When I took up my previous post as a school librarian, there was a sign posted on the library door that read something to the effect of “We do not give grades or assessments; we give you the tools to make them better.” I took the sign down primarily for aesthetic reasons, but lately I have found myself thinking about that message and its implications for the future of school libraries.
Although I do not necessarily believe that librarians should give formal letter grades, I do believe that librarians need to be involved in the assessment process and have knowledge of assessment strategies. Assessment has not traditionally been in the remit of school librarians, particularly in the UK, but I argue that a greater involvement in assessment will help school libraries to shake off the “book warehouse” label once and for all, and librarians will be able to place themselves firmly at the heart of teaching and learning.
School librarians need to know about assessment strategies for a variety of reasons. The most obvious one is that librarians need to know how projects are being assessed so that they can help pupils to research effectively. In my previous post as a school librarian, I was often asked to conduct research skills lessons without being given any details of the project on which the pupils were working. I would explain that an overview of the project and details on how it was being assessed would allow me to tailor my lesson to the specific projects so pupils could learn research skills in context.
The role of librarians in assessment should go much further, however, as we are not merely providing books and computers for research. Despite the efforts of some innovative librarians, the teaching role of school librarians is ignored in many schools in the UK, which means that librarians have traditionally been tasked with providing shallow, one-off research skills lessons during induction sessions. This means that instruction in school libraries often consists of basic database instruction, an explanation of the classification system, and a few tips on search engines.
Unless the librarian has managed to succeed in scheduling more time in the timetable, he or she is unlikely to be able to get involved in research projects from start to finish or be able to measure the impact of the research instruction. Therefore, I must ask how can we ensure our teaching has any impact on student learning? Traditional methods of feedback such as questionnaires only tell us a teacher’s or student’s opinion on the lessons we led. In order to truly examine whether our teaching is helping pupils we need to find better ways of assessing our instruction and we should be prepared to alter our methods if we find they are not working.
Furthermore, many teachers who have espoused traditional views towards teaching are feeling nervous about the concept of “21st Century Skills” or the Curriculum for Excellence. Teachers who are more familiar with summative assessment do not feel entirely comfortable with formative assessment, but we librarians can take the lead in helping teachers to improve formative assessment methods. After all, we have long understood the importance of authentic, project-based learning, even if we have not always been involved in the formal assessment process. Many school librarians have knowledge of web 2.0 tools and can help teachers understand how tools such as blogs and wikis can be used for assessment.
School librarians in Scotland had a narrow escape this year. Unfortunately, not all have kept their jobs and many find that their pay or hours have been reduced, but many believed that it could have been worse. Nevertheless, we need to be thinking more about how to proceed in the future. The recent budget consultations showed that most people outside of education (and sadly some within) still think of librarians as book stampers and shushers. It is more important than ever for school librarians to take a more active role in learning and teaching.