Author Archives: Steve Axtman

Librarian Ethos

BalanceBasically good ethics are common sense, linked with good manners, filtered through a moral or philosophical worldview. Culture, education, and experience shape our worldview. We perceive and filter information through our worldview, and then act. If our worldview is too fundamental or too narrow, we perceive more threats. It is essential that the information professional remain open to other worldviews, other cultures, and other ways. To truly listen, we must suspend assumptions.

We do not want to become the librarian at the gate, hands on hips, frown on face, demanding the return of a book so it can be correctly shelved in its properly cataloged place.  Basically, librarians need to remember that we have chosen a service-orientated profession.  Our work should always be user-friendly.

This ethos means that most librarians want to find meaningful, service-oriented work in a healthy and cooperative environment.  We want to be creatively challenged but not overwhelmed. We want to be understood, capable, and compensated equitably.  We want the opportunity to keep learning so we can adapt to change and innovation.

We have learned core communication skills that our professional life demands: listening, presenting, writing, persuading, participating, leading, and managing. We must be able to analyze, problem-solve, make decisions, and take risks. We must be accountable and dependable.

Librarians must make the shift from merely disseminating information to designing user-centered library services. This may require reevaluating policy, structures, and personnel on a regular basis. The skills we have acquired will enable us to make a positive contribution to our clients and our profession.

“The survival of libraries depends on librarians.” – Roger C. Greer (educator & author)

Competency-Based Education

CompBasedEDTraditionally, schools of higher education have used the conventions of the credit hour, semester, or academic year. Time was the central characteristic; put in the time and get a degree. The new idea is to measure learning, not time. Students can set their own learning pace. This is known as “competency-based education” (CBE). It has gotten the attention of federal and state education departments, universities, and colleges. Currently, only about 34 colleges have active CBE programs that offer credit. A “competency” might be a work portfolio or a score on a standardized test. The input of employers may be necessary; they can determine if a student received good training and is job-competent.

CBE is different because it allows student credit for knowledge acquired through life experience. Students can get CBE credit two ways: prior learning assessment and CBE coursework in which students progress at their own pace as they demonstrate knowledge of academic content.

The main argument in favor of CBE programs is the potential to lower college costs. These programs also serve the nontraditional, adult student who wants more learning flexibility. However, it is not conclusive that CBE programs will save money for all students. Currently, financial aid for these nontraditional programs is not available but the federal government is considering offering Pell Grants.

Many questions need to be answered before the wide adoption of this learning model, especially how to define degrees in terms of “competency.” For more details about competency-based education, see the American Enterprise Institute report by Robert Kelchen.

“I respect faith, but doubt is what gives you an education.”                 – Wilson Mizner, playwright

Music Programs are Not Luxuries

Music is embedded in human DNA; it’s the universal language. Yet, our current education system devalues it by eliminating or severely cutting school music programs. School administrators are often focused on short-term budget matters, not the long-term benefits of music on student academic achievement and cognitive skills.

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Neurobiologists Nina Kraus and her colleagues at Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory published a study in the Journal of Neuroscience. Their research showed that kids who took music lessons for two years not only got better at playing music; they found that musical training improved cognitive skills and helped kid’s brains process speech.

The study took place at Harmony Project in Los Angeles, a nonprofit after-school program that teaches music to children in low-income communities. This area of Los Angeles is a high-crime neighborhood with a high fertility rate. Consequently, there are a lot of little kids with nothing to do after school. Harmony Project was founded to help keep at-risk kids safe and out of trouble. Being involved in music reduced the negative factors of their neighborhood.

Music programs build better brains, so let’s start supporting them. Evidence-based science shows that these programs help kids get better grades and improve social skills, which will carry over into a more functional life. Musical training is not just a luxury.  Taxpayers can also save a lot of money on juvenile incarceration and behavior problems. So, let’s take the long-view and encourage our school administrators and legislators to support music programs.

