Supporting Equity and Social Mobility

Do we fundamentally want to live in an environment that is most beneficial to me (regardless of all consequences for others) or one that is inherently fair to all?

Well, first off, I don’t believe the former is sustainable and that the greedy, avaricious approach to life ultimately ends in disaster for all. Human aspiration is a wonderful thing – it drives people to create, strive, contribute and ultimately serve society in the course of raising themselves up. I believe it is the most fundamental force that has brought mankind to where we are today, and will solve our biggest challenges in the future.

However, aspiration only really serves in society if there is adequate evidence that it’s a right for all, not just a privilege reserved for those already most fortunate. Mobility in society is inherently a positive thing, in that it sets up the evidence to all that the world they live in is a meritocracy. Within a meritocracy where you start on the journey of life does not have to be seen as a predeterminer of where you can aspire to reach, or actually what you can achieve within your one lifetime.
(Incidentally, I’ll be writing a separate article about meritocracy soon as the concept has been under the microscope lately)

In such a scenario, where meritocracy is a genuine force and hard work and application, effective risk taking and synthesis of innate and learned skills can see someone move up to the pinnacle of success from any starting point there is one, key critical ingredient – equity in the access to education and knowledge.

As we come to the end of the second decade of the Twenty First Century it’s fair to say that in some ways we could consider there has been considerable progress. As basic elementary education of some form has been brought to more and more, the numbers of people in the world living in absolute poverty have dropped appreciably. However, over the last 10 years in most developed countries we’ve seen evidence that within country the equity has been undermined. Data on social mobility shows stagnation, as evidenced by this article from the UK:
The Guardian – Social Mobility Almost Stagnant Since 2014
Along with this, we have seen evidence from the world that the levels of wealth of those already most wealthy is rising rapidly. Economists worry that this does little for the world economy as such people have finite limits on their spending capacity.
Daily Mail – World’s Wealthiest People Got $1.2trillion richer in 2019

Within most developed countries suspicions run strong that the ‘haves’ run the economy and the state (including education) in ways that ensure their elevated status is secured and that the system prevents those starting out on lower rungs of the ladder from climbing.

Inevitably, there are all sorts of debates that arise about the relative resources of private and public education systems, as well as disparities of assets and quality between schools in poorer and richer areas. When digital access has become so important, issues of concern arise where wealthier homes have access to broadband and computers whilst poorer homes tend to rely only on mobile phone connections and data.

One critical aspect that has proved to be an enormous leveler that shouldn’t be underestimated is access to public libraries. In a time when almost every government touts their desire for citizens to be lifelong learners, to take responsibility and ownership for their own learning throughout life, libraries play a vital part. However, regrettably, too often in many countries they have been seen as easy pickings at times of austerity and when looking for government budget cuts. This was highlighted in a recent article from the World Economic Forum:

World Economic Furum – Cities Where Libraries Are Thriving

Seeing the relatively poor figures for London, I was saddened that my awareness is that in the UK as a whole, London is a good deal better off than most cities that have lost their public libraries. For me, growing up, regular trips to the local lending library were a family outing and a reminder that all members of the family were readers and learners – self-improvement as a lifelong exercise.

Here’s a short video that shares the message very well:

 

I believe one of the best ways for the future of libraries is to reduce the spend on stand-alone public libraries, but instead to create libraries integrated in to schools, colleges and universities that open their doors to the public.

I finish this article with a video that inspired me when I first saw it 6 years ago. It talks to everything that libraries can be, how they can put the learner at the very centre of the design and development process. There is focus on collaboration as much as seclusion and it’s exciting. I really recommend this video to educators. It’s been a big inspiration to me:

The Library as Core of a School

Library

“Lifelong learning is the core of all we do and a key part of our school’s values.”

Yada yada. I call inconsistency on any school that doesn’t put its library at the very core of its school in terms of physical focus, time spent, focus, teacher focus, employee skills and seniority. In many schools today the library is the ONLY place where a child can be free to pursue the learning that interests and enthuses them, instead of learning what they’re told, when they’re told, how they’re told, as deep as they’re told.

I’ve been writing on this issue for many years – here are couple of articles that are nearly 8 years old:
Technology Changing the Concept of Libraries
Role of Librarians in the Twenty First Century

(The first one might be interesting reading for those with short memories at The Shri Ram School, Aravali!!)

