We stand at the crossroads of two futures for Australian children. The first sees them navigating an increasingly interconnected world as savvy consumers and producers of information who are capable of critically assessing what they read, see and hear. The second sees many of them as simplistic, non-discerning searchers probably plagiarising much of what they produce, easy prey for those who wish to fool them.
What is the best way to ensure the first scenario? Make sure we have enough teacher librarians in our schools.
We need to cast aside the stereotype of the frowning, eye-glass-wearing ''shusher'' and take a look at the 21st century teacher librarian. This is the person with a dual qualification (degrees in education and information services) who welcomes the productive sounds that arise from learning and working in teams, who supports the teaching and learning of every student and every teacher in the school, who seeks out team-planning and team-teaching opportunities and who is helping today's learners find their way through the huge amounts of information now available online.
Because of the internet, what used to be called ''library skills'' or ''research skills'' have now become essential skills for functioning in the world. Teacher librarians help students of all ages to locate, select, organise, synthesise, evaluate and share information. This is called information literacy, and it is a teacher librarian's bread and butter.
It is a dangerous oversimplification to say that all information is just a ''click'' away, and therefore students no longer need guidance to access it. To use the old model as a metaphor: this would be like sending children into a library of books that had no catalogue or Dewey Decimal System. How will they find what they need? How will they know if they can believe what they read? How will they identify the most applicable information? How will they not become overwhelmed in the face of one million hits?
Children today may be able to use their intuition to navigate a tablet device, but they still need to be taught critical thinking skills. This is especially true now that there are no fact-checking ''gatekeepers'' of the digital information they access. The teacher librarian is now the critical facilitator who can help guide and teach students to master these digital literacy skills.
This leads me to a modern myth that needs busting: that of the capabilities of the ''digital native'', defined by Oxford as ''a person born or brought up during the age of digital technology''. The myth is that because these children have grown up with technology, they are ''naturally'' information literate. Being able to independently intuit how to play Angry Birds is a far cry from being able to critically evaluate a subtly biased website.
Anyone can type a word into Google, but not everyone has the skills to gain enough background knowledge on a topic in order to formulate incisive questions that delve into the substance of that topic. Teacher librarians know how to do this and, more importantly, they know how to support others to learn to do it for themselves.
Teacher librarians are sometimes referred to as ''invisible'' because the results achieved by an effective teacher librarian are absorbed by others. They are shown in the higher quality of work produced by the student and the better quality lesson delivered by the teacher. Sure, having a teacher librarian in a school has been statistically proven to be associated with better student outcomes on a range of measures (including, but not limited to, higher NAPLAN scores), but we are about teaching people to ''fish'' and feed themselves for a lifetime, not handing them the meal for that one day. Has this ''invisibility'' hurt the profession? Perhaps it has. Maybe this is why teacher librarian numbers have been dwindling in the ACT's public schools, particularly primary schools and early childhood schools, at an alarming rate. Further declines can be anticipated under the new school autonomy plans: cuts to less ''showy'' parts of the learning environment are easier to make if one is forced to balance a school budget.
Noises from candidates in the upcoming ACT election regarding boosting teacher librarian numbers, along with ACT Labor's recent announcement about the provision of extra digital resources in primary schools being conditional upon a teacher librarian being maintained to manage these resources, are encouraging developments. Governments must also commit to concrete measures to train and recruit more of these professionals, who are critical components in the transformation of mere information into true knowledge.
Holly Godfree is a classroom teacher and an Australian Education Union member. She is studying for her Master of Education (Teacher Librarianship) degree through Charles Sturt University.