“Civilization ends at the waterline. Beyond that, we all enter the food chain, and not always right at the top.” – Hunter S. Thompson

Importance of Library Services to Younger Americans

The Pew Research Center surveyed over 6,000 Americans ages 16 and over. The survey was conducted in English and Spanish from July to September, 2013. The chart indicates the percentage who say these library services are “very important” to them.

Importance of Library Services by Age and %


For the complete September 2014 Pew Research report, see Younger Americans and Public Libraries.

“You’re only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.” – Robin Williams

Plagiarism Detection

Recently, there have been a significant number of news items about plagiarism:


The simple definition of plagiarism is using the ideas of others as if they are your own (New Oxford American Dictionary). One major reason for the increase of news items about plagiarism is the wide use of anti-plagiarism software. Years ago, getting away with plagiarism was often a simple matter. Today, most universities and colleges, and now high schools and organizations use anti-plagiarism software. If you plagiarize, you probably will be detected. The new software uses algorithms then compares text to billions of web pages and published materials.

When visiting schools across North Dakota for trainings, I emphasize to students and teachers the importance of the citation tools available in the research databases. The message is, “Students, avoid plagiarism, cite your sources.” Modern database design makes citing sources simple; you can even choose your citation format (MLS, APA, Turabian, etc.), and then copy/paste into your bibliography. Students, teachers, professors, reporters, authors, musicians, artists, all creators need to be aware of anti-plagiarism software.

Plagiarism is often unintentional. One takes notes during research and later forgets if the note is a quote or an original idea. Try to form the habit of using quotation marks and including the source with your research notes. If you use the research databases provided by your library, citing sources is easy. Avoid getting expelled from school; develop good citation practices.

“A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.” – Douglas Adams (novelist)

Play Builds Better Brains

Play2Most of what scientists know about play and learning comes from animal studies. Initially, scientists believed that the rough-and-tumble play of young animals was a way to develop hunting or fighting skills. However, recent studies have shown that play has a different purpose.

Researchers now believe that play develops social skills. Play behavior is very similar across species. Children, puppies, kittens, and mice seem to have similar play rules: do not inflict pain, take turns, and play fair. The real function of play is to build social brains that interact with others in a positive way.

Play that is overseen by adults and their rules does not count. Social brain development occurs through unstructured, free play. Kids need to develop play goals and rules with each other, without adult interference. Play helps develop the prefrontal cortex during childhood. This area of the brain has a role in regulating emotions, solving problems, and making plans — essential skills that kids will carry with them into adulthood.

Play matters. Skills associated with play have been shown to also improve grades. Play is what prepares the developing brain for the social interactions of life, school, work, and love. Check out the links below from Mind/Shift for more on the importance of free play.

“Everyone is ignorant, only on different subjects.” – Will Rogers

Self-Publishing is now Legit

PublishingJust 5 or 6 years ago, printing your own book through a “vanity press” was considered to be the last act of a no-talent author. If legitimate publishers would not accept your book, you must be a failure. Most library acquisition departments did not purchase a vanity press book, unless it was a town or church history.

Today, the stigma associated with self-publishing is mostly gone. Many best-sellers are self-published titles whose authors are not interested in signing with traditional publishers. Now, writers can digitally format their own books, or they can deal with online publishers like Amazon, Smashwords, or Kobo. Self-published authors are able to keep 60%-85% of e-books sales. Traditional publishers keep about 85% of net proceeds.

Traditional publishers formerly determined good from bad writing. Good writing was published and bad writing was discarded. Publishers covered the costs of promotion, printing, and distribution. Today, good writing is determined by readers through online reviews and e-book sales.

The real questions are: Who bests determines good from bad writing? Do readers need publishers to find good books? Do traditional publishing houses have too much power? Who should get the biggest piece of the pie, the author or the publisher? I think the reader ultimately determines whether or not a book has value. The real problem is navigating through all the junk to get to the good stuff.

