Critical Thinking, Inquiry, and the School Librarian

Looking @ Critical Thinking, Inquiry, and the School Librarian - Learn how research links critical thinking, content, and inquiry based learning, and how the School Librarian is the expert who has the knowledge & training to incorporate critical thinking & content into true inquiry based learning. #NoSweatLibrary #schoollibrary #researchskills #criticalthinking #inquiry #copyrightTo flourish in our modern global world, students need critical thinking skills. Thus, many educators are turning to inquiry based learning, and an Internet search explodes with models for teaching it. What most teachers don’t realize is that their best resource already resides within their own school: the School Librarian.

School Librarians are adept at integrating curriculum, critical thinking, and inquiry based learning, and this is exactly what educational researchers have discovered is needed.


The Foundation for Critical Thinking describes a critical thinker as one who:

  • raises clear and precise questions
  • gathers, assesses, and interprets relevant information
  • derives well-reasoned conclusions, tested for relevance
  • is open-minded, evaluating assumptions, implications, and consequences
  • effectively communicates solutions to complex problems.

According to a recent article in The Hechinger Report, teaching critical thinking skills in isolation isn’t effective because students aren’t able to transfer skills between disciplines: critical thinking is different within each discipline, so the skills needed for one subject area aren’t necessarily relevant to another subject area. Rather “the best approach is to explicitly teach very specific small skills of analysis for each subject.”

And this is where content knowledge becomes important. In order to compare and contrast, the brain has to hold ideas in working memory, which can easily be overloaded. The more familiar a student is with a particular topic, the easier it is for the student to hold those ideas in his working memory and really think.


The crux of inquiry based learning is that it piques a student’s curiosity and motivates the desire for answers—it is self-directed, not teacher-directed. The numerous models for inquiry based learning take students step-by-step through the process, but we can consolidate them all into 4 basic stages:

  1. Develop background knowledge & formulate focus questions
  2. Research to discover answers & build understanding
  3. Analyze & interpret information, then synthesize into a worthy action or product
  4. Impart results & reflect on the action/product and the process

Inquiry by its very nature requires students to apply critical thinking, or what educators often refer to as higher-order thinking, at every stage of the process. But, we cannot assume that our students have the necessary knowledge and skills to be successful at inquiry learning; it’s our responsibility to give them the guidance and time needed to learn.

Unfortunately, most teachers have no idea how to do this. Leslie Maniotes & Carol Kuhlthau summed this up in a Knowledge Quest article:

In typical schools of education teachers do not learn in their teacher education courses about the research process. …teachers are simply relying on their own experience in school to direct their approach to research. … Although teachers have good intentions, they don’t realize that their traditional research approach is actually not supporting student learning. (p9)

Maniotes & Kuhlthau point out that teachers are particularly ignorant about the difference between the exploration stage and the collection stage. During that exploration stage is where students build the necessary background content knowledge so they can think critically throughout the rest of the process. When that stage is (too often) ignored, both the inquiry process and the resulting product suffer, and students are even less likely to learn, use, and transfer critical thinking skills.


The one person in the school who has all the necessary knowledge and training to guide students through inquiry learning is the School Librarian. As Maniotes & Kuhlthau put it:

School librarians know the inquiry process like language arts teachers know the writing process and science teachers know the scientific method. (p11)

School Librarians examine multiple inquiry models as part of their graduate coursework. This makes them the perfect person to explicitly teach students an inquiry process relevant to the subject area, especially if given time to help students through that crucial exploration stage.

School Librarians excel at finding information and media—content—and integrating it into any lesson. Their broad familiarity with everyone’s curriculum gives them the expertise to integrate the right critical thinking skills for the subject area and to find relevant background content for the exploration stage of the inquiry process.

School Librarians are also authorities on critical thinking: the library’s Information Literacy curriculum is all about analyzing, evaluating, inferencing, synthesizing, and communicating complex information in multiple formats. Ann Grafstein of Hofstra University ties Info-Lit to critical thinking and to content knowledge:

Information literacy is a way of thinking about information in relation to the context in which it is sought, interpreted, and evaluated. …effective critical thinking crucially involves an awareness of the research conventions and practices of particular disciplines or communities and includes an understanding of the social, political, economic, and ideological context….

