Magazine article CSLA Journal

Wicked Questions: A Conversation Exploring Our Challenges

Magazine article CSLA Journal

Wicked Questions: A Conversation Exploring Our Challenges

Article excerpt

Wicked questions are those that do not have easy answers; the solutions are contextual and complex and ever changing. The intent of engaging in wicked questions in school libraries is not to deliver a prescriptive answer; there is no single solution. Rather the goal is to define the problem, to present strategies, and to redefine the problem. Because we are distributed in many contexts, with different school and community cultures, the strategies for engaging in potential answers and solutions to problems may differ. But in defining and naming the things that challenge us, for which we cannot easily discover a path to success, by trying and failing and reflecting, we can learn and create pathways to achieve our goals - or perhaps the primary goal, of helping our students learn. What follows is a conversation with Dr. Doug Achterman (DA) and Dr. Mary Ann Harlan (MH, italics) about wicked questions that they are observing as relevant to school libraries.

School Library Staffing Numbers Have Declined

DA: In 2008, when I completed my dissertation on the relationship between strong school library programs and student achievement in California, there were 1,253 teacher librarians in the state. Like so many other of these studies, this one demonstrated that strong school library programs and student achievement were related even after accounting for socio-economic factors (Achterman, 2008). Some school districts support library programs because they see a clear value to their students and consider them essential in the operation of a complete educational system. Most do not. Today, the number of teacher librarians in California has declined to 859. And the trend began well before the economic downturn: California has lost over 500 teacher librarians in the last fifteen years. Today just nine percent of California's public schools employ a teacher librarian even part time (California Department of Education, 2015).

From my vantage point as a community college librarian, the most troubling consequence of this decline is the gross inequity of opportunity among our students. Students who come to community college prepared to conduct rigorous research for their courses are at a distinct advantage, and while college librarians routinely note the lack of information literacy skills among their students, instructors continue to design research assignments that assume college level research abilities. And just as with the acquisition of academic language, the development of information literacy skills enables new levels of critical thinking. Students who come to college without such skills are more than doubly disadvantaged. The wicked question is this: how can we frame school library staffing as the equity issue it is?

Equity, Resources and Human capital

MH: This is a wicked question because as I read this a number of questions come to mind: Why doesn't our research have an impact? What is it that isn't understood about librarians and information literacy? Why is there a disconnect between K12 education and higher education, and a lack of articulation? But at its core it introduces to me a question: Why is there a lack of understanding about a modern school librarian? I am reminded of a position Dr. Ken Haycock (2013) has been speaking to in the past several years: it isn't the school library [program] that matters, it is the school librarian. The tendency to use school library programs, or school libraries, seems to obscure the vital work that people do. And a tendency to equate equity with resources tends to ignore human capital.

DA: I've done work with faculties thinking about revitalizing their library spaces, and many of my questions focus on the role the librarian might play in that space. But your point raises another issue about the good work teacher librarians do. I remember you saying to me that we have this expectation that teacher librarians will be superheroes, and that perhaps this is a set-up for failure. …

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