Bernard Beckett — award-winning author and teacher —ponders the imminent changes to the National Library's Services to Schools and what these mean for young readers.
This year the National Library is changing the way it provides resources to schools. It would style these changes a transformation; critics see them more as a financially motivated slashing of essential services. So, what exactly is going on, why do they say they're doing it, and should we believe them?
The existing Curriculum Information Service is one that many will be familiar with. It's been around for some seventy years. Under this outgoing system, the National Library made its vast resources available to schools by way of topic requests. So, if you were teaching six year olds in Gore and they were interested in studying the squid and octopus, then you put in the order, the Library searched its resources and a box of age-appropriate books would duly arrive. Ditto for the senior geography teacher whose students were studying the localised risk management of natural hazards.
The scheme was centred about the apparently sensible notion that there is no point in schools up and down the country attempting to purchase their own resources when a centralised public resource exists. Better to soak up a little librarian time and postage cost than see the vast, and inevitably inadequate, replication of school library resources.
The most striking thing about the new proposed system is the disappearance of this postal, topic-based ordering system. In its place, the Library will be concentrating on sending out packages of high-interest books, on one-year loans to schools and their libraries, in the hope of fostering the habit of reading for pleasure. At the same time, there is to be an attempt to provide guidance in the accessing of online resources. Roughly speaking, the National Library is moving from the goal of providing quality written resources to aid teacher and student-led research to the slightly vaguer aims of encouraging a love of reading and better digital research skills. Vagueness, I always think, is a worry, but let's dig further.
Why might an existing service be cut? Broadly speaking, there are four reasons (if we exclude political incompetence from consideration). Either the service is no longer being used, or the service is no longer deemed relevant or important, or we have come across a better way of providing the same service, or we have come across an alternative service that represents a better use of the available funds.
In this case, the first two reasons can probably be dismissed. Nobody is claiming that usage has suddenly plummeted. The service remains very busy, with a claimed third of teachers nationwide making use of it in a year and many hundreds of thousands of titles being issued. Even more compelling is the case against a devaluing of the service. Anybody familiar either with the current education curriculum or trends in our local schools will be aware that student-driven inquiry is all the rage, and in the senior school NCEA research standards are ubiquitous. Although the Library still intends to get its books out into schools, the key notion that these books should be in response to the specific demands and interests of the students and teachers has disappeared. And that, in the tortuous language of education, is bad pedagogy. The value of the old system, from the education system's point of view, has never been greater.
The next argument is much more interesting. What if the type of research the Library has traditionally supplied has become an anachronism in the digital age? Perhaps it makes much more sense in an internet-soaked world to teach students the skills required to find the information they are after online. There is cause to give this argument credence. There is a tremendously democratic flavour to the internet. Although access costs are a real issue for some, these have dropped dramatically (consider the cost of the cheapest smart phone, which can then access the internet via a free in-school connection). While teachers endeavour to match their programmes to the needs and interests of their students, in reality there is an awful lot of generalising and compromising going on. Internet-based research gives the student much more control, at least in terms of setting their own questions, and in that respect it is more inclusive. It's also true that it is the type of research our students will continue to have access to after they move away from school. If we take the call to produce lifelong learners seriously, then maybe spending less time ordering books for them and more time showing them how to find the information online is a better bet.
While it's often claimed that the internet is a poor research resource because of its unreliability, I wonder if this isn't overplayed. Certainly I find it much easier to find reliable answers to my questions than I did ten, or even five, years ago. By way of illustration, ten years ago I wanted to explain to a group of students how to use the transit of Venus to calculate the distance from the Earth to the Sun, and the answer sat somewhere out beyond my search-competency frontier. Five year ago, I could find the answer but I had to hunt, and the explanation was poorly presented and of only middling quality. Yesterday, by way of experiment, I repeated the search and found exactly what I needed within a minute, laid out in a professional and engaging style. Universities around the world have started putting courses online and providing in-depth resources for the general public (the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a wonderful example). It's still true that there are important skills required before the internet can be fully utilised, but from a school's point of view that's more of a teaching opportunity than a problem.
Against this case, however, some key points seem worth making. First, the National Library holds a great number of resources that cannot be accessed online. In particular, locally based resources (be these literary criticism of Baxter, or issues of local geographic or historical interest), so senior students in certain subjects are going to have their research wings clipped as a result of the changes. The National Library makes the point that a specific book can still be ordered by a school from its catalogue, but the logistics of this remain unclear. It should also be noted that the National Library's catalogue is not simple to use, and if the search onus shifts to teachers or very often part-time librarians in schools access is likely to decline.
It is also clear that books and online resources are different in their nature. Complex arguments take a great deal of time to make, and online summaries cannot engage and instruct in the way an extended text can. Type ‘selfish gene’ into your search engine and you will meet a thousand summaries of a game-changing metaphor, but none will acquaint you with it the way reading the book of the same name will.
Next up, it's not all clear that the screen can engage the curious young mind in the way a well-illustrated book does. Yesterday I watched my five-year-old sons turning the pages on a beautiful edition on volcanoes, and I am certain their experience was far richer than any screen could have provided. It's in the way the pages fall, the way the image can be felt and engaged with, the way information is presented as a thing to hold and treasure. There is a resonance here with deep and basic instincts, and if you multiply that experience by thousands of classrooms there is an important loss to consider. It's worth remembering, too, that at five a child can't manage a search engine but they can manage a book, so learning sequence is an issue.