So, it is the School Librarian who can weave together relevant content, an inquiry process, and critical thinking skills to help students develop authentic, worthy products.


My Library Lesson Curriculum Matrix - Composite example of an older version for the 1st grading period.

Sample Library Lesson Matrix

Through my years as a Middle School Librarian I experimented until I discovered the best ways to incorporate Information Literacy into any library visit. It’s important to scaffold short lessons and I use my Library Lesson Matrix to determine which strategies and skills are timely in each grade level, across all grade levels, and throughout the school year to cover the Info-Lit skills necessary for students to move on to the demands of high school.

My Library Lessons present inquiry strategies & skills in a way that students understand why, when, and how to use them. I’m a form fanatic, so I use infographics to illustrate strategies and processes, and I use graphic organizers for conceptual knowledge because they help students develop the understanding for themselves. I also use short videos (~3 minutes) to make explanations more engaging and understandable for students.

I help students build critical thinking skills as they learn the 3 components of Information Literacy, listed here with a few practices and resources that have been most successful with students, most appreciated by teachers, and have garnered positive feedback from my colleagues:

Problem-solving Models

Image of Problem Solving Models Comparison Chart - Overview of 14 Student Research Models

PSM chart

Simple brainstorming can be a quick & easy way to begin a project; however, planning and exploration must be the beginning of any large inquiry. You will want to download my FREE chart of 14 different problem-solving models to help you choose a design process for any inquiry assignment. My own PACE model is a simple design to “pace” students through a project from planning to evaluation.

image of PACE Research Model
Join my mailing list and you’ll gain access to the graphic template and assessment rubric, as a PDF or editable .docx.

Search & Evaluation Skills

This component has 3 parts: source selection, search strategies, and resource evaluation. I like to use KWHL charts to guide students in the selection of materials suitable to their needs and abilities. I encourage them to use our library online subscription services for the most reliable information by showing this video:

clip of keyword search formIt’s crucial to allow students time to develop keywords so they receive useful results quickly. My successful keyword search form is available on my Free Librarian Resources page. For evaluation I use a simple ABC acronym. An earlier post explained why that’s all I use with my middle schoolers.

Academic Honesty

image of Academic Honesty Slogan: Give credit when credit is due. Why? Because it's the right thing to do!It may surprise you that I don’t teach “plagiarism;” I’ve found it’s much more effective to focus on the positive message of academic honesty. I have 2 lessons, with short relevant videos and hands-on activities, that introduce

1) Intellectual Property and how to do bibliographic citation, and
2) Copyright & Fair Use along with proper note-taking and in-document citation.

See my Intellectual Property and Copyright
lessons in NoSweat Library, my TPT store.
product cover for No Sweat Library Academic Honesty-Intellectual Property & Bibliographic Citation product cover for No Sweat Library Academic Honesty Lesson-Copyright & Fair Use

Collaborative planning with teachers for inquiry/research/info-lit lessons is essential, but it’s so hard to convince teachers to allow me more than a single day for these important lessons. Those that do see that students produce better products more quickly, and they make my Library Lessons part of their planning for the next such assignment/project…and they tell others about it!


Inquiry based learning and critical thinking should always begin with the School Librarian. Their raison d’être is helping students inquire and think critically as they take in content knowledge to produce multimedia products that can change our lives.

Barshay, Jill. “Scientific research on how to teach critical thinking contradicts education trends.” The Hechinger Report. Teachers College at Columbia University, September 9, 2019.

Grafstein, Ann. “Chapter 1 – Information Literacy and Critical Thinking: Context and Practice: Abstract,” Pathways Into Information Literacy and Communities of Practice. Chandos Publishing, 2017.

