Vision for a Successful 21st Century School Library

Recently, I have been asked to comment on my vision for a successful 21st Century school library.  It has been great to sit down and think about the values that I have come across in my studies and the priorities as I see them.  What does a successful 21st century school library look like to me?

I came up with five guiding principles.  I believe a modern school library should be:

  • Welcoming
  • A Leader
  • Collaborative
  • Evaluative
  • Proactive


The most important principle for school libraries is to develop a relationship with their users – students, teachers, parents/caregivers and even the wider community.  A school library provides a supportive space, academically, but also socially and emotionally for students and staff.  The library is an inclusive social hub and ‘safe space’ for students and staff, providing an important third space.  In order to reap the greatest rewards, I believe it is important for library staff to be friendly and supportive of students, often providing an important ‘other’ adult for students to interact with who are not their parent or teacher.

A Leader

The second principle I identified for a successful library is leadership.  I believe the library should take a lead role in the promotion of information literacy within the school.  This could involve assisting with assignments, referencing, taking and making notes, effective search strategies, evaluating web sites (and other critical thinking skills as appropriate), copyright, creative commons, or curation tools among many others.  The promotion of literature and reading should also play a key role.  Building a reading culture requires a multi-faceted approach involving collaboration, being responsive to student and staff needs and specific practices adopted at a school-wide level.  The library must play a key role in the discussions.


For me, collaboration is an essential component of a school library.  Ideally, all school staff see the library as an essential partner in curriculum planning, resourcing, curation and assessment.  This may involve discussing the unit and assessment requirements, and also team teaching or co-teaching opportunities throughout the learning phase.  Importantly, feedback should be sought at the conclusion of each unit, from both teachers and students, on the strengths and areas for improvement for the resources, curation and teaching from the library staff.


Reflection and evaluation of practice is important to ensure that the teaching aims are received as expected, but also to determine areas of improvement or ongoing gaps in student knowledge.  Evaluation can occur via informal conversations, anecdotal responses or through library services surveys.  Evidence-based analysis of student and staff reflections and subsequent goal setting allows for further modifications to library services and resources to ensure that the needs of library users are adequately met from year to year.


“We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflection on experience”

– John Dewey –


Teachers often do not know how the library can help them.  Successful school libraries must make the invisible work of the library, visible to staff.  Advocacy is essential!  For me, this would include advertising library services in a number of ways:

  • School-wide promotion of library activities and tutorials
  • Engaging library displays to promote reading and resources linked to curriculum
  • A well-presented, up-to-date library web page with relevant resources to support student and staff learning
  • Promotion of library programs and services at staff and departmental meetings
  • Offering staff professional learning opportunities
  • Informal lunch time conversations with staff and students
  • Promotion of library services and initiatives in the school newsletter
  • Blogging about library activities and opportunities to engage with information literacy
  • Library services ‘menu’ in staff pigeon holes
  • Creation of regular library reports, which summarise library accomplishments. By sharing the reports with the school leadership team, this increases awareness of library programs and services.

There is a strong inter-connection between the five principles that I have identified for a successful 21st century school library.  Essentially though, underpinning the principles is a deep sense of social connection.  A library cannot operate in isolation.  It requires relationships with users whether it is a welcoming library atmosphere, taking a lead role in information literacy and reading promotion, working collaboratively with students and staff or evaluating programs and services.  Successful school libraries, to me, are innovative and proactive and have a clear focus on the value of promoting what they have to offer to the school community.

I have further summarised my vision in the infographic below: 21st Century Library Vision

Tips for teaching information and media literacy

Have you heard of the CRAAP test?  Perhaps you have used one of the many other checklist options which claim to help students critically evaluate information sources and improve their media literacy?  Did you know that the CRAAP checklist was actually designed for librarians deciding whether or not to purchase a book rather than to help students evaluate online information?  The CRAAP test and many of the other checklists being used to help students evaluate information contain an overwhelming number of prompts for students, often leading to formulaic and stale responses and boredom for students.  They also overlook the sophistication of thinking needed to navigate the abundance and complexity of information available today.  There has to be a better way.

The aim of this post is to explore effective strategies for teaching information and media literacy.

Top tips for embedding information and media literacy into your lessons:

I’ve also created an infographic (see below) which summarises these tips further.  Blog post continues after image.

Image created by author.

