Building Borderlands

Extract from Access, the Professional Journal for the Australian School Library Association, April 2011

 Schooling in disciplinary knowledge is still the key means by which young people move, at least in theory, from basic alphabetical literacy to the high levels of literacy and numeracy needed to function optimally in a ‘super-complex’ economic and social order. As expressed in a recent Report from America’s National Center on Education and the Economy (2007):

This is a world in which a very high level of preparation in reading, writing, speaking mathematics, science, literature, history, and the arts will be an indispensable foundation for everything that comes after for most members of the workforce (NCEE, 2007: 6).


In other words, we are living at a time when it is impossible to ignore fundamental literacies and numeracies, no matter how dexterous young people may be in using digital technologies for social networking.  Yet this same report goes on to make it abundantly clear that performing well on standardised assessment tasks will not be enough to meet the learning needs of this century’s young people:

[The 21st century]… is a world in which comfort with ideas and abstractions is the passport to a good job, in which creativity and innovation are the keys to the good life, in which high levels of education – a very different kind of education than most of us have had – are going to be the only security there is (author’s emphasis). (NCEE, 2007: 6-7)

It follows that a better education cannot mean more of the same education. In other words, standardised testing of mandated content is no longer sufficient for what Daniel Pink (2005) calls our Conceptual Age, an age in which knowledge production has moved from vertical hierarchies of command and control to fluid horizontal networks in which  information travels quickly, embracing valuable new nodes and by-passing nodes that have ceased to add value. This is happening, he argues, at all levels of economic and social life, not only in the professions. Knowledge production, according to Pink, is mobilized by new cultural forms and modes of consumption that demand “high concept” capacities (facility with complex ideas) and “high touch” capacities (ability to reach and engage others) in the community and the workforce.

Because processes of production and distribution have accelerated the pace of change and disrupted traditional industrial processes, it is unlikely that our young people will be spending long periods in any one place doing only one thing. With so much technological innovation driving new ways of engaging in social activity, young people are much more likely to be engaged in fast-moving, complex problem-solving than we have been. If our young people can learn to cross borders of all types – disciplinary borders, geographical borders, relational borders – they are more likely to be successful in the world of 21st century work. Young people who can engage fully as 21st century citizens will combine high concept and high touch capacities – that is, high levels of alphabetical, digital, and scientific literacy and numeracy, with highly developed personal, interpersonal and aesthetic sensibilities. Such capacities will be best acquired in a pedagogical borderland that responds to both the imperative to perform and the imperative to learn.


The important point is that schooling as a preparation for the future continues to anticipate a social order that is on the wane. In this century we will continue to care for, teach, test and credential young people in more efficient, effective and socially sanctioned ways, but we must also been seen to value and build the relentlessly curious disposition to knowledge and understanding that allows learning to flourish long after schooling is over. The quest for lifelong, lifewide learning is thus a matter of working optimally at the intersection of both school culture and café culture, and it is in an increasing number of school libraries that we are able to detect embryonic developments to this end.

An important lesson we can learn from café society is the importance that attaches to the physical environment once people have discretion about how and when they learn. Again, librarians have picked up on this lesson more readily than many of their educational counterparts. Enabling learning environments are not just social and pedagogical and social – they are also aesthetically inviting, and this is understood in the way many school and university libraries now organize the space, the seating and the stacks. When young people enter a space for learning – whether physical or virtual or a combination of both – they receive strong messages about what their experience of learning is likely to be. If the messages they receive tell them that ‘this looks like a nice place to be’, that ‘something interesting might happen here’, that ‘people who are like me seem to enjoy being here’ that ‘there is something special going on here’, and that ‘I will be respected and assisted here’, they are much more likely to linger and to learn.

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