What is education for and how can school libraries contribute?

9 April 2014
Local Schools Network
link to original

Last weekend, I spoke at the School Libraries Group conference in Derby. I was asked to talk about what education is for and how school libraries can contribute towards the aims and purposes of education. If you watch the YouTube video of my talk (above) you’ll see that I look at a number of key issues.
First, I examine the different models for education: that of “social control” and that of “emancipation”. The social control model has its primary educational purpose the socialisation of children into society. This was clearly at the back of the minds of the Victorians when they established the structure of the education system back in the 1870s: the school system was there to re-enforce the existing class structures. There were the elite “public” schools such as Eton that were deliberately placed at the top of the pile because it was acknowledged that they would educate the “ruling class”: the politicians, the judges, clergymen and army officers. Below them came the “second-rate” private schools, followed by the state-funded grammar schools, then religious schools and finally the primary schools for the working classes. The 1944 Education Act changed things a bit but the essential notion of the school system being there to re-inforce the class differences was still there: the school leaving age for the working classes was raised to 14, but most children from poor backgrounds were placed in secondary moderns and left school with no qualifications. The grammar schools offered a slim chance of social advancement for cleverer children from poorer backgrounds, but as the Crowther report into grammar schools shows, overwhelmingly it was children from middle-class backgrounds that went to grammar schools. I argue though that there was a “step change” with the Blair government in 1997 because, however you might criticise their policies, there was a new idea that education was there to “emancipate” children from poorer backgrounds rather than control them. The Coalition government makes similar claims. While you might disagree with Gove’s methods, I have no doubt that he is sincere in his belief that his policies will “close the attainment gap” and help poorer children become liberated thinkers.
The second part of my talk looks at the Brazilian philosopher, Paulo Freire, and how his ideas can “emancipate” children. His central idea that we need to start with the learner’s life and use that as the “tool” to educate is, for me, a vital and powerful idea. He argued for the teacher to employ “praxis” — social action — to inform his or her teaching; the teacher needs to help the learner examine the ways in which his life could be improved through education. A process of “conscientization” happens between learner and teacher whereby both people become aware of the social conditions that need to change and together they both work through educative processes to do this. My talk examines the ways in which a librarian is uniquely placed to employ Freirean principles: they can listen to what children like and dislike, they can consider the community that a school is placed in and bring aspects of that into the library in the form of newspapers, posters, and local people etc. They can find books that help children become liberated in their minds.

Finally, I look at the “post-modern” condition of the librarian. The school/academic library is basically an invention of the “Enlightenment”, created at a time when people believed in the God-like truth of rational thought and knowledge. But of course, we live in “post-modern” times when the certainties of objective knowledge, of the Newtonian universe, have been questioned: we live in an Einsteinian universe of relativity and the “uncertainty principle”. The position of the book is a contentious and uncertain one. I argue in my talk that the librarian needs to embrace post-modernism; to acknowledge that knowledge and books need to be radically contextualised, that rigid categorisation of books can backfire, that mixing and matching books of different genres and types can be a fruitful and productive way of presenting books to children. For example, a librarian could “deconstruct” the notion of gender by having “pink girly” books juxtaposed with feminist books, Grazia magazine placed right next to a feminist magazine and so on.

The Q and A session was interesting; many librarians feel isolated within their schools I think, and very worried about their position in a world of budget cuts. The Heart of the School blog shows this; many senior managers have sought to close down school libraries, or remove the librarian altogether. I attempted to give advice about how to win over senior managers by suggesting that engaging in a positive dialogue was the best way forward by I’m not sure some delegates were that persuaded that SLTs would listen.

This is the PowerPoint the talk was based upon, although there are some slight changes:

Schools library association from Francis Gilbert

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  1. […] Minds’ highlighted the philosophic underpinning of our approaches to librarianship. Listen to the presentation Francis Gilbert made at the conference if you feel like stretching your mind around post-modern […]

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