I still think that some sort of checklist-style prompts are necessary as students develop their media literacy competence or fluency.  I really like the simplicity of Mike Caulfield’s Four Moves SIFT acronym:

Image created by Mike Caulfield. Shared under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

He has also added a habit to his approach: Check your emotions.  This encourages students to stop and fact-check before sharing with others online. His online book Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers and free, modifiable online course, Check, Please! provides a comprehensive discussion about how to adopt the SIFT approach with students.  I love the simplicity and practical application in the way that both these resources are presented.

I also think it’s a great idea to get students involved in competitions like the ABC News Diet Challenge which asks students to examine how and why they consume news and then create a short video to share how examining their news habits helped them “broaden their [usual] palate” of news consumption. A new digital literacy tool which aims to support Australian teachers of students at the secondary level to develop enhanced critical thinking skills and how to navigate news is also due to be released in early 2020.  It will be an extension on the existing eSmart Digital Licence which caters for junior primary, primary and secondary students (although this program is more about being cybersafe rather than explicitly media literacy).

Ultimately, media literacy, information literacy, critical digital literacy or ‘digital and media literacy’ or even media and information literacy (combining the terms to encompass the full range of cognitive, emotional and social competencies) – whatever you want to call it – is about more than evaluating online content.  It is also about understanding the internet’s production and consumption processes; its potential as an emancipatory tool as well as the structural constraints which can create highly fragmented, polarised narratives of questionable reliability.

Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash. Text by blog author.

Critical digital literacy of all members of society effects social inclusion (or exclusion) and public participation.  Media literacy is about more than abstract information literacy principles.  We also need to be mindful of equity issues in the teaching of soft skills – encouraging empowerment of students at one end of the scale and humility and recognition of privilege for students on the other end.  Users need domain knowledge (or disciplinary literacy) relevant to the subject being studied as well as technical knowledge about the way that the internet works.  By doing this, students can gather a bag of tools, processes and knowledge to make meaningful evaluations about the media that they are exposed to, instead of baseless, generic statements which merely answer evaluative checklists.  It is a complicated and overwhelming landscape, but also one with great potential and relevance beyond the school gates.

For additional resources on how to teach information and media literacy, please click here.


The brain is wider than the sky,

For, put them side by side,

The one the other will include

With ease, and you beside

Fighting back against bias

Media literacy education for media consumers of all ages promotes critical thinking and understanding to help all people make more informed choices about the news content they consume.  I have written before about the power of critical thinking in the modern world.

The answer is NOT to ‘question everything’ though because this has its own problems and may even be counterproductive.  One of the problems with critical thinking instruction about disinformation is that it steals our attention from more careful treatment of issues.  Without careful evaluation of the rhetorical traps and logical fallacies provided by supporters of disinformation (e.g. tobacco company research), there is potential that your perspective can be distorted.

Given the cultural context of information consumption, media literacy may not be the answer.  It is a fine line between critical thinking and cynicism, whereby young people may become confused and frustrated by exploring multiple perspectives. Conversations with students about the continuum of options when evaluating media – between not trusting anyone and blindly trusting a handful of experts – are essential, as are broader discussions about human communication in the modern world, optimism, open-mindedness, ethical communication, and intellectual humility.

Quick and easy solutions may make the controversy go away, but they won’t address the underlying problems.  Instead, people of all ages need to understand that we view media through our own lens.  Relational dynamics of social media and how the interplay of personal and societal biases influence the way that messages are interpreted is crucial.  The solutions need to come from us as users as much as the technology itself.

It is important that parents and teachers demonstrate a willingness to invest time into the development of digital and media literacy in order to stay informed about conversations about media literacy.  Videos like Smarter EveryDay’s Why Your Newsfeed Sucks (and others) provide accessible, engaging tips, using real-world examples, to increase knowledge and understanding about how to discern truth online.  In order for students to develop media literacy autonomy, teachers also need to ensure that they are media literate themselves.  It’s as much about nurturing a critical disposition in yourself as the young people you influence.

Reading tips for parents is helpful.  I also love the tips offered in this video.  They apply to people of all ages.  I have edited and added some additional tips below:

As media consumers, we have more power than ever.  There are greater opportunities for participation with the media today, but this also comes with more responsibility.

Uncovering Bias

Can you solve this?

Readers today are living in a world where they can search online and find whatever will confirm their views.  Have you done it?  Are you even aware of the fact that you have done it?

There are three types of bias that influence the social media ecosystem and make it vulnerable to both intentional and accidental misinformation – cognitive biases (bias in the brain), echo chambers (bias in society) and algorithmic bias (bias in the machine).

