Libraries, Computer Labs, and the Invisible Future
As a child, I absolutely relished the opportunity to visit my school library. The library was a welcome reprieve from what I perceived as the monotonous tasks of the classroom, and it provided an opportunity to partake in that wonderfully human experience of listening to a story told aloud. The librarian made literary works come to life as she read to the semi-circle of rapt faces: the characters had voices and the page turns were dramatic. My peers and I shouted the ends of sentences, giggled at the irony, and shrieked with laughter at any mention of a booger or a bottom. When I was in the library, I was fully immersed in a good childhood.
My trip to the library was also unique: in a world where the adults around me seemed to think school was about manufacturing future benefit, there was nothing about my time in the library that seemed instrumental to some predetermined end. Rather, it was centered on having a good time in the present – unlike kids today, I was never tested on what the librarian had read to us, never limited in my book selection by a linear reading level system, and never quizzed on the books I had read to earn points toward an external reward. And yet, I was building skills that were critical to my individual and social development.
In addition to its cognitive and academic benefits, my library time helped me to connect with diverse peers through shared experience, build soft skills through social stories, grapple with big ideas, and learn how to ask for help from an expert (the librarian always knows). Unsurprisingly, these are skills that have benefited me as an adult - to solve complicated problems and navigate a complex world of people and ideas. The opportunity to practice these important skills in the library as a child led to my ability to practice those skills as an adult. This, in spite of the fact that there had been no backward mapping of my future skill development and no narrow metrics to define my success.
Fast forward 25 years and libraries and librarians are disappearing from our schools*. The argument for cutting librarians and libraries is rationalized for future benefit rather than present losses. The common narrative is this: we need to make hard choices about what to fund in schools and the budget once used for libraries (and librarians) is now being used for tablets and computer. This is okay - even right - the story goes, because the kids we serve now are entering a technological future unlike any we have seen before. Kids need to learn to use tablets and computers to find and consume content formerly accessed only in books and to be prepared for the unknown and complex future that lies in wait.
We persistently act as though preparation for an unknown future is more important than living well and doing well now. Let’s leave aside the studies that show librarians and high quality libraries are correlated with higher test scores and graduation rates** because while true, that’s not really the point. In fact, our obsession with being able to backward map the future benefit of a given pedagogy, curriculum, or activity is part of the problem. In our excitement about graduation rates, college acceptance, and career advancement, we forget that living a good life in the future is about much more than those metrics. And, most importantly, we forget this fundamental truth: the future is inextricably tied to the now.
"In our excitement about graduation rates, college acceptance, and career advancement, we forget that living a good life in the future is about much more than those metrics. And, most importantly, we forget this fundamental truth: the future is inextricably tied to the now."
When THE FUTURE looms large in schools it limits what we allow kids to do and be in the here and now. It champions what is measurable over what matters and - often in the name of (insert your preferred data driven decision making tagline here) - it impacts what we spend our money on and, ultimately, the kinds of lived experiences students have in schools.
Our kids sitting in computer labs (often a former library) are usually practicing being isolated, quiet, glued to a screen, getting electronic external rewards for identifying letter sounds and key passages. We often sacrifice meeting kids' core psychological needs now– like, autonomy, competence, and meaning – so we can track progress on future metrics. We thwart their autonomy and suppress feelings of competence through linear reading levels and undermine their intrinsic motivation through reading reward systems. We focus on intangible future gains rather than tangible present losses, and we forget that being well now is critical to being well in the future.
Students who spend their childhoods in front of screens might be great at sitting through the next standardized test, but to argue that they will be better prepared for an unknown complex technological future is ludicrous. While we cannot know for sure, this type of future is likely to require people to work with diverse teams, collaborate on big projects, grapple with complex systems and ideas, and seek out and learn from experts. These important skills can be practiced in schools: in classrooms, in libraries, during art, recess, and sports – but only when these environments are designed for the practice of those skills, for a good childhood, and for flourishing – right now.
We do need to make hard choices about what to fund in schools. What we spend our money on matters and it feels like there is never enough to go around. When we sit down to make those hard choices, let’s consider what we want for our kids now, first and foremost, keeping in mind that the future is inextricably tied to the now. What does it mean to flourish in childhood? What kinds of environments foster growth? What kinds of experiences unlock curiosity and compassion? Who our children practice being and doing today is who they will become in the future.
In fact, the future of our society – while unknown – is not unpredictable. The future of our society is in a classroom and hopefully, a library, right now. The best thing we can do to ensure individual and societal flourishing in the future is create school environments rich for flourishing today.
Tye Ripma is Founding Catalyst at REENVISIONED. He has a background in special education program design, administration, and service delivery. He holds a credential in early childhood special education, is a Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA), and has a master’s degree in education policy from Stanford University. By day, Tye works in special education policy and practice, by night he thinks and writes about the ideas underlying REENVISIONED and supports the team wherever he can.
REENVISIONED is a national movement to redefine the purpose of school. We believe schools should foster flourishing individuals and a thriving democratic society. But what does it mean to thrive or flourish?
To answer this, we’re building the world’s largest collection of stories about what it means to live good lives and the role schools should play in helping create them: 10,000 stories from people across the country. We'll use the stories to learn about our shared values and dreams and to create a new vision for why we send our children to school.
We work with people like YOU across the country: Catalysts - individuals, classrooms, schools, and community organizations - who interview people in their communities and foster empathy nationwide by sharing the stories on our website and social media: Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook (@reenvisioned).
*Lance, K. (2018). School Librarian, Where Art Thou? School Library Journal. Available at https://www.slj.com/2018/03/industry-news/school-librarian-art-thou/
**Krashen, S., Lee, S., & McQuillan, J. (2012). Is the Library Important? Multivariate Studies at the National and International Level. Journal of Language and Literacy Education [online], 8(1), 26-38. Available at http://jolle.coe.uga.edu/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Is-the-Library-Important.pdf
**Lance, K., Kachel, D. (2018) Why School Librarians matter: What years of research tells us. Phi Delta Kappan. Available at http://www.kappanonline.org/lance-kachel-school-librarians-matter-years-research/