Ross to the Rescue!

Rutgers' Ross Todd's quest to renew school libraries.

Rutgers’ Ross Todd’s quest to renew school libraries

When we brainstormed about how to depict Ross Todd on our cover, there was no shortage of ideas: guru, rock star, prophet. Anyone who’s heard Todd speak will sympathize. The man is tremendously charismatic; his delivery impassioned; his speech, at turns playful and serious, tumbles forth nonstop. He’s also a bit of an iconoclast, albeit a loving one, and after an hour with Todd, listeners are likely to be left in a slightly uncomfortable state. Proud of what school librarians accomplish, yes. But also anxious about the unrealized potential of school libraries and energized to try and connect his ideas to practice.

SLJ last spoke with Todd in 2004, when he and Carol Kuhlthau, his colleague at Rutgers University’s Center for International Scholarship in School Libraries (CISSL), had completed their groundbreaking study, Student Learning through Ohio School Libraries. Surveying more than 13,000 students, the study showed that 99.4 percent of students believe school libraries and their services helped them become better learners. Commissioned by the Ohio Educational Library Media Association (OELMA), it was the first comprehensive study based on students’ evaluation of their media centers.

An Australian, Todd was for many years on the faculty of the University of Technology, Sydney. An early advocate for information literacy, he published articles throughout the 1990s on information literacy and learning. In 2001, at the International Association of School Librarians Annual Conference, he introduced to the school library world the idea of evidence-based practice. Evidence-based practice focuses on two things, Todd explained. It’s using best evidence in making decisions about your role and gathering evidence on teaching and learning within your library In 2001, Todd joined the faculty of Rutgers University and today is an associate professor in the School of Communication, Information, and Library Studies and director of research for CISSL.

What impact has the Ohio study had?
Before I get into that, there’s a recent paper that every reader of SLJ should take a look at. It’s called “Enough Already?: Blazing New Trails for School Library Research,” and was published in School Library Media Research. It’s an interview with Keith Curry Lance by Daniel Callison and it’s a wonderful statement of where the research is at today and where we need to go. It’s thought provoking and beautifully presents some challenges for our field.

What are those challenges?
The first challenge is the macro challenge: understanding the relationship between school libraries and student learning. I’ve had a deep concern over many years that school libraries have been marginal to school reform. They’ve not been really seen as a central player. For example, literacy or technology initiatives have not often represented school libraries as one of the stakeholders. The broader concern of understanding and establishing through a coherent research program the relationship of school libraries to student learning is absolutely fundamental, and I think that the landmark studies that Keith [Curry Lance] and his colleagues in various states [have done] respond to that challenge.

What have we learned from those studies?
That there is a positive relationship between school libraries with certain dimensions in place and student achievement. Keith’s research over a long period of time has identified some of those dimensions: quality collections, certified school library media specialists, a technology infrastructure, an information literacy program, professional development, and so on. This work is very, very important in our field. And the way that it’s been done, on a state-by-state level, is important because of the political agenda as well. So that’s one critical challenge, and I’m not convinced that we’ve arrived at meeting that challenge.

What’s the micro challenge?
The question that has driven both Carol Kuhlthau and I is how do you move from saying, yes, good school libraries make a difference to student achievement to actually improving practice in an individual school? How do we get the micro-understanding of the practice of school librarians in a way that enables us to continually improve practice? How do we build on this important foundational and highly significant work and at the grassroots level improve our own practice? It’s fine to say that school libraries impact student achievement. But what do you do when you get the school principal or the community member or a school board member—I’ve had them say this to me, “That’s all well and good, Ross, but I don’t see that happening in my school.” And that deeply concerns me because we want this research to not just say school libraries are good and for it to play a very important role in the political agenda. We want this research to bring a cycle of renewal, bring a cycle of continuous improvement.

How do you bring about this cycle of renewal?
The direction we’ve gone in this research, underpinned by what we did in Ohio, was to get an understanding of what goes on in some schools and use that as a basis for renewal. In Ohio, we chose to look at exemplars of best practice. By getting a picture of how school libraries in a best-practices scenario impact student learning, we have some basis for understanding the dynamics of practice far more richly.