Maniotes, Leslie K.; Kuhlthau, Carol C. Making the Shift: From Traditional Research Assignments to Guiding Inquiry Learning. Knowledge Quest, v43 n2 p8-17 Nov-Dec 2014.

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Overdue School Library Books & How to Handle Excuses

Overdue Library Books & How to Handle Excuses - Overdue library books are a perpetual problem for School Librarians, but we need a friendly, non-judgmental policy that maintains book circulation and student reading. Here are some typical excuses from students, and tolerant ways to deal with them. #NoSweatLibrary #schoollibrary #overduebooks #overduebookexcusesEvery year, about a month after school begins, we School Librarians begin to tackle the recurring and everlasting problem of overdue library books. Each school seems to have it’s own special problems and each librarian contrives some unique solutions. There is, however, one constant for all of us: the clichéd excuses students offer about their overdue book.

Overdue book excuses can be especially troublesome when we’re trying to check out books for 30—or 60—students before the end of a period, but we can respond calmly and more productively if we understand the underlying cause of these overdue excuses. No matter if you are elementary, middle school, or high school, the ‘reasons’ students offer for not returning a book on time come in 3 forms: avoidance, blame, or contrition.


Avoidance is a non-confrontational response, and we don’t want to escalate it. We just need to provide a simple prompt to bring the student’s attention to a possible solution. Here’s how I handle 4 common avoidance excuses:

avoidance-I don't remember that bookThis is a classic, spur-of-the-moment avoidance response. I tell the student the date the book was checked out, grab one of my handy overdue bookmarks, write the book title, and slip the bookmark into the new book as I check it out. When I hand the book to the student I ask them to ‘look in their locker and at home, and get it back to me as soon as they find it.’

avoidance-I don't know where it isThis is probably the truth, and why the book is overdue. I follow the same bookmark procedure and tell them I’m sure they’ll find it if they look around their locker and at home.

avoidance-I never checked that outWith this excuse the student is embarrassed and doesn’t want us to make a big deal about it. I gently remind them I scanned their ID badge or they entered their ID number on the keypad, so they must have checked it out. I grab the overdue bookmark, add the title and, in this case, the date checked out, hand it over in their new book and give the standard ‘look in locker and at home’ request.

avoidance-I already returned that bookThis classic excuse and is often a bluff in hopes we’ll let it go. Since even super-librarians make mistakes during check-in, I grab a sticky note, write the call number and title, and give it to the student telling them to go find the book on the shelf and bring it to me. If it’s a check-in mistake I scan the book and apologize, making a joke about ‘these darn computers’ or, in my case, ‘this gray hair.’ If they can’t find it, I follow the usual procedure with the overdue bookmark.

Students get a kick out of my ‘gray hair’ reference: I tell them my hair is gray because all the color has leaked out, leaving a hollow tube, and now I mess up because my brains are leaking out the tube, too.


Blame excuses are confrontational, and we definitely can’t let them go; however, we need to realize that blame is really avoidance accompanied by a fear of retribution. If we respond in a calm manner, offering a workable solution that puts the onus where it belongs, we’ll avoid escalating the situation by removing the fear. Here are 4 examples.

blame-someone stole itThis is the universal middle school answer to anything that is missing. If your school is like mine, a few library books do get shuffled around in the gym or cafeteria, so I simply ask where might that have happened while I’m filling in the title on that handy overdue bookmark. Sympathy defuses the fear and with the bookmark I tell the student to look for it…just in case it’s in a locker or at home.

blame-I gave it to my friend to read & she'll return itThis excuse sounds like such a noble gesture, but really shifts the burden of responsibility to another student. I ask if the other person is in the library, and if so, have the student bring them up to discharge then checkout the book to the newly responsible party.

