Friday, July 25, 2008

So Are the Ants

"It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?" -Henry David Thoreau

Seeking to revise his district's guidelines for student research papers, Patrick Higgins asked a series of questions today on Twitter. His search for curricular relevance led to some reflective thinking on my part.

Patrick began by wondering, "Should we be teaching our students the Dewey Decimal System?"

As a School Library Media Specialist, I deal with this system daily in my professional life. Dewey numbers are standard in most K-12 and public libraries. There are, however, other ways to categorize and arrange material, including the Library of Congress classifications that students will encounter in research and academic libraries.

I don't feel that it's necessary for anyone to memorize Dewey numbers. Traditional and online catalogs provide the "address" of a book; all students need to understand is how to interpret the information to find what they are seeking.

The key concept is organization: how are things ordered for ease of access?

When asked to design their own grouping method, students in my classes have come up with some interesting suggestions:
  • by color
  • by size
  • by number of words
  • by weight
  • by gender of the author
  • by smell or taste (!)
Some of the children described a system that resembled the tagging now being used to sort and locate all sorts of resources. Others fantasized about having a device that could track and locate a book electronically, making shelf arrangement irrelevant. Our hand-held inventory wand could easily be adapted for this purpose.

Knowing the reason for the Dewey Decimal System is the key concept; the numbers themselves are only symbols.

Patrick next asked, "Should we be teaching them how to manually prepare a works cited page?"

This question was debated by some of the classroom teachers and librarians from our regional BOCES. The majority of us felt that using a tool like Citation Machine
is perfectly appropriate. Few adults remember the finer points of citation formatting; why agonize over something that can be done better online?

I posed a question of my own, "Will it still be a research PAPER or will there be a choice of outcomes: e.g. Senior Projects like these?" to which Patrick responded, "This is for English classes: very traditional situation. Paper, undoubtedly."

Senior Projects are usually built over the entire four years of high school. They might begin with a research paper, then expand to encompass some type of culminating physical project and a presentation.

These projects embody the spirit of Inquiry-based Learning, a constructivist philosophy "driven more by a learner's questions than by a teacher's lessons." This approach allows students to become experts in their chosen topic, giving them a positive motivation for pursuing knowledge that is relevant to them.

Patrick ended by asking for more information about Zotero, "
a free, easy-to-use Firefox extension to help you collect, manage, and cite your research sources." Obviously, he is still exploring, weighing his options, searching for the best possible tools and most relevant content.

I hope that he shares his final product with us. In the meantime, I've benefited immensely from using his questions to examine my own professional practice.

"When you stop learning, stop listening, stop looking and asking questions, always new questions, then it is time to die." -Lillian Smith

"Ant at Work" by DavidDennis


Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Diane!

I would subscribe to all of this, but . . .

As a thinker, one has to have a philosophy for wanting to use the systems in the first place. Categories are utilised by systems.

So why do we have categories?

Why do we choose to sort things according to colour, or size, or number of words?

The Dewey system is well known throughout the world. So why not choose to sort according to a new system that no-one else has heard of?

I have great systems. Why not sort things according to the digital file size? Or the number of times the ascii symbol 32 occurs in the file? Aren't these categories useful?


The whole point of choosing a system of sorting into categories is so that other people can understand the sort.

Funny that we should consider what other people know and think about. This seems to have been forgotten in this postmodern age.

We might say, "Aha! Let's share this wonderful new system (that no-one has heard about) and it is so great (because it is new and we've thought a lot about it) that it will rock your socks off!"

Well get real, world!

The first reason we use systems, like the Dewey system, is because people use them. "Dewey numbers are standard in most K-12 and public libraries." Isn't that what you said? If we change the system for sorting, we forget the whole reason for having the SYSTEM. The reason is simple. It's because there are PEOPLE who are expected to use it, and are using it.

That's why we have the alphabet in English, and why we also have an order for that set of symbols. That's why when we count, we go 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 ,6 ,7 ,8 ,9 ,10 and do not follow some other array of numerical symbolisms. That's why we choose NOT to use the duodecimal system or the binary system for common arithmetical use.

You know, there are so many reasons, and good ones too, why we should change to the duodecimal system. 10 has so fewer factors than 12. We can divide 12 by 6, 4, 3 and 2 to give a whole number. But 10 can only be divided by 5 and 2 to give a whole number. So why not have the duodecimal system of numbers that goes 1, 2 ,3 4, 5,6 ,7 8, 9, G, H and 10. Doesn't that make so much sense?

Every time a system is changed it affects people. So the reason for change has to be (very) carefully considered, like the decimalisation of currency in many western countries in the 20th century was thought through, like the change to the 24 hr time system, like the change to the voting systems in some countries was considered before changing to systems where FPP has been replaced with MMP.


Let's not forget that one of the qualities of a good system is that it is able to be understood and followed by people. Universally.

Quite honestly, we are in danger of categorising ourselves out of the possibility of any type of understanding between people whatsoever. It's hard enough having different languages and other systems of communication as it is. These are the givens of human society within the world, and we need systems to provide connectivity between these special systems.

CONNECTIVITY is what all our systems experts tell us about. Connectivity means that people using one system can understand what people using another system are thinking about.

Let's not lose sight of the fact that systems are for people.

If we change from one working system to a new one, we also have to put in place all the connectivity to accommodate that change, even if it is just while the change occurs.

So. There you are. It's as simple as changing from the decimal system to the duodecimal system, isn't it?

You know what? The duodecimal system is better.

Ka kite
from Middle-earth

Unknown said...


Thanks for pushing this stream of twits out onto your blog in such a coherent manner. I can assure you that as I look across our current research guide and try to revise it, my thoughts are not as coherent.

What I am struggling with here is the ideas making things relevant in the classroom v. the idea that we sometimes have to teach students something that they wouldn't have taught themselves. At times I may come across as anachronistic, but there is a lot of traditional schooling within me. That being said, the way we teach research in our schools has to be examined closely.

There are, as Alan November states, "layers" on the web that we've got to know how to peel back in order to understand where our information is coming from and if it's credible. I have been immersed in online research now for a few years and I am just coming to understand how to truly dissect sources. Our teachers have to know these skills first in order to teach them. That, in the face of clinging to ideas such as manually creating works cited pages and the "proper" use of notecards, creates a paralytic chasm between where we are and where we need to be going.

Great post; thanks for including me!

diane said...

Blogger In Middle-earth ,

What a brilliantly reasoned argument!

Following that same logical process, we can advocate for use of the metric system in the U.S.

And, again using your reasoning regarding "logic" vs. public usage, we are forced to conclude that, with some exceptions, metric is not happening any time soon here.

Utility frequently trumps logic in the marketplace. Why should libraries be any different?

diane said...


My daughter is helping her husband, a returning college student, with his English assignments. I mentioned Citation Machine, and she was grateful to learn of its existence. No one ever discussed these tools when she was pursuing her writing degree. It's very difficult to balance mechanics and creativity in ELA classes.

I've come to realize that no true changes will come about in education until we "teach the teachers" about the need for communication, collaboration, and connectedness. Beyond the tools, it's the mindset that needs to be emphasized.

Professional Development requirements should address this critical component.

Our students still need to learn organizational and research skills. These skills should be transferable to the world in which they will live and work.

Anonymous said...

You have given us some wonderful quotes to think about here and I love the ways that students have come up for different groupings.

diane said...


Students can be VERY creative. Did you see my old posting about book cards?

I'll be doing a follow-up on that soon. The kids' ingenuity floored me!