Finally, and I think crucially, it's not at all clear that the National Library is preparing the way to take firm and decisive leadership in the area of digital literacy. This is one of those areas where we are asked to judge a current service we know well against a proposed service which may or may not work in practice. National Librarian Bill Macnaught says: ‘We plan to significantly increase and improve access to quality online content for teaching and learning and to guides that assist teachers to use online sources and resources effectively. Our online resources will also include more professional material for educators and librarians such as guidelines, research and exemplars.’ Given that we are not privy to the conversations that led to these changes, we are left to choose between competing narratives: is this a case of the Library having found a passion for assisting in the teaching of digital literacy, or rather does the story begin with somebody seeing an opportunity to trim a budget? Only those that were there can know. One thing we do know, however, is that the teaching of digital literacy is a new and rapidly developing field of expertise. My suspicion is that it will be those working in schools who will, through trial and error, stumble upon the most effective methods for doing this, which a service like the National Library may then be able to support. It seems unlikely, however, that an outside agency is going to be the leader in this field. In reality, we are going to have to wait and see. It will not have escaped the reader's notice that politically speaking, this is a shrewd move, and a common one. By the time we are able to judge the value of the changes, the heat has gone out of the debate and public interest has moved on. It is worth asking why extensive trialling of the new digital services hasn't taken place first, so that the relative values of the two services could be assessed.
The last argument to consider is that of the alternative services. The National Library has noted that while a great many schools access their services a great many more do not. What's more, the profile of engagement is predictable, with the higher achieving students from privileged backgrounds much more likely to come into contact with the service. Hence, they argue, might it not be better to move away from a demand-driven model, where those best placed to help themselves will be given more, to a supply-based model, where general collections of high-interest books are sent pre-emptively to schools, to be held by them for a year? An argument can be made that the students who need books most are much more likely to benefit from this service than from the current model, which has been failing to reach them. Here the National Library is at pains to reiterate that it is not cutting schools' access to the collection, nor is it planning to reduce the amount being spent on the collection's upkeep (more than $1 million per annum).
This is a superficially appealing argument but it is not without its problems. First, if you have a programme that you value, but you aren't reaching your target audience, then the first thing to try is to increase engagement. If the concern for the lower-achieving student is genuine, then why not do all you can to get them using your service? While fostering an early love of reading is inarguably valuable, both the status quo and the proposed changes seek to do just that. Why should we think one method (an engaged and pro-active teacher choosing a topic to suit his or her charges) will have less impact than another (placing more books in the school's library)? The second will get more coverage, certainly, but may equally get less enthusiastic participation. How should we judge this difference and, crucially, how did the architects of change make their judgement?
The second problem is that there is a flawed premise in play, a sneaky debating trick that is pulled whenever people want to withdraw support for a programme. It's the old 'How dare you ask to fund sports/arts/blue-sky research/teacher training/... when there are sick children who need treatment?' game. It is simply an error to argue that we must cut a worthy programme just because a more worthy programme has been found. Why not instead pursue both (getting more books into school libraries feels like a good idea) and fund the second by cutting some other, less worthy pursuit (I can think of other public spending programmes that I would chop, I'm a little over some state sector CEO salaries for instance and you'll have your own examples)? Even if no such budgetary trade-off can be negotiated, why see this as an either–or situation? How much extra will the sending out of annual packages cost? At first blush it would seem to be less resource-intensive than the searching and packaging of specific, topic-related, age-relevant resources. It's not clear why you shouldn't use this saving to keep some aspect of the request system running. If there is no inherent flaw in the current system (and I've not heard the argument that there is) then a hybrid model must be a good option.
Interestingly, very little has been heard from the Ministry of Education on this change, despite the fact that it is the delivery of its curriculum that is at the heart of the issue. It appears as if the restructuring of the Library's school services clashes with the student-led ethos of the Ministry of Education's curriculum. That surely suggests another funding option, where the research-friendly service is moved within the education budget, rather than having the Ministry of Internal Affairs foot the bill. It would seem to make sense to have the Minister who is most invested in the scheme's success fighting for its share of the available funding.
For my part, then, I'm not convinced the changes have been guided by a sense of what will best serve our students. I would have been much more convinced if the National Library had led with their analysis of what was wrong with the current system, and if they had undertaken a controlled trial measuring the outcomes of the proposed new systems against those of the old. Evidence-based policy making – surely a teacher is allowed to dream.
Bernard Beckett is an author of children’s and young adult fiction, and a secondary-school teacher whose knowledge of teenage culture is reflected in his credible adolescent characters. He has published numerous novels, and won many awards for his fiction, including the Young Adult Fiction Category of the 2005 New Zealand Post Book Awards and the 2005 Esther Glen Award at the LIANZA Childrens Book Awards. His novel Genesis, which won the Young Adult Category in the 2007 New Zealand Post Book Awards, made publishing history when UK publisher Quercus Books offered the largest advance ever for a young adult novel in New Zealand. Find out more about Bernard Beckett in his Book Council Writers file or visit his website.