If the other student is not in the library, I gently remind the student that as long as the book is checked out to them, they are responsible for it, so they need to either get the book or the student into the library so we can solve the overdue…and I give them the overdue bookmark as a reminder.

blame-are you sure I checked that outThis excuse implies the problem is our fault, but we can maintain our cool. I remind the student about using IDs for checkout so a mistake is unlikely, but since it is possible, they can help me by looking around for the book, in their locker or at home, and I hand them the overdue bookmark.

blame-my teacher was supposed to return itI really hate this blame excuse, because I do have one or two ELA teachers that have students stack library books to return near the classroom door and pick a new book from the classroom library. At some point before the teacher remembers to bring the books to me, someone else sees the book and takes it from the stack to read.

I figure it’s up to the student and teacher to work this out, so I tell the student to talk to their teacher for permission to return to the classroom for the book. If no, then I do an overdue bookmark to remind the student to check for the book in class the next day.

You’ll note that, during a book checkout, students whose accounts show an overdue get an overdue bookmark with the book title written on it. The student sees this bookmark every time they’re reading their current book and it prompts them to look for the overdue one and return it. I do run overdue notices at periodic intervals, but these bookmarks allow a face-to-face conversation and tend to bring books back much more quickly.

Overdue Notice Bookmarks

You can download my Overdue Bookmarks Template from my FREE Librarian Resources page.


Contrition is when a student admits to the overdue book but can’t return it for some reason. These excuses are easy to handle because the student accepts responsibility and just needs an opportunity to retrieve the book or a reminder to bring it back to the library. The worst thing we can do with these excuses is make a big deal about them, so I laugh and take them in stride.

contrition-it's in my lockerThis is the typical excuse when a student has forgotten it’s a library day. I created a special ‘Library to Locker for Overdue Book’ pass and I hand one to the student so they can get their book and return it. I have 6 numbered passes, so I limit how many students are out and about during the period.

contrition-I left it in my classroomI know this seems like a dumb excuse since the student just came from the classroom, but it proves my quip about middle schoolers being ‘brain dead’. I tell the student to ask the teacher’s permission to return to the classroom. The teacher knows these students better than I do, so they know who is trustworthy enough to allow this. If they don’t, the student gets the overdue bookmark and I get the book dropped off right after the class period or the next day at the start of the class period.

contrition-I forgot to bring it back to schoolThis is an easy excuse to handle with some sympathy and the overdue bookmark. Often I’ll have the student leave a phone message to remind themselves to bring the book back to school. The kids find this funny; I find it works.

contrition-I think I lost my book


Sometimes a student says this as I pull up their account on the computer. When the book doesn’t show up on their account, they’re thrilled that it’s been turned's here, you found it

I got a book with legs

When the book still shows on their account as overdue, I ask when and how they lost the book as I fill out the overdue bookmark. We need to accept that students misplace things—after all, they’re still learning to become adults. I joke that the book must have been partying with the other books, and hand them their new book. The student laughs and says ‘yes, Ms. P, it’s a book with legs!‘ The book routinely turns up later on and is returned.


Kids are busy. We adults have a single focus—our subject—and we often fail to appreciate that students must re-calibrate their brains 6 or 8 times a day as they gear up for different subjects with different teachers, and in secondary, in different classrooms. If they forget to return a book to the school library, we can surely be forgiving, especially since harsh repercussions don’t work and only serve to alienate student readers. I’ve found 3 benevolent (although controversial) tactics that I believe we can all adopt:

  • Get rid of overdue book fines. Whatever the original reasoning behind this, it doesn’t work. Fines keep books out of circulation and discourage students from returning books and checking out new ones to read, the opposite of what we are trying to accomplish.
  • Always allow a student to check out a book. We can limit a student to a single book if they have overdues, but depriving a student of a book does nothing IN THE MOMENT to get that overdue back. Rather, it creates ill feeling toward us and the school library, and that’s just plain bad policy.
  • Quit thinking they’re “our” books, or even “the school’s” books. In a school library, the books belong to the students! They are provided for them and we are only the ‘warehouse manager’. A Facebook comment from School Librarian Jen M. Hash-Staley convinced me:

I always have missing books at the end of the year, I don’t let it bother me much anymore. Tax paying parents funded the purchase, so I like to think that they are enjoying a tax rebate. Crazy talk I know.

