Supporting the school’s strategic vision to create intellectually curious, independent learners
I’m pleased to acknowledge that St Benedict’s School, West London, recognises the importance of pupils being “self-reliant independent learners, inspired to be active participants in their learning”, as described in the School’s ‘Strategic Plan 2020-2023’ (St Benedict's School, 2020, p. 1). As St Benedict’s senior librarian, I too see this as a vital skill for pupils to acquire whilst at school and believe the library should play an integral part in achieving this. I enjoy deliberating and planning how to best help pupils to become independent learners and view this as a dynamic and exciting part of my role. I am also very lucky to work with Dr Julie Greenhough, St Benedict’s EPQ Centre Coordinator, a passionate advocate of the qualification and the library, viewing both as a means to ensuring pupils become confident, independent learners. This recognition and correlation of our roles and the school’s strategic vision, has ensured that we have forged a strong partnership and had the opportunity to explore, innovate and create a programme to best support to pupils in developing their information literacy and critical thinking skills whilst at St Benedict’s.
Another aim mentioned in St Benedict’s strategic plan is “to develop a culture of intellectual curiosity” (St Benedict's School, 2020, p. 7). This is something that I believe underpins a school library’s raison d’etre, providing a central hub and space, support and, of course, resources, for pupils to really be intellectually curious. At a time when school curriculums have increasingly turned to the more traditional teach to test model, with exam pressures never far away for pupils, a space that allows independent exploration and curiosity is needed more than ever. At St Benedict’s, the Extended Project Qualification provides a formal structure for this exploration to occur, allowing year 12 pupils to choose a topic of their choice and investigate it in-depth over an extended period. Whilst the EPQ is just one of a number of frameworks available for a school to run pupil-led research projects, it is important that a framework is in place, because the skills needed to be successful, such as independent learning and critical thinking, are not ‘natural’ or innate, but must be learnt. Pupils in particular are often intimidated by the idea of exploring a topic on their own, without teachers directing them to specific, pre-selected sources or ideas. It would be unfair to expect pupils to just ‘do’ a research project, without providing them with the necessary research and critical thinking skills to be successful. The EPQ and the school library provide the space, support and guidance for pupils to be intellectually curious on a topic of their choice, helping them to develop the confidence to explore and express their own ideas.
St Benedict’s strategic vision recognises the key role a school and its staff play in supporting pupils to be prepared for the twenty-first century workplace - “in a fast-changing world, we will remain abreast of developments so that we can respond appropriately for the benefit of the pupils” (St Benedict's School, 2020, p. 6). Both the EPQ and library departments work together to ensure the school meets this challenge, by reflecting and responding to the needs of the pupils so as to ensure they are successful not just in the qualification, but in their wider studies and future careers. Dr Greenhough has created a thorough ‘Taught Element’ EPQ programme, covering topics such as how to create a good research question, write an academic essay, reference and create a bibliography, present and communicate findings and reflect on the finished project. As a librarian, I teach a number of these lessons, including showing pupils the extensive digital, academic resource collection we now have available, along with our print collection. Being involved in the teaching helps both pupils and staff understand the role I and the school library can play in their research project journey. In 2017, I also gained the additional position of ‘EPQ Lead Supervisor’, which has helped to further raise my status within the school and reflect the advice and guidance I can provide to both supervisors and pupils. The clear understanding EPQ pupils gain of the library as a place of research, coupled with the skills they learn through the taught element, ensures they are well prepared to continue their future studies in higher education.
The idea that, because pupils have been born into a digital world they are therefore ‘digital natives’ has proven to be untrue (De Bruyckere, 2019). Knowing that this is a myth demands that schools rise to the challenge of ensuring pupils are taught the skills to be digitally savvy. This is particularly important as we are confronted with an almost unlimited stream of online information, coupled with the rising challenges and complexities of dis and misinformation. As a library’s collection is no longer constrained to its four walls and a librarian no longer acts as the gatekeeper to this information, it is essential that pupils develop the skills themselves to be able to differentiate reliable, trustworthy, academic information themselves. As a result, EPQ pupils are taught how to research successfully, create effective search strategies, experiment with different search engines, and how to critically evaluate and select trustworthy sources. These lessons are constantly evolving, with Julie and I frequently exchanging ideas on possible new content to be added to the ‘Taught Element’ programme. We also endeavour to stay up to date with the latest developments in social media, information and technology to ensure we are providing pupils with the most up to date skills and information. (An example is the ubiquitous topic of ‘fake news’, which Julie and I talked about at the JCSs 2019 digital conference).
Through the implementation of a research framework, the teaching of information literacy skills and the provision of academic resources, St Benedict’s offers pupils the opportunity to become advanced independent learners. The partnership between the EPQ and library departments responds to the changing needs of pupils, whilst also supporting St Benedict’s wider strategic vision. This partnership has helped to empower me in the library, embedding my position within the curriculum and formally reflecting the role the library can provide as a research facility. We hope that pupils will leave St Benedict’s as confident, independent learners, benefiting them both now, and in the future.
Written by Emma Wallace
Senior Librarian, St Benedict’s School