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Reflections on AASL’s new Standards for the 21st-Century Learner January 4, 2008

Posted by AASLblog Archivist in Hot Topics.

It’s been a little over two months since I returned from Reno and the unveiling of AASL’s Standards for the 21st-Century Learner. In that time I’ve mulled over the implications of the new standards; compared them to the mandates of NCLB; tried to align them with NETS-S and the national curriculum standards for science, reading, math and social studies; and struggled to translate them into the behavioral objectives required by our school system…but still I do not feel that sense of empowerment and excitement I felt when I first read Information Power: Building Partnerships for Learning. Instead, I have come to wonder: “Are the new standards a step forward to a more holistic and comprehensive view of learners, or a misstep that will serve to marginalize our profession?”

I did not begin with these misgivings; instead, I initially felt the faint stirrings of excitement when I first read the “Common Beliefs.” For me, the nine belief statements that preface the standards encapsulate the ideals that both guide and inspire our profession: reading is a window to the world; inquiry does provide a framework for learning; and school libraries are essential to the development of learning skills. But doubt crept in when I noticed what is missing from the belief statements and what is not translated into action in the standards. My misgivings solidified as I considered how to teach the skills, dispositions, responsibilities and self-assessment strategies. And I was moved to write, when I realized the implications not only for teaching, learning and collaboration, but also for how school libraries and by extension school librarians will be perceived.

As AASL President Sara Kelly Johns notes in another context, “In a time of budget cuts and confusion about the role of library media specialists,” now is most emphatically not the time to fail to embed in national standards for students’ learning the critical importance of equitable access and school libraries; nor is it the time to fail to reaffirm the vital role of library media specialists. Unfortunately, only the belief statements state the critical role of school libraries and library media specialists to student achievement and belief statements are not standards. Standards drive instruction and assessment, not belief statements.

Another problem is that not all of the belief statements have been translated into teachable and assessable standards and indicators. Common Belief # 2 states: “Inquiry provides a framework for learning. To become independent learners, students must gain not only the skills but also the disposition to use those skills, along with an understanding of their own responsibilities and self-assessment strategies.” “The disposition to use those skills” is difficult and I would argue in some cases impossible to either teach or assess. For example, Standard 1.2.6 states, “Display emotional resilience by persisting in information searching despite challenges.” How do you teach/assess emotional resilience, especially at the middle and high school levels when library media specialists see students sporadically and to complete a specific task?

Unfortunately, the problems with the Dispositions in Action do not end with the twinned problems of assess-ability and teach-ability. Other problems with Dispositions in Action include that it:

· Prescribes the teaching of character traits

· Usurps the role of parents

· Not only usurps the role of parents, but also may directly contradict the culturalvalues and mores of many of our minority students; for example, Indicator 1.2.4 states, “Maintain a critical stance by questioning the validity and accuracy of all information,” which is most distinctly a white American value

· Can not easily or effectively be taught, measured and assessed although certainly any teacher worth his/her salt already discusses and illustrates the value of persistence, curiosity and teamwork to name but a few of the dispositions; the difference is that the second occurs naturally, in situ.

· Teaches dispositions that are not specific to success in information literacy

While possession of the dispositions is certainly desirable, our role is not to mold character, but rather to educate minds to employ the higher-order critical and creative thinking skills that are not only critical to our students’ successes, but also to maintaining the stability of our democratic society.

In addition to teaching students how to use higher-order critical and creative thinking skills, we must also prepare our students to use the information literacy skills that are so critical to their success in the 21st-Century; to do that we need a clear definition that provides guidelines for instruction. Instead, Common Belief #6 states: “The definition of information literacy has become more complex as resources and technologies have changed.” Neither the belief statement nor the standards answer the question, “What is the more complex definition?” Based on the promise implicit in the title, Standards for the 21st-Century Learner, I expected a definition that encompassed the 21st-Century Literacies most would agree are “crucial skills for this century,” but found that the only literacies mentioned are visual, textual, digital, and technological – all of which are of course essential – but so too are mathematical, scientific, cultural, and economic literacies (to include but a few of the critical knowledge bases our students will need to succeed).