So, I’m just saying that we need to figure out congenial ways to cajole students into returning overdue books. Having a friendly, non-judgmental policy toward overdues will increase both circulation and reading, and go a long way toward building positive attitudes toward the school library.

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An Expanded View of “School Library Orientation”

An Expanded View of “Library Orientation” - School Librarians can make every library visit powerful if we remember that EVERY subject-area's “first” library visit of the school year is a “library orientation” for THEM! Here's how I do unique orientation lessons with 6 different subjects. #NoSweatLibrary #schoollibrary #libraryorientation #ELA #socialstudies #deweydecimals #math #onlineresources #science #visualarts #worldlanguagesWe School Librarians sense the importance of our students’ first library visit, so each year as the beginning of school approaches, “library orientation” becomes a hot topic on library listservs, social media, and blogs. Folks request ideas, asking, “What can I do differently this year?”

A couple years after I simplified and customized my school library orientations with English Language Arts classes, I came to an astounding realization:

EVERY subject-area’s “first” library visit of the school year is a “library orientation” for THEM!

I’m suggesting that you don’t need to keep trying new things every year with the same subject class. Rather, expand your view of what “library orientation” means and have an “orientation” lesson with every single grade level and subject area in your building!

Allow me share how I developed a series of “library orientations” that brought 6th grade ELA, Social Studies, Math, Science, and Elective classes into the library at various intervals during the first several weeks of school. Once you try this, I know you’ll love it, and your subject area teachers feel pretty special having their very own unique library orientation customized to their content. (Even as an elementary librarian, we can focus each class’s visit on new library materials or features, so it’s a like another orientation.)


I’ve written about how I simplified my 6th grade library orientation, so students aren’t overwhelmed with too much new information. Keep in mind that for lowest-grade-level, new-to-the-school students, our school library is completely new to them, and our lesson is “fresh” for them, even if we’ve done it a dozen times! Because each new year is a totally new group of students, I’m as enthusiastic about this lesson as I was the first time.

Our ELA classes begin the year studying narrative text, so we focus on how to choose one good book from the new-to-them Fiction area. My lesson is followed by plenty of time to browse the Fiction area of this “new” library, after which we have extended silent reading while I do a quiet invited checkout. This standard procedure establishes a reading culture for ELA’s every-other-week library visits for the rest of the school year.


After the ELA visit, we can bring in other 6th grade subject-area classes and offer them a “library orientation” customized to their particular content. I’ve written about my Special Collections for Social Studies, so I invite 6th grade Social Studies classes to visit a couple weeks after ELA to learn more about their “new” school library: the GlobeTrekkers collection of Fiction & Dewey books that support their study of World Cultures.

The first part of the lesson is book returns and library expectations, continuing students’ introduction to their “new” school library. Then I introduce Content Area Reading and why it is important.

Educators have learned that reading comprehension isn’t so much about word recognition as it is about conceptual understanding in context. That is, students become better readers as they accrue background knowledge of various topics, so the more they read, the more they know.

Yes, Dr. Seuss instinctively told us this years ago in his book
“I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!” and it just took brain researchers a while to confirm that.

Now I don’t tell all this to kids…I just tell them that the more GlobeTrekkers books they read, the better they’ll do in Social Studies and get better grades!

Photo of the GlobeTrekkers Special Collection for 6g Social StudiesI show them how to identify GlobeTrekker books in the search results from our online book catalog, and when they hear they can check out a GlobeTrekker Dewey book and, if needed, a fiction selection for their ELA class they are excited to begin browsing. We follow the same procedure—silent reading & invited checkout—which reinforces with Social Studies the reading culture that was established with ELA.


I’ve also written how it makes sense to do our Dewey lesson with math classes and focus on locating decimal numbers on the bookshelves. When 6th grade Math classes enter the library, students are so puzzled about what they are doing here…with their math class? That, in itself, sustains engagement for students—who apparently have never done anything like this before.

