Libraries, Not Schools

Joel HammonUncategorized

Four teens gathered in front of a wire fence, one has a big smile with his hands out.

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When people first hear about self-directed learning it sounds like a crazy idea–everything is optional; young people have the freedom to follow their interests and decide how to spend their time; no grades, credits, or diplomas, just learning for learning’s sake. It sounds crazy, but it’s not. Self-directed learning is actually quite ordinary, and we have many opportunities and institutions in our culture based on self-directed principles.

Take libraries. They have the same basic mission as schools do to help people learn. In practice and underlying philosophy, though, schools and libraries are miles apart. I taught in conventional schools for a long time, and I would say the defining feature, baked into schools’ DNA, is compulsion. Or to put it more mildly, people besides the students and parents are making most of the decisions–compulsory attendance, start time, amount of homework, curricula, etc. And then as a teacher, I had all sorts of ways at my disposal to ensure students complied with the requirements other people were putting on them–grades, credits, calls home, write-ups, detentions, suspensions. When I was a student in a conventional school, all of these things didn’t feel coercive to me because I generally wanted to be there, was good at “doing school,” and was compliant with the rules of the school. But for kids who don’t want to be there, aren’t interested in the curriculum, or bristle at the regulations in school, they feel the inherent coercion. This can lead to boredom, stress, rebellion, anxiety, and all of the other feelings we have when we are forced to be somewhere and do things we don’t want to do.

Contrast this with the DNA of libraries and how they support learning. They are opt-in. No one forces you to go to the library. It is low-pressure and self-paced–you can take as much or as little time to learn something as you want. You learn based on your interests, not the requirements of the library. There are no institutional judgments or punishments about your use of the library. There are staff members there that will help you learn what you want and achieve the goals you have for yourself–not their goals or the library administration’s goals. They sponsor special programs or offer classes if you want to learn from others.

This culture of autonomy and self-direction means that in my experience, libraries are generally pleasant places to be. People enjoy spending time there and using the resources the library makes available. And increasingly, libraries are viewing their mission as way more than just lending out books. My local library lends or provides all sorts of resources. You can learn languages online, research your genealogy through, borrow a telescope, get board games, puzzles, get access to newspapers, use ABCMouse or Brainfuse. I’ve heard of some libraries providing full maker spaces with all sorts of tools like 3D printers and laser cutters.

Do a quick thought experiment where libraries act like schools. You are required to spend 30 hours a week inside the library building each week. When you arrive, a librarian assigns you a book to read, whether you are interested in the topic or not. At the end of the day, they give you a test or make you write a paper about what you learned. If you don’t do well enough on that, they make you read the book again the next day. They keep track of your activities while at the library and create a scorecard about your “library performance” that they pass along to your employer or family quarterly. Would you enjoy your time at the library?

One more thought experiment–what if we took an equivalent amount of money that we spend per student in public schools (roughly $17,000 in the school district where I live) and used that slightly differently. Instead of requiring kids to attend school, what if they all had free library cards; memberships at YMCAs, museums, summer camps, youth athletic leagues, community theaters; “after school” enrichment activities like arts classes, robotics, coding were available all day; bus passes to get around; and the ability to work with tutors in areas they were interested in. Also, they had adult mentors through the library that could help them navigate all of the resources available, and come up with a plan that worked for them based on their interests, abilities, and goals. How many kids would choose something like that over a conventional school?

We don’t have broad-based publicly financed support for self-directed learning like this yet. What we do have are self-directed learning centers like The Learning Cooperatives that act much more like libraries than schools.