about historical perspectives, social issues, the arts, and really any other subject that is open to debate and interpretation.

Space Much like the traditional classroom space has evolved from a very precise and orderly network of desks in rows with a chalkboard at the front of the room, so too have school libraries changed their layouts and physical infrastructure to better accommodate constructivist learning. If we are to acknowledge the very basic tenant of constructivist thought that learners create and understand knowledge in very different and individual ways, then we must create school library spaces that cater to these various learning styles. By their very nature, school libraries have always served a variety of user experiences, as

FOSTERING CONSTRUCTIVISM IN SCHOOL LIBRARIES - FARRELL they are created to support whole schools, across grade and age levels, supporting every


subject of instruction offered as well as supporting the ideal of basic literacy development and reading for pleasure. The traditional image of a school library as a dusty place with row upon row of tight shelves is not one that is effective in fostering constructivist learning for all students. In accommodating multiple modalities of learning and inquiry, a library should include a diversity of spaces that offers choices to patrons as learners (Sykes, 2006). The space should allow for independent work, small and larger groups, louder and quieter activities, and easy access to relevant information in all its formats (print, electronic, audio, etc.). How this space will look will of course depend upon the physical, budgetary, and facility use constraints of each school, but it should include input from all constituents who will ultimately use the space to be effective. The individual nature of constructivist learning means that no two users of the school library will be identical in their needs and learning style, and so the more input into design considerations, the better. Librarians are generally the drivers and key decision makers in the development of school library facilities. While these professionals certainly have developed a specific skill set when it comes to searching for, classifying, and organizing information, they may have a bias towards a certain way of (generally very methodically) arranging a space. To foster effective constructivist learning, facilities such as school libraries should be student-centred, and this should be obvious in implying that student input is required in facility design.

FOSTERING CONSTRUCTIVISM IN SCHOOL LIBRARIES - FARRELL In its role as a resource repository, a school library needs to be accessible to its users. Librarians should consider the demand for each of the resources that it provides, and then develop a corresponding layout that provides easy access to these materials.


Lessons can be learned from retail development and design, and thought should be given to including things like front facing (cover visible) book displays, shelf end units, and the disbursement rather than clustering of computer work stations (Hennah, 2010). If librarians and schools hope to foster independent inquiry, they need to make relevant resources accessible, user-friendly, and intuitive to the learner. As well as a space for independent inquiry, school libraries need to be a teaching space that can accommodate a range of learning activities. Facilities that allow for larger lectures, small group activities, and independent inquiry will further position the school library as a key academic space in the minds of the learners using it. Libraries can help engage students in teaching themselves and transferring knowledge to their peers by offering resources such as white boards and projection equipment that is open for all to use, rather than confining these resources to a teacher-only role.

Common Threads Fundamentally, constructivist learners are independent seekers of information who aim to create connections and develop knowledge of the world around them. In a school library environment, these learners need to have easy access to current, relevant information resources, and need to have a working space that is conducive to their preferred method of inquiry at any given time. For school libraries to stay relevant and effective in developing constructivist thought, they must provide a flexible facility that

FOSTERING CONSTRUCTIVISM IN SCHOOL LIBRARIES - FARRELL operates universally (e.g. also online) in providing access and assistance with the best learning materials for its students. This facility should be inviting, and conducive to collaboration as well as independent work, and should fundamentally be driven by the needs and input of the students that it seeks to serve.



FOSTERING CONSTRUCTIVISM IN SCHOOL LIBRARIES - FARRELL Betne, P., & Castonguay, R. (2008). On the Role of Mathematics Educators and


Librarians in Constructivist Pedagogy. Education, 129(1), 56-79. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Carlson, S. (November 16, 2001). The Deserted Library: As Students Work Online, Reading Rooms Empty Leading Some Campuses to Add Starbucks. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Gordon, C., and Markuson, C. (2008). The School Library as Classroom: Creating a Constructivist Learning Environment. [Power Point slides]. Retrieved from %2Fschool-library-cgordon.pdf&rct=j&q=The%20School%20Library%20as %20Classroom%3A%20Creating%20a%20Constructivist %20&ei=Ch9qTdTcEIm4vQPzlcntDA&usg=AFQjCNF4PQAALFqyeVwo6YqB DsXrp61oEQ&cad=rja

Hennah, K. (2010). Kevin Hennah Design Ideas [Power Point slides]. Retrieved from personal email correspondence.

Jegede, O. J. (1995). Collateral learning and eco-cultural paradigm in science and mathematics in Africa. Studies in Science Education. 25, 97 - 137.



Johnson, G. (2009). Instructionism and Constructivism: Reconciling Two Very Good Ideas. International Journal of Special Education, 24(3), 90-98. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

Sykes, J. A. (2006). Brain Friendly School Libraries. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited. Retrieved from Questia database: a=o&d=113228051

Todd, R. (2001). A Sustainable Future for Teacher-Librarians: Inquiry Learning, Actions and Evidence. Orana, 37(3), 10-20. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.