So what should school librarians do?
In some respects—and I say this with all kindness because this profession is very, very dear to my heart, my soul, my whole life—we’ve played the victim. While that might seem unkind, we’ve kind of said: “Well, nobody understands what I do, nobody appreciates me, and look, here’s all of this data out there that says school libraries are good and important and impact student achievement.” Philosophically, at a deeply personal level, I’m very much action-oriented, and I believe that nobody is going to rescue school librarians but themselves. So part of that renewal and continuous improvement has to stem from them. They have to think about what all of this research tells us, reflect on that, and decide what steps I can take today that can really enhance the role of my school library in terms of student learning outcomes.

Sort of a bootstraps philosophy?
We can’t wait for somebody outside of ourselves to rescue us, because nobody is coming to the rescue. That might sound pessimistic, and I’m not intending to be pessimistic, but that’s why I’ve focused on this broader area of evidence-based practice. We have wonderful evidence emerging in all of these studies that show that the practice of school libraries can improve student learning outcomes. I would very strongly argue that simply providing a technology infrastructure, simply providing high-quality information resources and reading enrichment materials, providing a certified school librarian, providing administrative support, do not necessarily generate improved practice.

Then what does?
I really believe that it is the transformational actions of the school librarian. This certainly emerged out of the Ohio study—the action of the school librarian in terms of instructional intervention, that instructional role. You can provide all of the information resources, but if students don’t have the intellectual scaffolds to connect with, interact with, and utilize these resources, then it’s as if they don’t exist. It’s about taking action and looking at my instructional intervention. How can I develop in kids the intellectual scaffolds for engaging with information and really building my understanding and new knowledge of those curriculum standards?

What do you think today’s students value about the library?
It comes out clearly when we look at the Ohio data. What students really valued was the library as a physical space for finding, locating, and getting access [to information]. They clearly also valued the information literacy interventions that helped them find, locate, select, and make judgments about the appropriateness of a particular source. It also came out clearly in the Delaware study, which we’re in the middle of.

Can you tell us about Delaware?
It is a somewhat modified version of the Ohio study, in two phases. In the first phase of the Delaware study, we did an inventory of the 154 public school libraries in the state. We had every library complete the survey; we wanted to get a picture of where school libraries were in Delaware. We looked at the staffing, support staffing, the complete infrastructure, technology, the book stock, the material stock, the audiovisual. But we also gathered data on the number of collaborations librarians participated in. We also asked them to identify the primary information literacy instructional initiatives they’ve been involved in.

What did you discover?
It was very consistent with what I see happening in the information literacy arena. From the perspective of the school librarians, most of the instructional interventions focused on the finding, the selecting, the locating [of information]—getting the stuff. In other words, what we also saw, and this is where I see instructional intervention needs to move, was that there was much less attention given to what do you do with this stuff [than on getting it]. We need to help students ask: When I have this stuff on my topic, what do I do with it? How do I at a complex level engage with that information? How do I analyze it? How do I pull it apart? How do I identify what is really pertinent? How do I then take this information which might conflict with this other information and how do I engage with this in a way that enables me to build my own understanding of my topic? It’s in this kind of second part of information literacy that we move beyond the finding and the collecting of the stuff to the complex, intellectual engagement that enables students to come out with new knowledge and new understanding—a deep knowledge and a deep understanding. But what we see certainly in the Ohio data is that these sorts of information literacy instructional interventions were ranked much lower by the students.

But finding is still important, and more complex than ever.
I’m not devaluing the importance of developing skills at finding the stuff, but it’s absolutely critical that our instructional interventions focus on enabling students to take that stuff, to interrogate it in a deep and rich and meaningful way, and build a new knowledge. It is really critical that our instructional interventions are much more carefully planned, based on need, and the students are supported and guided. What we really want is students engaged in meaningful inquiry. I sense that a lot of what kids do in school libraries is purely busywork. To meet a project objective of the teacher. I’ve just got to gather this stuff, put it together in a plastic sleeve, hand it in, and I’ve done my project on dinosaurs. The challenge for school librarians and teachers working as leaders of learning is to focus on how to guide students more meaningfully in their inquiry.

