Do We Teach Dewey … or Don’t We? A School Library Lesson

I don't teach the Dewey Decimal Classification System and you don't have to either. There's a better way to teach students how to find a book in our School Libraries and it supports Math. Read on to find out how I do Dewey... | No Sweat LibraryI don’t teach the Dewey Decimal Classification System during Library Orientation. In fact, I don’t teach it at all!

The eye-opener came my second year as a librarian when I was telling students (during an incredibly boring orientation) that library books were originally shelved behind the circulation desk, and the DDC was created so librarians could organize books to find one when a patron asked for it. I suddenly realized that the DDC is for me to know for organizing books, not for students to know for finding one.

Students only need to know how to find a number on a shelf, and anyone who can put 3 or 4 numbers in consecutive order can do that—even a kindergartner!


Few School Librarians understand “Classes” and “Divisions” of DDC, or what it means that DDC organizes those Classes & Divisions by discipline. While the 10 Classes are pretty easy to remember, most School Librarians know only a few Dewey Divisions. Quick: name the 10 Divisions of the 700s Arts & Leisure. And that’s an easy one! If we School Librarians don’t even know the DDCS, why should a kid?

Secondly, the AASL National School Library Standards never mention the Dewey Decimal Classification System. (Nor did the Standards for a 21st Century Learner!) It’s not even listed in the Glossary or the Index. It’s only at the School Library level that there’s a hint at a classification system:

IV. CURATE C. SHARE 2. The school library facilitates the contribution and exchange within and among learning communities by including and tracking collection materials in a system that uses standardized approaches to description & location. (p.62)

As for School Librarians, there’s not even a hint at a classification system; this is as close as they get:

IV. CURATE A. THINK 2. School librarians challenge learners to act on an information need by designing opportunities for learners to explore possible information sources. (p. 50)

I particularly like the wording “opportunities for learners to explore,” and I’ve written about such opportunities for Science and for Social Studies that coordinates both the discipline of Dewey and classroom learning.

So, if our own Standards don’t specify the DDCS for us or for learners, we don’t need to teach Dewey!

Finally, the trend in education is away from content-based instruction and toward developing critical-thinking through inquiry and problem-solving. The school library is all about inquiry and problem-solving, so why would we continue to teach a content-based lesson on the Dewey Decimal Classification System?


Students only need to know how to find a Dewey number on a shelf, and even a kindergartner can put 3 numbers in consecutive order! A lesson activity that sends kids off to find books by number is not only a better strategy for the library—and for reinforcing Math skills—but it’s a lot more fun! | No Sweat LibraryAs School Librarians, our main concern is about helping students learn how to use an organization system to locate resources. Thus, we teach students about our online catalog, and that, after using it to identify whether the school library has a book, they only need a number to find the book on the shelf.

This goes beyond just a lesson; it touches on the latest trend of dumping Dewey for a “kid-friendly” word-based system. I’m astonished when I hear this, since Dewey is itself a short, simple notation for locating a book on the shelf. I doubt that kids are any more likely to “learn” letter acronyms than Dewey numbers.

They’ll still have to search By Subject, we’ll still have to teach them how to use the system to find a book, and we’ll still need to put signs on the shelves, all of which we can do just as easily with Dewey numbers!

NoSweat Library Dewey Decimal Library Lesson presentation slide - They rarely visit the library, so a Dewey Decimal lesson gives Math classes a curricular reason to visit the library, especially if we offer a practical, hands-on application of decimal concepts.

A slide about place value from my math lessons.

Students do need to understand that each place value in a Dewey decimal number stands for a more specific subject or topic, so more decimals mean a narrower topic of a book. What those subjects or topics are should be a sign on a shelf, not a scrap of trivia in a kid’s brain.

Granted, for elementary students, especially very young ones who haven’t learned about decimals, Dewey numbers may seem a bit daunting, but even a kindergartner quickly learns to count to 100, and helping kids discern and practice numerical order is a more important skill to focus on than what the numbers stand for.

It’s incredible that many of my middle schoolers can’t do this, so a lesson activity that sends kids off to find books by number is not only a better strategy for the library—and for reinforcing Math skills—but it’s a lot more fun! At least it always is for my students since I changed my lessons from content to process!