Keeping the lesson about numbers makes it easy for students to relate the Dewey number they see in a book search to a location on a shelf, regardless of the topical content of the book. After the lesson there is plenty of time for students to browse for a couple of new books, either Fiction or Dewey, and the 6th grade boys are especially eager to find their favorite informational books in this “new” school library: aliens, cars, sports, and drawing, as well as the Guinness and Believe-It-Or-Not books. Then we follow our standard procedure, which reinforces with Math the reading culture we established with ELA and Social Studies.

Notice how we progressively give “newbies” what they need to effectively use their “new” school library, how we establish our school’s reading culture with silent sustained reading (we call ours DEAR—Drop Everything And Read), and how we gradually build up the number and type of books students can check out. All this ensures they are not overwhelmed with too much new information or too many books to keep track of during the early weeks of their new school experience.


By now our 6th grade Science classes are into their unit on Energy that ends the 1st grading period with a project on alternative energy resources. The timing is perfect for an introduction to our middle school online subscription services, which are completely different from those in elementary school.

Most “newbies” come to us from feeder elementaries, but many are new-to-district students. Thus, I begin this “online library orientation” with Digital Citizenship and direct students to our online library resources webpage to prepare for the WebQuest lesson.

I’ve written about my guided WebQuest that introduces just 3 subscription services to 6th graders—an encyclopedia, a periodical database, a topical reference e-book—with each segment looking only at the specific features of a service they’ll need for the project.

This is a full-period lesson, and each segment has students reading for content information and citing sources as they fill in the WebQuest worksheet (or HyperDoc). Students come away well-prepared to research their project, and I also provide a cart of books for the classroom to supplement the online tools.

To illustrate how favorably teachers respond to customized lessons, shortly after this, 6g Social Studies has an “online orientation” WebQuest using our countries of the world databases. Students gather country data into a spreadsheet app for comparison, and then learn to automatically generate a graph.


By this time we are well into the school year, yet I’m not done. Remember: any subject-area class that visits the library for the first time gets a “library orientation.” So, I begin the 2nd grading period with “online orientations,” customized for 6g Art and 6g Spanish.

Both these lesson visits feature our online email service, with a focus on Cloud Computing & Netiquette. It’s a guided lesson, similar to the WebQuest, that examines 3 features of the service: email, blogging, and discussion forums. I always let the other 6g teachers know when I do this popular lesson, so they can begin using the service for their own courses.


I’ve written, too, that making ELA and Math orientations about location allows me to bring other subject areas into the library for content-specific lessons. In this case, 6g Science returns during their Classification & Organization unit to explore the 590 Animals section of Dewey, whose disciplinary organization mirrors that of science. This “content orientation” focuses on the parts of informational books so students can dig into such books to extract what they need.


Lest you think I ignore our 7th and 8th graders, here’s a list of the “library orientations” I’m providing for them during this same time period:

  • 7g & 8g ELA – Fiction books
  • 8g History – the American colonies
  • 7g Math – adding/subtracting decimals & Dewey books
  • 7g TX History – First Texans cooperative learning
  • 7/8 Theater – multicultural folktales to create one-act plays
  • 7g TX History – explorers WebQuest
  • 8g Spanish – weather report & intro to video broadcasting
  • 8g Health, 8g Careers – books, ebooks, online services & websites

I know you may not think of these in terms of “orientations,” but when we view each library visit as an entirely new experience for that group of students in that subject class, all our lessons become “library orientations.”


I’ve discovered it doesn’t matter how good a librarian students have had before they arrive in our school. These “library orientation” lessons are always powerful because they are bite-sized pieces, scaffolded over time, helping students gradually learn—and remember—how to use every aspect of our library services.

To make successful, carefully crafted lessons, we must have a comprehensive view of each grade level’s total library experience, for both subject-area curricula and the library curriculum. I created my Curriculum Matrix for just this reason, keep it updated, and use it constantly.

Our attitude toward “library orientation” is a reflection of our mindset about our entire School Library Program. We want every student experience with us to be a memorable one, offering meaningful lessons that never get old.

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