Algorithmic bias has been getting the most attention lately so I want to talk about that first.  Algorithmic bias or algorithmic manipulation relies on personalisation technologies which rank content and personalise its presentation based on what links the user has clicked on in the past – the result is often that the cognitive and social biases of users are reinforced thus making them even more vulnerable to manipulation, also called a filter bubble.

The effect of algorithmic bias and its influence on search results can be demonstrated by the story of Dylann Roof who killed nine African-Americans while they were praying in church in 2015.  When Roof searched Google for the terms ‘black on white crime’, it led him to misleading statistics and white supremacist propaganda, fuelling anger in Roof and leading him down a dangerous path.  Although you might expect that trustworthy, reputable or authoritative websites would be positioned higher on the search results list, this is not necessarily the case.  Furthermore, the way that Google’s algorithm works, Roof’s motivated confirmation bias (also known as case building), led Roof to find more and more misleading and racist information about the so-called epidemic of black murders of whites (selective attention or selective exposure), with little to counter the racist propaganda that dominated his search results.  The outcome was deadly.

Often, similar examples have led Google to tweak their algorithm.  Although Dylann Roof provides an extreme example, it is not isolated in terms of broader recognition of the potential harm and pitfalls of algorithmic manipulation.  It is possible to see the potential for some young people (and adults!) to be led in unfortunate directions without some sense of the bias that is inherent not just in the machine (Google, YouTube, Twitter, the internet), but also in our own cognitive and confirmation biases (bias in the brain).  Studies of networking platforms show that content that rouses emotion is commented on and shared most often and can even continue to shape people’s attitudes after it has been discredited because it produces a vivid emotional reaction and builds on existing narratives.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to notice or search out information that confirms what one already believes, or would like to believe, and to avoid or discount information that is contrary to one’s beliefs or preferences.  Brexit results and the Trump victory are just two examples of how confirmation bias and incestuous amplification as a result of online media have led to unexpected results.  Facebook and Twitter (as well as other social media platforms) are making steps toward limiting fake news, tagging content, suggesting content that helps users find new perspectives and tweaking their algorithms, but people continue to share fake stories.

“Knowledge and critical thinking skills possessed by parents and teachers are of significant relevance in the growth of such skills in young people.”

Greater digital and media literacy is needed for adults, not just children.  Despite the concept of echo chambers being debunked by some studies (and also discussed here), the least skilled internet users are still most susceptible to fake news, filter bubbles and echo chambers online.  Furthermore, a 2017 survey of 8 to 16 year old Australians found that most 8 to 12 year olds preferred their news to come from their family, television or a teacher/adult and 13 to 16 year olds preferred television, family or social media.  For this reason, the knowledge and critical thinking skills possessed by parents and teachers are of significant relevance in the growth of such skills in young people.

With growing awareness about the dangers of digital wildfires in a hyperconnected world, recognising bias in the your own brain, bias in society and bias in the machine (and the interplay between biases) may play a powerful role in mitigating at least some of the power of misinformation in the modern world.

Media Literacy and Australian schooling

Many of Australia’s national discussions about education in the last 10+ years have centred on three main documents/tests:

  • The Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians
  • The Australian Curriculum (F-10)
  • National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN)

How do these documents/tests link to Media Literacy?

One of the two overarching goals of the 2008 Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians is that:

“All young Australians become successful learners, confident and creative individuals, and active and informed citizens.”

The language of the Declaration has been criticised for being abstract rather than definitive and the economic aims of education have been prioritised over student well-being, environmental sustainability and democratic participation.  A review of the Melbourne Declaration is currently under way, not because the goals are no longer relevant, but rather because of the increasing shift in the way that education success is measured, becoming more closely associated with so-called ‘soft skills’ – creativity, critical problem solving, collaborative approaches and other interpersonal (people) skills.  As an example, the proportion of job advertisements requiring ‘critical thinking’ rose by 158% between 2012 and 2015.  As I discussed in a previous post, critical thinking is integral to media literacy and is emphasised in The Foundation for Young Australians’ 2013 report below.

Original work licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 AU)

The Melbourne Declaration formed the basis of the Australian Curriculum.  Within the Curriculum, media literacy is covered through the general capabilities of ICT, literacy and critical and creative thinking. This is a seemingly positive step in the media literacy education direction, whereby students are supported to develop the knowledge, skills and critical thinking capability to use, interpret and evaluate information.  The reality is that the Curriculum generally offers ‘invitations’ to engage in the critical dimension of (media) literacy but opportunities for engagement with questions about perspectives, participation and power are not sufficiently explicit.  In practice, adoption varies depending on schools, classrooms, teachers and local contexts.  It might seem that a stand-alone subject which focuses on media literacy would resolve this issue and comprehensively develop media literacy competencies in students. The reality is that literacy practices in one discipline/subject are often very different to other disciplines/subjects and students have a greater ability to engage with critical literacy practices when the discussion is linked with domain or subject-based topic knowledge.

