A speech given at the opening of a school library

“Temblor,sir; temblor!”

On Tuesday evening, I gave a speech at the opening of a school library.  I stood before an assembly of my colleagues, parents and students; I took a piece of folded, closely-printed A4 paper from the left inner pocket of my blazer, and I said:

“As a teacher, over the years you learn to be ready for anything.

I used to teach in a school, in a city prone to tremors and sometimes to earthquakes. The children knew better than I and, delighting in pranking the new teacher, they co-ordinated an attempt to simulate a tremor in my classroom. At an appointed time, several of them lightly shook their desks: “Temblor, sir; temblor!” (They meant ‘tremor’ and had yet to acquire my immaculate English). Their table shaking and ‘temblor’ shouting worked. I was already ushering them out the door into the school’s central quad. But their trick only worked once.

Once I saw it was only my class affected by this highly-localized ‘temblor’, I ushered them back into the classroom with a newfound respect and appreciation of my students’ potential for good and evil.

I used to work with a teacher – a head of department – who would spend all of his departmental budget on books (about his subject) for himself to read. In an era when we are strongly encouraged to liberally and enthusiastically promote reading to our students, he (a pedagogical iconoclast) would buy economics books for himself, arguing of course that, by improving his subject knowledge, he was consequently enhancing and deepening the learning experience of his students.

He created his own library of these expensive, long-titled and wordy books in his classroom. But he placed his shelf of books out of reach, above his interactive whiteboard where they could only be regarded from afar by his attentive students with religious awe. He hadn’t built a library – he had built an altar. An altar to his knowledge. Each lesson was like a Sunday service, in which he would afford his students the merest glimpse of the knowledge secreted in these canonical works. 

Now ironically, should there be an actual, more acute ‘temblor’, these books (the sheer weight of this teacher’s knowledge) would in all likelihood come tumbling off the shelves onto his head, crushing him mid-sentence: his altar would become his crypt. 

This brings us to consider what kind of library we want (do we need) this library to be. Do we want it to be an austere place where our students reverently book out the books on their reading lists – and only those on their reading lists? Do we want it to be a hushed and hallowed place where one book will suffice to tell us the one thing we need to know about one aspect of one subject that our teacher has told us to study?

The first challenge that a student meets in their university studies is this: how do I decide what to do? For years, learning has been measured out to me; I have dutifully acquired knowledge and carefully demonstrated such knowledge in tests; I have raced to the library to get all of the books on the reading list before my peers get there first; I have done everything you – the teacher, the parent, the textbook – have asked of me. And now this?

And now you ask me – now of all times, when I’m flushed with the first freedom of living away from home – now, at university and so ready for all the world has to throw my way, you ask me to decide what I want to do within the subject that I’m studying? I thought I’d answered all of your questions – and now you want me to go on making and asking questions of my own?! I’m ready for all the freedom, but the responsibility?! Nah-ah.

An education that promotes enquiry and gives the child space to use, test and reformulate knowledge is an education that readies children for university-level study – not simply that: it readies them for study at the world’s top universities.

An education that promotes enquiry and gives children the opportunity to draw together the separate strands of their studies and formulate conclusions, following their academic interests – this is an education that develops critical thinking, civic responsibility as well as literacy, bilingualism, numeracy and an appreciation of the Arts and the Sciences – not simply an appreciate of what distinguishes Art from Science, but also a personal revelation of what connects them.

This library will be the heart of just such an education: a place where students will learn to decide which lines of enquiry to follow furthest; to research, to plan, to collect, organise and interpret data – data that they will then present to their peers and their teachers, testing and refining their hypotheses, challenging themselves to pick apart what they think they know – to ask themselves ‘How do I know this is true?’ They’ll learn to reference their sources, to create bibliographies, to build their own bank of readings that inform them as they grow into their fields of study.

It is fashionable now to call libraries ‘learning hubs’, ‘collaborative learning zones’ – the new library at the University of Manchester is called ‘the learning commons’. Naming and renaming things can seem glib, ephemeral, prone to change for the sake of seeming innovative. But a library cannot be inaccessible or awe-inspiring in a restrictive sense (like my former colleague’s teetering altar of economics books). A good library is a learning space – it’s a tool; it’s accessible. And we have a duty to get the children ready to use it well.

The only ‘temblors’ we want here are those personal revelations – eureka moments – that sit entirely within the minds of our children. Earth-shattering they may be – mental, tectonic plates crashing together – but they’re often imperceptible to the naked eye. Fill this place with books; fill it with books that can fall liberally and meaningfully into the hands of your children, and we’ll see the evidence in our children’s writing, in the way they speak and how they come to form their own conclusions.

Our children will be more than ready for university: they’ll be ready for anything.”

And then I stopped talking, refolded and tucked the piece of closely-printed A4 paper into the left inner pocket of my blazer and I went about my business.

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