While not quite in my dotage, I am old enough that I am aware of how trends build, plateau, and recede only to be taken up again by the next generation under a new name (shoulder pads, I see you trying to make a comeback). My elementary school was designed in the 1970’s around open spaces called “pods” with no physical barriers between the grade level classrooms. The theory was that this would encourage collaboration between students and teachers and allow students more freedom to engage with content on their own level. By the time I attended this school in the mid-1980’s the teachers had erected barriers between the classrooms by using rolling chalk boards and books shelves. By the time my friend was teaching in a similar school in the early 2000’s actual walls had been installed between classrooms. If you search for the “Open Schools” now, you find news stories like this one that details all the reasons why the concept fell out of favor. When I was watching the video about learner-centered environments, I couldn’t help but see the similarities between that school concept and the open schools of the 1970’s. I was reminded of my own tendency, when my house gets cluttered and dirty, to purchase an organization rack. When I come home, I happily install my new toy and, yes, it makes my pots line up. But it doesn’t do anything about the dirt on the floor and, just because the rack is present, it doesn’t stop my kids from not putting the pots away, or carelessly tossing them into the cabinet without using the rack. I think too often we look for the shiny fix without addressing the structural issues lying beneath that are the true cause of the problem. My hesitation with learner-centered environments or personalized learning are that they are seized upon as a solution without also addressing the inequities that exist that are often at the root of problems in our education systems.
With that in mind, however, I do feel that there are things schools can do to make learning more learner-centered. My younger daughter attends a Waldorf-methods charter school where the development of the child guides the curriculum, rather than a reverse engineering from standards. Reading is not formally taught until 3rd grade because mountains of research shows that a large number of children are not ready to read until they are 8 years old. Desks are not introduced until later grades because, again, it is not developmentally appropriate for young children to sit at desks all day. The school prioritizes movement and time outside, again, because we know young learners NEED those things, and those needs supersede the more arbitrary need to push through content that will appear on a standardized test.
In my own teaching, I do respond to my learner’s needs. For example, my undergraduate students prefer for major assignments to be due at the end of the week so that the work does not hang over their heads during the weekend. My graduate students prefer Sunday night deadlines, because most of them are working professionals and they prefer to have the full weekend to complete their school assignments. I also allow for students to modify their assignments to make them meaningful to contexts in which they live and work, I provide structured and unstructured options, and I always try to inject a little bit of humor or, to borrow Farrah’s word, whimsy, so that my students remember I am a person too and that we don’t need to always take ourselves too seriously.
For this course, the intervention I plan on developing is a professional development module for youth services librarians. I am well-acquainted with the general demographics of this group as I was myself a member of this professional community for many years and I have continued to monitor the demographics for my own research which is centered on youth services programs in public libraries. I belong to several online learning communities that foster conversations and resource sharing within this learner group and I stay up to date with published information about trends within this population from its associated professional organizations (ALA, PLA, ALSC and PaLA).
This is a challenging group to pin down in terms of learner characteristics. On the one hand, there are some similarities: these learners would all have similar work contexts in terms of the primary mission of their organizations – public libraries serve their communities through collections, programs, and other informational, educational and recreational services. They also will be serving youth as at least a portion of their job responsibilities. By nature of social norms, the majority of learners will likely be female, because women are overrepresented in these positions. Beyond that, however, there will be wide variation in age, from young people who are new to their adult work experiences, to people on the brink of retirement.
They will also vary in terms of education and training, as there is no federal mandate and very few state mandates that guide libraries when making hiring decisions. While the ALA- accredited master’s degree is considered the terminal degree in the profession, not all libraries require the people who provide youth services programs to hold the degree. In the same vein, the ALA MLS is not, on its own, focused on youth services; it is possible to have one without taking any courses with youth-related content. Some libraries hire people with teaching or pre-school experience, and others “hire the smile” and encourage or require the individual to pursue professional development.
Since these individuals all work in libraries, it is relatively safe to assume that most will have access to basic technology such as computers, web-cams, and a decent internet connection in their workplace, if not at home. In terms of motivation and learning preferences, I would hope they would be motivated by a desire to improve their practice, but I know many may not see the need to do so because they feel they are already doing a good job, or because they are resistant to any suggestion that they take on more responsibility. In these cases it will be important to present myself as an advocate, rather than a taskmaster or evaluator, to help them feel motivated to take on additional training. There may be extrinsic rewards in the sense that the library may count this training towards required continuing education training hours. Their learning preferences would likely be a course that does not over-burden their time and/or which could be completed during regular work hours. It would likely need to be largely asynchronous or built into existing professional development workshop days at the regional or system level.