“How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean.”  – Arthur C. Clarke

Alarming Teacher Dropout Rate

Teachers1In 2013, public school systems in the United States employed over 3 million teachers.  A report from the Alliance for Excellent Education states that almost half a million U.S. teachers leave the profession each year. That means nearly 15% of all U.S. teachers dropout. Almost 50% of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years.

This high turnover rate disproportionately affects high-poverty schools. The teacher dropout rate is nearly 20% higher at high-poverty school than at affluent schools. The primary reasons for the high teacher dropout rate are low salaries, and lack of support.

Most veteran teachers were not assigned a mentor, but instead found informal support from a caring colleague. However, not all new teachers found support. Often, veteran teachers remember their first year in the classroom as difficult, lonely, and unaided.

To prevent dropout, especially of new teachers, the report recommends induction programs that include multiple types of support and high-quality mentoring. Although it is not mandated, North Dakota does have support for all new educators through the state-funded Teacher Support System. These programs for teachers will nurture instructional skills and increase the teacher’s creative ability to enrich student lives. Better teachers grow better students which benefits our whole culture.

 “It is what you learn after you know it all that counts.” – Earl Weaver (baseball manager)

A Year-Round School Calendar?

SchoolThe school calendar for most schools across the nation is based on the old agrarian lifestyle. In the past, students needed the summer months off so they could help with planting and harvesting. Farming and the crop cycle are no longer primary in scheduling the school year.

There is a growing trend for a year-round school calendar. The other day I was listening to an NPR story about Hall Fletcher Elementary in Asheville, North Carolina, which has adopted the year-round model. After a five week summer vacation, students are back in school. About 80% of the students come from low-income families and do not really have engaging learning opportunities during the summer.

If students do not have enriching summer activities, they lose academic ground. The year-round model has the same amount of school as the traditional school calendar. There is a five week summer break, three week breaks in September and March, and a Christmas break. In the United States, about 3 or 4 percent of schools use the year-round model. The model postulates that academic retention increases with shorter breaks.

Academics and parents who dislike the year-round school calendar point out that there are added costs to a year-round schedule. Student, teacher, and family schedules can be disrupted. Some parents at Hall Fletcher Elementary removed their kids and switched schools to avoid the year-round calendar.

There is disagreement about which school calendar model is more enriching for students. This is a debate that needs additional study-based evidence. Tradition can be firmly entrenched, and sometimes change is difficult. The real question is what model is better suited for learning?

“Work is the greatest thing in the world, so we should always save some of it for tomorrow.” — Don Herold (humorist)


Apprenticeship, Internship, and the Military Model

InternHow do you get good at something? You practice. You make mistakes. You get feedback. You try again. In the past, you learned by doing. You found an expert in a trade and apprenticed yourself. You learned by trial and error. The system of apprenticeship was first developed in the late Middle Ages by craft guilds. A master craftsman provided food, lodging, and expert training in the craft in exchange for labor.

The contemporary internship, in theory, is similar to an apprenticeship. However, modern internships are often unpaid; you are lucky if you actually learn job skills and are not stuck doing mundane tasks that do not teach the trade.

The traditional military model of learning a trade still works well. In the military, the recruit learns skills by observation, practice, and feedback. I remember my time in a U.S. Navy “A” school, which was split about half and half between the classroom and doing the actual work. You got immediate feedback from the supervisor if you did something wrong, and then you tried again. The military couldn’t fire you, so there was room for error, room to learn. Today’s work environment often does not tolerate mistakes. Make a mistake and you might be fired or asked to resign.

The current model of education is mostly classroom based, where teachers actively give and students passively receive. Basically it is about grades, not about experience. In the modern era, traditional apprenticeship job training has largely been replaced by vocational classes or college courses. The classroom model does not serve us well in every learning environment.  Maybe we should re-visit the apprenticeship model. Lessons from the past teach us that apprenticeships are mutually beneficial to the worker and the mentor or the organization.

“If you want success, figure out the price, and then pay it.”                     – Scott Adams, cartoonist