However, what’s the reality of libraries I’ve seen in schools across a number of countries?

a) A library in an English medium school where the librarian didn’t speak English,
b) An occasion where I sought to persuade English teachers to take over control of a school library – all resisted as they saw this as a demotion, humiliating and a move away from teaching that would be terminal for their careers,
c) A school library that was often used as a storage space for used stage scenery and props, kept locked through most of the school day,
d) A great big clue – the number of international schools where the librarian is part of the administrative staff headcount, not academic (meaning that as well as being employed on salaries much lower than teachers, they have little or no contact with teachers, especially on academic matters, are excluded from meetings on academic matters and are treated as ‘keeper of the books’.
e) No feedback related to the library in school reporting to parents (meaning that children are taught to think the library unimportant – in fact time there is seen as a ‘free period’.

To be fair, I’ve also seen some very enlightening and positive practices. However, many of these involved people who were not traditional librarians trained through the conventional routes;

a) A librarian who made it a significant part of her role to improve the reading abilities of every child in the school, backing up this work with annual reading competence tests (with a page included in the annual reporting to parents),
b) A librarian who regularly created special displays for holidays, festivals, special public events (e.g. Olympics), with colourful visual displays, relevant library resources on the topic and registers of relevant websites that students can access to learn more,
c) Similar to b), special displays related to particular children’s authors,
d) A librarian who created a maker space, including a 3-D printer,
e) A school in Gurugram, India that has opened its school library outside school hours for the use of pupils and family members. This is especially valuable in environments where public libraries don’t exist.
f) A school librarian who had read every book in the library! He used to have conversations with children when they returned books. For example, he might ask if they had enjoyed the ending of a book. If the evidence was they hadn’t made it to the end of the book he’d probe further to find out why. If it had proved too challenging, but they liked the genre, he would suggest an alternative and actually take them to the shelf where that book was located.
g) A school library that kept an online catalogue of the learning resources that provided scope for the pupils to write reviews, suggestions and recommendations that would guide the reading habits of their peers,
h) A library that kept a full record of all books read/ withdrawn by a pupil over an academic year and provided a report to parents at year end on what the progression suggested about their reading habits (and what they might do the following year to advance their reading).

Lifelong learners as grownups are likely to have had the opportunity as children to learn how to find resources, how to use resources to set up trails to related resources and how to pursue personal interests and fascinations to considerable depths. This includes exploring different perspectives and views on issues. Libraries are the best places for young people to acquire these skills.

This is why i suggest that the treatment of a school’s library tells a lot about that school’s real approach to the education of the whole child, the acquisition of Twenty First Century skills and the development of the habits of lifelong learning. Many schools have a very long way to go to make their actions match their words.

Don’t just take my word for it. Here’s a very good short article from the US, published just last week on the subject;
eSchool News: 10 Reasons School Librarians Are More Important Than Ever

 

Make Reading Cool For Boys

There comes an age at which boys today seem to decide that books and reading are not ‘cool enough’ and even the most enthusiastic reader may just switch off completely – with all the implications that go with that. I’ve seen this myself, both with my own son, but also with many other boys. Somehow, the perception is that books and magazines (or even online text, e-books etc) can’t compete with the ultra-stimulation of games, video and other choices for how time is spent.

In my son’s experience one of the issues was that he moved very quickly through all the good quality reading material that appealed to him, but by the time he reached around age 13 there was very little left that attracted him. How many times can you read the same Harry Potter books over and over again? As a parent, to watch someone who was streets ahead of his peers at a skill as valuable as reading then basically spinning his wheels as they all slowly caught him up – an advantage turned in to nothing special.

Here’s an interesting article that explores ways that can be tried to get boys to want to engage with reading:

Early to Rise – How To Get Boys To Read
(Click on the link to read the article. Incidentally, the Early to Rise newsletter emails are well worth signing up for – I’ve been reading them for quite a few years and they’re amongst the best around)

It tends to be the case that the vast majority of school libraries have female librarians. I think, at times, they need to have a greater variety of approaches if they are to make libraries and reading appeal to the boys. I agree very strongly with the article that we need a much broader acceptability of what kids are reading and to meet boys’ needs with material that they find stimulating and will want to read. It doesn’t pay to get too judgmental about what they choose to read!

Finally, I think the article’s spot on – if there’s cool status associated with reading, then there’s a much better chance that more boys will stay with it – with all the benefits that flow out of that. I know how much reading has benefited my life. I cannot ever envisage being anything other than a reader. But, I also know that’s no great advert to a 14 year old boy! However, meeting them where they are, we can do a much better job for them.

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