Even if you argued – and I of course would not – that mathematical, scientific, cultural and economic literacies are not the domain of the library media specialist, where is media literacy, not only an area traditionally taught by library media specialists, but an ever more increasingly important medium for delivering information? Or is media literacy subsumed into digital literacy? If that is the case, then, we have several problems. The most widely cited definition of digital literacy is that provided by Microsoft, yet their definition encompasses only entry-level technology skills. I assume we mean much more than the ability to use word processing software. Should we then create a glossary that defines what librarians mean by digital literacy, or should we seek to use a common vocabulary with our colleagues in other disciplines?

Let us – just for the sake of argument – dismiss the concerns raised in the previous paragraphs as questions related to minor differences in semantics. Let us further assume then that the belief statement does include the full range of literacies our students will need to succeed. Even if we make these two leaps of faith, we are still left with the same inconvertible truths: standards, not belief statements, drive instruction and, unfortunately, not all of the belief statements have been converted into standards. Two of the most important – at least to ensure the future of school libraries – do not appear at all: “Equitable access is a key component for education” and “School libraries are essential to the development of learning skills” which is more than unfortunate because as Christopher Harris notes in School Library Journal, “School libraries are becoming marginalized by state and federal regulations. The No Child Left Behind Act, for example, does not recognize librarians as teachers. Moreover, the ‘65 percent solution,’ an education budget formula being enacted by many states, also jeopardizes library funding. Add to this the ‘Google effect,’ which has schools questioning the relevancy of libraries in an online world, and we are in real trouble” (June 2006).

Another factor that might serve to marginalize the importance of our profession in the eyes of others is the move, clearly evident in Standards 1 and 2, from problem-based to inquiry-based learning. The implications and potential outcomes of this shift are many and varied:

One important distinction between problem-based and inquiry-based learning is that inquiry-based learning explores questions in much more depth for a greater period of time, possibly an entire semester. Given the time constraints imposed by the test-driven environment created by NCLB, are we ignoring reality?
1) Inquiry-based learning may or may not result in a product that can be evaluated which has clear implications for assessment. In an era of data-driven decision-making, the lack of clearly quantifiable data marginalizes what we do in the eyes of administrators and other decision makers.
2) Many of the information seeking process models in wide-spread use, like Big6, are problem, not inquiry-based. As a result, new models will need to be created and/or existing models modified to include inquiry-based learning. The question then is who will do this and when will the model(s) be available?
3) The distinction between inquiry and problem-based learning is not clarified in the standards, nor is the level of inquiry-based learning (clarification/verification; structured inquiry; guided inquiry; or open inquiry) the standards hope to inspire.
4) NETS –S is clearly problem-based so the alignment that existed with ISTE’s standards is now tenuous at best. NETS-S is also clearly aligned with the requirements of NCLB and national curriculum standards. The alignment between AASL’s new standards and NCLB, national curriculum standards, and NETS-S is only evident at the skill indicator level, not at the standard level.

Why not a more realistic statement that it is not an either/or; both inquiry-based and problem-based can form the basis of valid information-seeking process models?

Another area of concern is that some of the Responsibilities like 2.3.1, “Connect understanding to the real world,” are skills that need to be taught. The ability to transfer knowledge is not only a higher-level skill, but also one that must be carefully considered and incorporated into the design of the lesson(s). The same can be said of many of the Self-assessment Strategies, like “Interpret new information based on cultural and social context.” (4.4.4) Perhaps, how and when students will be taught the prerequisite skills prior to their assumption of these Responsibilities and Self-assessment Strategies will be made clear in the Scope and Sequence.

Finally, it wasn’t until I read the indicators for Standard 4, “Pursue personal and aesthetic growth,” that I realized that concealed within this standard were some of the skills necessary to the development of reading comprehension and fluency. Like Standards 1 & 2 which could have been used to build partnerships with technology and content area teachers, this standard could have been used to build collaboration with reading teachers and specialists. As I have argued in Reading Is Our Business (2006), for too long library media specialists have abdicated our rightful position as critical partners in the development of reading comprehension. As a result, funds are being diverted from school libraries to purchase classroom libraries, library media specialists are being replaced by instructional assistants and when certified librarians are employed, they are not viewed as instructional leaders or as full partners in the learning process.