Doesn’t that require even greater collaboration?
One of the things that emerged out of the Ohio data was that while as a profession we’ve kind of built this mantra about collaboration—the classroom teacher and the school librarian collaborating together—my sense is that collaboration actually takes place at a very low level. In many respects, I think collaboration has been a “guiltifying” word for our profession. It’s low even though we’ve consistently said this is one of the fundamentals of school library practice. Certainly in Delaware it was low. There was some very excellent collaboration, of course, but over all, the number was low. Let’s be fair on the school librarians. Nobody has ever asked teachers if they want to collaborate. We’ve always said of school librarians, you must collaborate, but nobody has ever said, is this really part of the teaching agenda? Do teachers want to do it?

How does this shift fit into the bigger education picture?
In the current educational climate there is a very clear mandate for a shift from putting our emphasis on finding and accessing to knowledge building. It’s where education is going. We are talking about standards-based education. We are talking about accountability. We are talking about evidence of achievements. There is incredible emphasis on meeting curriculum standards, knowledge-based outcomes. Our instructional interventions need to put a richer emphasis on those knowledge-based outcomes. How do we pedagogically intervene in the information experience of a child, to enable them to go beyond the amassing of facts to the interrogation of those facts and to develop deep knowledge? That’s a very complex task. We also need to shift to actually understanding how you identify and how you document learning outcomes and in particular knowledge-based outcomes. This comes back to evidence-based practice. With the Delaware study, we asked participants to identify the important outcomes of their information literacy initiatives. Every school librarian should be able to articulate very clearly and precisely and coherently what are the learning outcomes of their school library programs.

This must be very challenging for many people.
It is. I was speaking at the New England Educational Media Association Conference last Friday, and I just picked on a school librarian in the audience. I said to her, you’re working in your office and a reporter from the local Boston Globe rings you up. “I hear your school district is getting up in arms about school librarians being cut,” he says. “How does your school district really impact on student achievement? Look, I’m aware of all of those studies out there, but tell me about your school district, what evidence do you have that your school district, your library, really matters in the instructional landscape?” And I looked at her and asked: “How would you answer?” And I turned to the group, and asked: “How would you all answer?” They were in terror. I think some of them were in shock that I might ask them, and I wasn’t being unkind. But that’s what we really have to begin to understand: What does our individual school practice do for the learning that’s going on in our school district? That’s what principals want to hear. That’s what the school board wants to hear. It’s not that I’m criticizing the profession. I want to be fair and kind, after all, we’ve never been asked this before. And now in the context of standards-based education and evidence-based outcomes and measuring outcomes, librarians are also part of that equation.

Well, what are the outcomes?
What I am saying is that here’s an opportunity for us to rethink both our practice and the nature of our instructional interventions, and to take a much more strongly evidence-based focus, and to disseminate in our school communities the outcomes of our instructional interventions. Today our responses tend to be: “Well, I’ve seen improvement in students’ ability to judge the quality of the Web sites” or “I’ve seen students’ improvement in their ability to identify highly pertinent information sources.” These are important, but few can actually articulate outcomes, not in terms of the library but in terms of knowledge and skills and attitudes and values-based outcomes as defined by curriculum standards. I think that is the really critical challenge of the professional at the moment, that we articulate who we are and what we do, not so much in terms of libraryland, but in terms of the learning landscape.

For many school librarians, none of this was part of their graduate education.
That’s correct, and I’m certainly not criticizing our school library community for not doing this. I’m saying that these are really important directions. Historically, we’ve not done these, and so I don’t mean in any way to punish our school library professional.

Is it part of school librarians’ education today?
Evidence-based practice is part of a broader movement. It’s taken on a life of its own, which I’m really excited about. Evidence-based practice, guided inquiry, learning outcomes—[they] are all very important concepts that we teach here in our program at Rutgers, and I think that the challenge isn’t that it be taken up in school library programs. It’s that it be taken up in education, in the broader schools of education. I think that’s actually happening. The fundamental questions are really simple ones. We see so many kids coming into the school library with a project to do. At the end, did they learn anything? And what does that learning actually look like?

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