Kathy Sanford is a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Victoria. Her research fields are teacher education, literacy, video games and learning.
What that basic bio doesn’t tell you is that Kathy is a leading thinker of 21st century teaching and learning. That she is intensely focused and passionate about the larger context of learning – the natural environment of the digital generation and the community partners that surround the formal education system. That her enthusiasm for learning, combined with her depth of experience in facilitating learning, dazzles and inspires. That she is spearheading a progressive and collaborative teacher training program that draws together experienced teachers, keen student-teachers and teens in a collaborative learning environment.
What’s awesome here is that everyone involved is learning – not just the high school students, not just the student teachers, but also the experienced teachers and professors. There is an openness and humility to this approach that honours the talents and prior understandings that each learner brings, not just university faculty and experienced classroom teachers, but also the student teachers and the high school students themselves.
So I was particularly thrilled to learn that Kathy is now conducting research on the transformation of libraries. Academic libraries are undergoing exciting changes to a learning commons environment. And public libraries are going through similar cataclysmic change.
Kathy recently visited our library to explore public library transformation from the perspective of some members of our staff. She facilitated a wonderfully rich conversation that explored the backgrounds of the participants and how that prepared us for supporting library users. She probed changes in libraries as seen through philosophy, structure, funding and approaches to service. We also discussed how we see libraries evolving over the coming years and challenges that we expect to encounter in making these changes.
Now how often do we actually make time for this sort of step-back-and-consider-changes conversation? And include staff from a wide variety of roles within the library, not just professional librarians? And how often do we do this with someone who comes from outside the library world?
Facilitating our library conversation, we had an educator who is involved in leading-edge and emergent teaching practices. And as those two worlds intersected that day, it was refreshing to hear Kathy’s observations on the changes we’re seeing in libraries.
After hearing the perspectives of the various public library staff about how the work is changing, Kathy summarized what she heard by saying, “Based on everything you’re telling me, you’re educators!”.
While our instinctual response was general agreement, we quickly regrouped with a resounding, “But no…”! But no, we don’t know about pedagogy. But no, we don’t have anything to do with curriculum and assessment. But no, we don’t grade people. But no, that’s not our world. Public libraries are where people go when they want to know something, not where they go because they are required to be there.
But yes, we facilitate learning. That’s a resounding yes. We just don’t identify with the label “educator”.
Now isn’t that interesting?
Just as people have a narrow view of what libraries are, based on the libraries of their youth, we had a narrow view of education, likely based on experiences of schools in our youth.
And then the big moment of insight. “Public libraries are on the cutting edge of where learning needs to go”, says Kathy.
The school system is changing from being content-focused to an approach that nurtures learning and 21st century fluency skills, to better prepare learners for life and work in the 21st century. Educators like Kathy are transforming the system so students develop the skills and abilities needed to function in a rapidly changing society.
The idea is that student learning should focus on how to learn. And when you think about it, learning isn’t limited to schools. People don’t start learning when they enter a school building and then stop when they exit. People learn all the time – it’s a natural and necessary process. And in today’s rapidly-changing world, supporting a learning society is essential. As Diana Roten, Director of the Digital Media and Learning Project, says:
“Learning the content is very much the 20th century idea around education. But in the 21st century, it’s learning the tools and the skills of remaking that content and becoming the creator and the producer. We know that the learning outside of school matters tremendously for the learning in school…How can we be more active about linking those two together?” (See “21st Century Learner” video.)
The public library supports informal learning. It is a gathering place that supports individuality and creativity, where you can follow your passions and interests and share your ideas. A place where you can learn about the world and feed your curiosity. While schools are trying to replicate in the classroom the world in which students are living, public libraries are already supporting that authentic and self-directed learning.
It could be argued that libraries are at the cutting edge of the transformation of learning. That libraries are natural and effective partners for schools and lifelong learners. That they are an essential part of the larger context of learning.
Public libraries on the cutting edge of learning. Fancy that. I guess we really are 21st century educators!