While the consequences for our profession are dire, the repercussions for our students are even grimmer. The correlation between poverty and low reading achievement is well documented. Of people with the lowest literacy skills, 43% live in poverty, and 70% of prison inmates read at the lowest proficiency levels (U.S. Department of Education 2000). Equally well researched is the link between passive readers and poor comprehension skills. Passive readers are not engaged in meaningful ways with the text. Disengaged readers will never choose to “Pursue personal and aesthetic growth.” Nor will they ever discover that “Reading is a window to the world” because these less-than-engaged readers do not know how to utilize comprehension strategies to increase either understanding or engagement. Collaborative partnerships must be forged with reading teachers and specialists if we hope to transform passive readers into actively engaged members of a community of strategic readers and thinkers, yet only two indicators, 4.1.1 and 4.1.2, allude to reading.

In conclusion, much must be done before the promise from the AASL website, “‘Standards for the 21st-Century Learner’ offer vision for teaching and learning to both guide and beckon our profession as education leaders. They will both shape the library program and serve as a tool for library media specialists to use to shape the learning of students in the school,” is fulfilled.

posted by Sharon Grimes, Supervisor of Library Information Services, Baltimore, MD


1. Deborah Stafford [Visitor] - January 5, 2008

I have been doing some comparing of the new AASL standards with the new NETS from ISTE. They are compatible but as has been said, they are more visionary than specific.

I think there are two components that are essential. One is assessment. The AASL document does address “Self-Assessment Strategies” which are important but does not address how programs can be assessed. As Doug Johnson says “What gets measured gets done”. This is where I think the WORK needs to be done to make these standards useful.

Second; while I like visionary goals, I also find that since we veered away from the old standards that addressed collection size and other similar standards, many school libraries have lost ground. I feel we need to have an accompanying set of standards addressing the physical needs of the program. NCA and the other accredidation associations do not address these. If no one addresses them, I feel we will continue to lose ground.

2. Sara Kelly JOHNS [Member] - January 5, 2008

Thanks for posting this, Sharon. It is very timely as AASL moves into the next phases of the new standards and guidelines.

Kathy Lowe who is the executive director of the Massachusetts School Library Association and the chair of the AASL Learning Assessment and Indicators Task Force is tracking this thread closely. Her task force will read these comments carefully as they do their work which is the “next step” for the standards. Several of the people on it are from the standards writing task force and they start with the work they did while writing that didn’t go into the standards themselves. Joining them are Fran Glick from your Baltimore schools and virtual member/assessment expert Vi Harada.

Indeed, there needs to be more–and there will be. Besides the Learning Assessment and Indicators piece, the Implementation project (that task force is chaired by Susan Ballard) is on its way and, coordinated with the standards, the SLM Program Guidelines (that task force is chaired by Bonnie Grimble).

Some people have asked why the standards came out on their own without the other pieces but in my mind, it does give the profession an opportunity to study and reflect and develop ideas for teaching and curriculum. And there will be opportunities to share those reflections, lesson plans, and ideas ith the working task forces. This blog is one of them!

The comments here and elsewhere will be carefully considered as were the comments from the field as the standards were developed. To paraphrase Gail Bush, the standards are like Chapter 2 of the 1998 Information Power document; the Learning Assessment and Indicators piece is the rest of the book

So, stay tuned to your AASL station for opportunities for input and the “rest of the story”…it will be much more complete by this time next year.

3. Mike Eisenberg [Visitor] - January 5, 2008

Sharon makes some EXCELLENT points.

I have thought about this and feel VERY strongly that we do ourselves a major disservice by emphasizing our role too broadly in terms of inquiry based, problem-based, critical thinking, lifelong learning, etc. Yes – teacher-librarians and library media programs contribute to the effectiveness of these, but our CORE, unique curriculum contribution is information literacy – defined as information problem-solving and involving the learning of information skills and understandings. It’s the INFORMATION side that is uniquely ours. Among all educators, we are the ones uniquely responsible for ensuring that INFORMATION skills are learned by students.

I see no problem with making the case for information literacy (as well as library & information services and resources) as major contributors to inquiry, problem-solving, critical thinking and other forms of learning – including math, reading, language arts, science, and social studies. But, it’s the INFORMATION component – skills and understandings vis-à-vis information as reflected in information literacy curricula.