Here's a great way to bring Math classes into the school library: review decimal concepts & library organization by having students locate Dewey Decimal-numbered books on the shelves. I do lessons with 2 different grade levels! | No Sweat LibraryI suggest that our reluctance to focus on number location is due to math anxiety—after all, most librarians seem to come from a language arts background, not a math one. But think about it: Numbers and decimals are part of the math curriculum, so why not bring in math classes for a Dewey lesson? They rarely use the library, so a Dewey Decimal lesson gives Math classes a curricular reason to visit the school library, especially when we offer a practical, hands-on application of decimal concepts. And it certainly answers the common question in math about “When are we ever going to use this?”

Thanks to a suggestion from my library colleague, Cindy Nietubicz, I bring both 6th and 7th grade Math classes into the library for a Dewey Decimal Lesson. The timing is perfect for us—these math classes begin decimal units about 5 weeks into the school year, when our ELA fiction reading pattern is well established and students are eager to check out Dewey books.

My math lessons serve to activate prior math knowledge about what students should already know about decimals, so it prepares them for their upcoming unit. With 6g students we review place values and sequencing decimals; with 7g students we review adding and subtracting decimals. Students practice how decimals are used in the library by locating Dewey-decimal-number books on the shelf. Math teachers like having this fun, non-graded review where they can see which students are having trouble with decimals.

NoSweat Library Dewey Decimal Library Lesson presentation slide - They rarely visit the library, so a Dewey Decimal lesson gives Math classes a curricular reason to visit the library, especially if we offer a practical, hands-on application of decimal concepts.Animated lesson slide for students to practice putting decimals in order.

After the practice activity, students have plenty of time to browse for Dewey books to check out. Many get an interesting book they find during the activity. Others are stimulated to use my signage to find Dewey numbers of their favorite topics. When students are seated, we follow the same silent reading and invited checkout procedure that we use for ELA classes.

Math teachers love these lessons so much that they come to me early in the school year to see when we can schedule them into the library. It also whets their interest in collaborating on other math-related lessons in the library. Students love these lessons, too. Sixth graders are always puzzled about why they’re in the library with a math class…most have never done that before. What amazes me is how many comment afterward that now they understand how all those numbers work, which is, of course, the whole point of teaching Dewey numbers to our students.


You may be wondering why I deliberately use the phrase Dewey numbers—and Dewey books. I identify areas of the library by what’s on the spine labels of the books; since there’s a Dewey number on the spine labels, it’s the Dewey area of the library.

My decision to begin doing this came during the aforementioned (incredibly boring) orientation: I was explaining that we separate fiction books from the 800s into their own area of the library, but the ‘non-fiction’ area still had some fictional books, such as aliens and fairy tales. I thought, “Why am I making this so confusing to students? If I just call them Dewey-number books I’ll alleviate confusion and questions!” So from then on, that’s what I called them.

Now I clarify with students that ‘non-fiction’ is about the content of a book, not it’s location. If you take anything from this blog post, I hope it’s the terms ‘Dewey area’ and ‘Dewey-number books’ instead of ‘nonfiction.’ Our kids deserve common sense.

line of books laying down

If the slide images above have sparked your interest, you can find my Dewey Lessons in my No Sweat Library store on TeachersPayTeachers, as well as my colorful Dewey Subject Signs & Shelf Labels.

Make your Dewey Decimal Library Lesson more authentic and relevant by inviting 6g Math classes to review decimal place values and sequencing! Students & teachers love this Library Lesson that activates prior knowledge at the beginning of their 6g Math decimal unit. Do this lesson, and your math teachers will come to you every year asking when you'll schedule their visit! Make your Dewey Decimal Library Lesson more authentic & relevant by inviting 7g Math classes to review adding & subtracting decimal numbers! Students & teachers love this Library Lesson that activates prior knowledge at the beginning of their 7g Math decimal unit. Do this lesson, and your math teachers will come to you every year asking when you'll schedule their visit! No Sweat Library Dewey Subject Signs & Shelf Labels - Make it easier for students to find a Dewey book in your school library with these colorful, pictorial signs and shelf labels. They're just what you need for your middle school or elementary library!