Recommendation three of the 2018 Report of the Australian Government Select Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism suggested work was needed to address how the Australian Curriculum could be improved in terms of digital media awareness and media literacy, but this recommendation will not be evaluated until the review of the Australian Curriculum in 2020.

The Australian Curriculum is not implemented consistently by each state education authority and concludes at Year 10 offering limited nationwide discussions of media literacy at the senior schooling level.  The challenge of incorporating digital media literacy at any level of education in any jurisdiction is that the development of digital media literacy is likely to be the product of an environment, thus dependent on individual teacher interest and skill, as much as a specifically targeted curriculum.

Lastly, conversations about measuring literacy in Australian schools since 2008 have often focused on evaluation of NAPLAN.  There have been calls for the New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland breakaway review of NAPLAN, announced in September this year, to explore how the test could generate deep learning in areas like creativity, critical reflection and interpersonal skills in order to prepare young people for the future of the workforce.

Although the state of media literacy in Australia remains fragmented and could best be described as ‘under review’, conversations about the relationship between technology, literacy and education are widening. There is hope for improved access and understanding about media literacy in the future.  Although some of Australia’s current educational policies, school curriculum and nation-wide testing regimes are challenged for not sufficiently building transferable skills in students, it seems that there is potential for positive changes.  The social and political impacts of misinformation in online media are not going away.  Education for all information consumers, especially in schools is essential.

Media Literacy – what it is and why it matters

What’s in a name? Media literacy, information literacy, digital literacy, news literacy, 21st century literacy, critical literacy – whatever you call it, critical media literacy plays an important role in modern life, possibly even the critical or overarching literacy for 21st century living.

But, what is media literacy?  It’s more than the ability to read and write.  For some, it’s regarded as the fourth pillar of literacy alongside reading, writing and mathematics.

In simple terms, media literacy is the ability to identify different types of media and understand the messages they’re sending.  Furthermore, media literacy provides a framework to access, analyse, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms — from print to video to the Internet.

Diagram created by blog author. Definitions adapted from Common Sense Media  and the Center for Media Literacy.

Conversations about media literacy are not new.  They can be traced back to 1963 in America and throughout the 1980s and 1990s in Australia. The 1982 UNESCO Grunwald Declaration on Media Education also helped amplify worldwide discussions.  More recently, the popular term ‘fake news’ (which is not without its flaws), has been widely used and this has increased generic discussions about media literacy.  The term ‘media literacy’ itself is rarely discussed in the general media. Unfortunately, the seemingly endless and sometimes vague terms for media literacy and associated skills dilute the power of meaningful, in depth discussions about media literacy.

Nonetheless, conceptual recognition of the importance of media literacy is growing.  To give some examples:

Since the mid-1990s, many discussions of digital or media literacy have emphasised that young people are ‘digital natives’ – people who have grown up with technology, thus having innate skills with computers and the internet – but there has now been extensive research debunking the digital native myth.  For example, a 2016 Stanford study showed that students at the high school level are not as media literate as we might think.  In the study, they found that students focused more on the content of social media posts with very little critical evaluation or even scepticism of the site content or author reliability.  Young people cannot build their digital skills without support through training and education.  Despite concerns about media literacy, young people are often better at identifying fake news than older people.  Nonetheless, given the new media landscape, widespread conversations about the value and teaching of media literacy for people of all ages, is essential.

‘Students at the high school level are not as media literate as we think.’

Lastly, jobs of the future will require more than ‘hard skills’ – specific knowledge, abilities or skill-sets needed for success in a job.  Increasingly, so-called ‘soft skills’ (transferable skills) such as critical thinking, digital literacy and creativity are deemed valuable.  Media literacy is well-positioned to enhance such skills.  As concerns rise about climate change and other environmental and societal issues, the skills of media literacy, which require students (and adults) to question, investigate and take action will become important.  Young climate activist, Greta Thunberg’s speech at the Climate Action Summit 2019 as well as recent climate change protests (and subsequent criticisms) demonstrate the power of such skills to encourage active citizenship and promote dialogue to address global Sustainable Development Goals.

