Working in a school library, you quickly realise that one of its key roles is as a place of sanctuary for many students, one that supports both their social and emotional wellbeing. With the reported decline in children and young people’s mental health over recent years, this has never been more important. Whilst a lot has been written about the role the library plays as a safe haven for students, less has been written about the innovative programmes of learning that occur in school libraries, which can have huge social and emotional benefits for students. In the following paragraphs, I will look at how inquiry-based learning can support and enhance a student’s mental well-being, using examples from the library I work in at St Benedict’s Senior School in Ealing, London, as well as reports from key library practitioners and associations.
The library space
The library is often seen as a place to de-stress before and after exams. Indeed, the forms of learning that occur in the library are often markedly different from those found in the classroom or as tested in the exam hall. Students can select their own resources to read or study, put in to practice independent learning skills and direct their own learning. This is essential at a time when the curriculum, with its focus on frequent testing, fosters “increasingly competitive and individualistic attitudes and ways of learning, requiring teachers to become more traditional in their pedagogy.” (Child, 2018 (Issue 105)) This often results in stressed and anxious students (and teachers), who are forever comparing themselves to others. One of the key reasons children’s mental health has been deteriorating over the last decade can be attributed to the increased focus given to exams and academic attainment “with 80% of young people saying that exam pressure has significantly impacted on their mental health.” (Cowburn & Blow, 2017)
To counter this at St Benedict’s, we have created a library lesson programme for years 7 and 8, which is unassessed and aims to be fun and interactive. Students are invited to take part in different activities in each library lesson, learning for example how to select a good fiction book, understand the Dewey system or select relevant information. In these lessons, students move around the library, work together in pairs or groups and towards the end of the lesson, have time to browse, borrow or read a book. Students consequently develop independent learning skills, have autonomy over their reading choices and a chance to unwind and have fun. I have received reports from a number of teachers that these are students’ favourite lessons of the week!
IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions)
The role the school library can play in learning has been identified in the IFLA School Library guidelines, which states that it should operate as a “safe space where individual curiosity, creativity, and an orientation toward learning are encouraged and supported and where students can explore diverse topics, even controversial topics, in privacy and safety.” (IFLA, 2015) This can be achieved by implementing an Inquiry-based programme, which allows students to explore and develop a project within a clear learning framework. Inquiry-based learning counters the ‘teach to test’ model by empowering the student to direct their own research and develop their own critical thinking skills. It is also often collaborative, ensuring that it is a more interactive, fun and supportive way of learning than individually testing students.
Libraries are at the forefront of Inquiry-based learning, as attested by the recently launched ‘Inquiry as an approach to learning - phase two’ of the Great School Libraries campaign (Hutchinson, 2020). Many librarians follow the FOSIL framework to teach Inquiry skills, and whilst we have not yet implemented the FOSIL model at St Benedict’s, we have successfully embedded the HPQ and EPQ into our school curriculum. This project-based qualification guides students through identifying a topic, researching and selecting sources, writing (or creating an artifact) from their findings and then reflecting on what they have learnt during this process. I work closely with our EPQ centre coordinator, Dr Julie Greenhough, to support these students, helping deliver the ‘Taught Element’ part of the course, as well as being the EPQ Lead Supervisor (read more on our successful partnership here). This helps to ensure that students understand the important role the library and librarian can play in supporting their projects and the research process. Project-based learning is a brilliant way for students to learn an array of independent learning and critical thinking skills, one that frees them from the confines of memorising and testing and ultimately create more rounded, independent and self-assured learners.
It is through library lessons and the introduction of inquiry-based learning, as implemented through a framework such as FOSIL or the EPQ/HPQ, that students have the opportunity to think independently and direct their own learning. This has the effect of raising a student’s self-belief and confidence in their academic abilities, along with their self-esteem and sense of identity. They can create, research and reflect, free from the pressures of comparative, ‘teach to test’, formal classroom learning. Students also develop many ‘softer’ skills whilst participating in library lessons or carrying out project work, such as questioning and listening, cooperation and compromise, skills which are increasingly valued in the workplace. This interaction can greatly enhance a student’s sense of belonging and connection, helping them forge stronger and happier relationships, whilst at school and beyond. The championing of this form of learning means that the school library has a unique and important role to play in supporting students overall mental health whilst studying at school. The leading, innovative and creative role the librarian plays also means the school library is an exciting and rewarding place to work, right at the forefront of creating an inclusive and happy school community. As children’s author Kelly Barnhill perhaps sums up best: “School libraries are part sanctuary, part laboratory, part university, part launch pad; every library on earth is a multiverse — truth inside of truth, story inside of a story, idea inside of idea —which is to say, infinite.” (Barnhill, 2017)
Extract from an article published in The School Librarian (September 2020)
Emma Wallace @LibraryWallace Senior Librarian, St Benedict’s School 28th April 2020
Barnhill, K. (2017, February 04). Newberry Medalist Kelly Barnhill. Retrieved from Mr Schu Reads Blogspot: http://mrschureads.blogspot.com/2017/02/newbery-medalist-kelly-barnhill.html
Child, J. (2018 (Issue 105), Term 2). School libraries enhancing student wellbeing. Retrieved from SCIS: https://www.scisdata.com/connections/issue-105/school-libraries-enhancing-student-wellbeing
Cowburn, A., & Blow, M. (2017). Wiseup: Prioritising wellbeing in schools. Retrieved from Young Minds: https://youngminds.org.uk/media/1428/wise-up-prioritising-wellbeing-in-schools.pdf
Greenhough, J., & Wallace, E. (2019, September 10). Weathering the storm: repositioning the role of the librarian. Retrieved from JCS Online Resources: https://jcsonlineresources.org/blog/weathering-the-storm-repositioning-the-role-of-the-librarian/
Hutchinson, E. (2020, March). Inquiry as an approach to learning - Phase 2. Retrieved from Great School Libraries: https://www.greatschoollibraries.org.uk/post/inquiry-as-an-approach-to-learning-phase-2
IFLA. (2015, June). IFLA School LIbrary Guidelines . Retrieved from IFLA: https://www.ifla.org/files/assets/school-libraries-resource-centers/publications/ifla-school-library-guidelines.pdf