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To Teach Critical Thinking & Inquiry Learning, Entrust Your School Librarian

To Teach Critical Thinking & Inquiry Learning, Entrust Your School Librarian - Research proves the link between critical thinking, content knowledge, and inquiry based learning. Learn why the School Librarian is the expert who can help students learn critical thinking skills and background content knowledge through authentic inquiry based learning. #NoSweatLibraryTo flourish in our modern global world, students need critical thinking skills, so educators are turning to inquiry based learning as the best approach. 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 building: the School Librarian.

School Librarians have been integrating curriculum content, critical thinking, and inquiry based learning for a long time, and this is exactly what educational researchers have recently 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. (Jill Barshay, 9/9/19)


The crux of inquiry based learning is to pique a student’s curiosity and motivate 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

By its very nature, inquiry demands that students 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, 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, who has examined multiple inquiry models as part of their graduate coursework. 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)

A School Librarian: The Perfect Person for Inquiry Based Learning - With their knowledge & training, the School Librarian is the perfect person to integrate relevant content, critical thinking skills, and an inquiry process for Library Lessons that help students develop authentic, worthy products. #NoSweatLibraryThis makes a School Librarian the perfect person to teach students an inquiry process for any subject area & product. A School Librarian excels at finding content—information and media—so can provide background knowledge that helps students through the crucial exploration stage. Plus, a School Librarian’s broad familiarity with everyone’s curriculum means s/he knows which critical thinking skills are relevant for each subject area.

School Librarians are authorities on critical thinking because 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 Matrix

Through my years as a Middle School Librarian I use my Library Lesson Matrix to choose which strategies and skills are timely for each subject, at each grade level, across all grade levels, throughout the school year, in order to scaffold short Information Literacy lessons into any library visit.

My Library Lessons present inquiry strategies & skills in a way that students understand why, when, and how to use them. I believe students learn best with visual and aural “helpers”:

  • I use infographics to illustrate strategies and processes.
  • I use graphic organizers for conceptual knowledge because they help students develop the understanding for themselves.
  • I use short videos (~3 minutes) to make explanations more engaging and understandable for students.

Here are some practices and resources that have been most successful with students, most appreciated by teachers, and have garnered positive feedback from my colleagues when teaching the 3 components of Information Literacy:

Research Process Models

Get This Comparative Overview Chart of Research Process Models - School Librarians can plan a unique experience for inquiry-based learning in any subject area with this PDF chart of 18 popular problem solving models. Read about integrating critical thinking skills, content knowledge & IBL and then download the chart from my FREE Librarian Resources page! #NoSweatLibraryPlanning and exploration must be the beginning of all effective inquiry-based learning. Simple brainstorming can be a quick & easy way to begin a project; however, implementing a model to guide students through the inquiry learning process assures a more successful outcome.

Popular models have from 5 to 20 different steps, so it’s important to choose one that is appropriate for the grade level, subject-area, and duration of the project.

To help School Librarians choose the appropriate design process for any inquiry assignment, download my comparative chart of 18 different research process models, available on my FREE Librarian Resources page.

image of PACE Research Model

A model created for my 6th graders is a simple way to “PACE” students through a project from planning to evaluation. Join my email group and you’ll gain access to my exclusive e-List Library where you can download my PACE PDF or editable DOCX graphic template and assessment rubric.

Search & Evaluation Skills

This Info-Lit 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 give students the positive messages of Academic Honesty and teach them how to be legal & ethical, before getting to the cautions about plagiarizing. I begin each lesson with short relevant videos and then have hands-on activities, that introduce:

  1. Intellectual Property and how to do bibliographic citation
  2. Copyright & Fair Use, along with proper note-taking and in-document citation
  3. Public Domain & Creative Commons, especially for images & media
See my Intellectual Property, Copyright & Fair Use, and Public Domain & Creative Commons 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 Academic Honesty: Public Domain & Creative Commons Lesson


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

Collaborative planning with teachers for inquiry based learning is essential, but it is hard to convince teachers to allow School Librarians more than a single day for these important Library Lessons. Those that do see their students produce better products more quickly, so they make the School Librarian part of their planning for the next such project. It’s even better when they tell others about how we contribute to their students’ research success!


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.

line of books laying down - indicates end of blog article

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