I haven’t been able to review the new proposed standards in detail, but I ache when I think that they might be too broad and not focused on the unique and essential aspects of what library programs and teacher-librarians bring to education. Please assure me that they are focused and emphasize that which is uniquely ours but (as always) delivered in the context of curriculum and the needs of students.


p.s. – the job of the library & information program and teacher-librarian is to ensure that students have and are able to apply their information skills and have access to information essential to any style of education – inquiry based, problem-based, resource-based, drill and practice, lecture, etc. If we get too caught up with defining our role in terms of a particular style of pedagogy, we risk losing our own sense of self as well as not meeting the needs of our students and school community.

4. Sharon Grimes [Visitor] - January 5, 2008

Several people have asked about the sources I used to help me understand the distinction between project, problem, and inquiry-based learning.
The one I use to give our teachers an overview of inquiry-based learning is from the Concept to Classroom series at http://www.thirteen.org/edonline/concept2class/inquiry/index.html
Teacher Tap probably has the most succinct summary of the differences between project, problem, and inquiry-based learning; the summary can be accessed at http://eduscapes.com/tap/topic43.htm

Connecting Youth to a Brighter Future offers an introduction to inquiry-based learning at http://www.youthlearn.org/learning/approach/inquiry.asp
A more comprehensive overview of inquiry-based learning is found in Inquiry
Thoughts, Views, and Strategies for the K-5 Classroom
Three books that have helped me understand inquiry-based learning are:
Inquire Within: Implementing Inquiry-based Science Standards, Douglas Llewellyn
Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards, National Research Council
Developing Inquiry-Based Science Materials, Herbert D. Thier
All three are available on Amazon or through NSTA.

5. Doug Johnson [Visitor] - January 7, 2008

Hi folks,

For those interested, I did a graphic comparison of the ISTE NETS and AASL 21st Century Skills standard. Results and comments at:
(Watch the line break above when cutting and pasting.)
or go to TinyUrl: http://tinyurl.com/2qbdd2

Love to see other comparisons/analysis.

All the best,

Doug Johnson

6. Paula Yohe [Visitor] - January 7, 2008

I think that the above comments indicate the same problems I see with the standards. Many of the same comments posted are some of the same points I have made on LM_NET

7. Lindy Pals [Visitor] - January 8, 2008

I personally don’t have a problem with the standards. They are visionary, inspiring best practices. We know that these are all things that we should be doing in our libraries. Unfortunately, many of us probably have ulcers over the secret guilt that we’re not doing enough. That’s why so many of us want to simplify and be more specific.

Here is what would make me happy in my school library:

1) Have a simple framework to organize AASL standards, ISTE standards, national standards, and my state standards. (When students are overwhelmed, don’t we tell them to make a graphic organizer?)
2) Ensure that a set group of skills are learned at every level–K thru 12.
3) Have some method of accountability.
4) Have some kind of professional development to share this framework with my faculty to promote collaboration and understanding of responsibilities.
5) Be able to keep the framework updated on a yearly basis to stay current and relevant.
6) The framework needs to be simple enough to change if a set of standards is revised.
7) The framework needs to allow each state to customize according to state requirements. If we aren’t supporting our teachers directly, the framework will be seen as “one more thing” rather than support for their program.

We’re mulling these ideas around in Georgia. Nadine Cohen, reference librarian at the University of Georgia (http://www.libs.uga.edu/cloc/), found that many of the GA schools prefer the Big6 research model. She took the book “Information Literacy Toolkit” and began plugging in ideas until she had this sample framework [DRAFT!]:


I know that many of us have a problem with the mundane “Info-Lit Checklist.” However, although this framework lists specific, accountable tasks, it gives the user a process rather than encouraging the teaching of isolated skills.

I played with isolating information-literacy and technology skills from our state curriculum (GPS) this weekend, and I must admit, it was refreshingly easy to insert into this checklist. After showing the sample to a few administrators, I realized another plus–they understood it! They saw the correlation possibilities and were excited that it (1) taught a standard research process, and (2) it built incrementally. They wanted standardization across the district, and they wanted something simple to give to every teacher.

I know that this framework may be limiting, but I also feel that it allows the user to remain flexible and creative. We would love comments as we continue to brainstorm! We have really appreciated all the blog comments over the past week.