Education for the future is about more than reading, writing and arithmetic or ‘getting a job’.  It needs to focus on developing the personhood of children, as well as their ability to engage as citizens.  Media literacy has a powerful role to play in encouraging young people to authentically engage and connect with local, national and global ideas and discourses.

Bringing databases closer to the surface

I love research!  I love to share my passion with my teaching colleagues too!  In the past, I’ve created and shared how-to videos on research tips and tricks and referencing, provided teacher ‘cheat sheets’ of great background reading and resources for research assignments, co-taught classes which focused on research skills or processes and collaborated with my school’s Director of Professional Learning and lead teacher librarian in the creation of our school-wide Inquiry Learning Research Process. As a teacher, I try to instil a love of research in my students too.  This is not always an easy sell to teenagers though.

A recent school library survey I conducted revealed a clear desire from teachers to know more about teaching research skills, including advanced search options, referencing and online databases.  Databases!  Databases!  Databases!  It was mentioned time and time again.

Databases are comprehensive, searchable, quality controlled, peer reviewed, valuable research support tools which are often not findable via a Google search.  Databases are contained in the part of the web known as the invisible, hidden or deep web.  Despite my love of research, it came as a surprise to me to learn just recently that only 4% of web pages are indexed (that is, findable via a search engine).  The remaining 96% of information is ‘below the surface’.

The benefit of delving into databases is that the information is from published works, often by professionals or experts in their field.  Unlike many of the sites that students find and reference from their Google searches, the information required for referencing is readily available in databases (author, date, publisher) and citations can often be created at the click of a button.

The issue with being ‘below the surface’ though is that (at least initially) more effort may be required to gain access and sometimes students (and teachers!) just don’t know where to start or where to look to get started.  Information and digital literacy skills are essential.

How can we encourage students to go beyond the convenience of Google or Wikipedia?

The expertise of the teacher librarian can play an important role.

De Groote and Dorsch (2003) argue that promotion, education and organisation are key.  Let me explain:


Students and teachers must have an awareness of the availability of alternatives to Google.

  1. Promote databases to teachers and students. Without teacher buy-in, student buy-in will not occur.
  2. Promote knowledge and understanding of databases. What are databases?  What is the purpose of databases?  Which database do I use?  Why is accessing databases worth the effort?
  3. Consider how to make promotion of databases more engaging for students.


  1. Discuss with teachers and students why searching beyond Google may be useful.
  2. Tutorials and workshops – for both teachers and students. Demonstrate the potential of alternative search options.  Ideally, provide just-in-time rather than just-in-case tutorials.  That is, offer students and teachers the opportunity to learn more about databases at a time when they are likely to soon need to use them – just before assessment is given out or during the early research phase.  This means that experimentation and use of databases is more likely to occur.
  3. Collaborate with the school teacher librarian – plan a lesson to discuss research strategies and techniques with students and specifically mention/demonstrate databases
  4. Teachers should model effective research behaviours. For example, when research is required, regularly discuss appropriate key words/search terms with students.


  1. Databases must be easily findable for students. Include a link to the sign-in page in a visibly appropriate location – e.g. on assignment task sheets (if electronic access to the task sheet is available) or on the library landing page.
  2. Online tutorial videos must, similarly, be easily findable and their use encouraged by teachers.
  3. Make accessing and using non-Google search options (or even use of a specific database) part of the requirements of assessment items.
  4. Pathfinders – create pathfinders for students which demonstrate the potential of databases and the kinds of resources they will find.

Awareness and convenience play a major role in both teacher and student use of databases.  Teacher confidence in using and accessing research databases is critical for encouraging greater student use of databases and other invisible web sources.  If we are going to bring databases ‘closer to the surface’, we must seek to learn more about them, how to access them and then be willing to dive in.

I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions.  Please leave your feedback below.

I’ve also created the infographic below which may be a great starting point for discussions with teachers and students.  You’re also welcome to print the infographic for use in your school or library.  I’d love to hear how students and teachers respond if you do.

The following video also provides seven simple tips which will be helpful to students and teachers: Quick Tips & Shortcuts for Database Searching.


References and more information:

De Groote, S. & Dorsch, J. (2003). Measuring use patterns of online journals and databases. Journal of the Medical Library Association, 91(2), 231-241. Retrieved from

Hutchinson, E. (2017). Navigating the information landscape through collaboration. Retrieved from

Miller, A. (2018). There’s so much on the web!  Helping students become internet-research savvy.  Retrieved from

Tenopir, C. (1999). Factors that influence online database use.  Retrieved from