Lindy Pals, Library Media Specialist
Jefferson Middle School

Jefferson, Georgia

8. Mary Beth Sancomb-Moran [Visitor] - January 10, 2008

Not only usurps the role of parents, but also may directly contradict the cultural values and mores of many of our minority students; for example, Indicator 1.2.4 states,“Maintain a critical stance by questioning the validity and accuracy of all information,” which is most distinctly a white American value.

I beg your pardon? Critical thinking is a skill that should be taught regardless of a student’s background. I would posit that many of our immigrant ancestors found different values and mores when they chose to come to the United States. To suggest, however, that the sort of questioning that comes from critical thinking is a “distinctly white American value” is obnoxious.

9. Patt Moser [Visitor] - January 10, 2008

I read with great interest your thoughts about the new AASL standards and am anxious to hear more about what others think. One thing in your article was hard for me to understand. It was this statement:
“Indicator 1.2.4 states, “Maintain a critical stance by questioning the validity and accuracy of all information,” which is most distinctly a white American value”
I was hoping you could explain more about what you mean. Thanks.

Patt Moser
Sidwell Friends School
Washington DC

10. Judi Moreillon [Visitor] - January 10, 2008

As someone who is serving on the Standards and Guidelines Implementation Task Force, I am most concerned with how the new standards will be translated into (evidence-based) practice. For me, coteaching the standards as they integrate with classroom curriculum standards is essential to improved student achievement, to demonstrating the value added by classroom-library collaboration, and to securing the future of our profession.

To that end, I have created a matrix that links the new AASL standards with reading comprehension strategies. You can access is at: http://storytrail.com/Impact/matrix.htm

My question: How will you implement these standards and make them integral to coteaching in order to make a positive impact on student achievement?

11. Sharon Grimes [Visitor] - January 10, 2008

What is truly obnoxious is trying to homogenize – instead of celebrate and address – the differences among cultures and social classes. Research over the past two decades (completed to back-map the primary causal agent(s) of the under-representation of minorities and low socio-economic groups in gifted and talented education) clearly demonstrates that “in some ethnic cultures behaviors that are encouraged in accelerated educational programs (e.g., questioning authority, critical thinking) are discouraged at home because they are perceived as disrespectful of authority. The language of power and respect differs between inner-city streets and other settings and across class, gender, and ethnic boundaries as well” (Neihart 2006). In addition, as Neihart notes, “several studies and personal accounts point out, (Cookson & Persell, 1991; Ford, 1996; Kastberg & Miller, 1996; Kuriloff & Reichert, 2003; Rodriquez, 1982; Tea, 2003), many talented students need pointed assistance in negotiating two or more cultures simultaneously because acceptable codes of behavior vary among cultures and classes.” Failing to acknowledge that “questioning the validity and accuracy of all information” is a distinctly white upper middle class value is setting our minority and low socio-economic students up for failure.

Note: While the research was initially focused on gifted and talented programs where failure to question authority excludes students from inclusion in gifted and talented classes, it has broadened to examine how these cultural and socio-economic differences impact the number of low SES and minority graduates of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics undergraduate programs.
Note 2: Neihart’s articles is available at http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Dimensions+of+underachievement%2c+difficult+contexts%2c+and+perceptions…-a0150850208

12. Lana Hayes [Visitor] - January 10, 2008

I do not agree with all of the comments posted by Sharon Grimes 1/4/2008 regarding AASL’s Standards for the 21st-Century Learner, but I do agree with her assessment that library media specialists should be hesitant to teach cultural values and mores. Her comments that Indicator 1.2.4 (“Maintain a critical stance by questioning the validity and accuracy of all information”) asserts a value “which is most distinctly a white American value” is very troubling. If she or any other educator perpetuates this myth, then we are truly doing our students a disservice. I think that leaders and ordinary people all over the world who have stood up to power and institutionalized misinformation, from the Righteous Gentiles in Nazi Germany to the indigenous people of Guatemala, would be surprised to learn that “questioning the validity and accuracy of all information” is not a part of their own value system.

Questioning information for validity and accuracy is not an inherently “white American value”, it is an information literacy skill that we as information specialists should teach to all students, regardless of their ethnicity or country of origin.

13. Dana - June 29, 2010

“which is most distinctly a white American value” – really??

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