The “Why” Behind A School’s Learning Commons

Last week I was fortunate to have the opportunity to create a pecha kucha and speak at the Changing Times: Inspiring Libraries Summit. Drawing upon the work that was done at John Oliver Secondary School in transforming the school library into a Learning Commons, I spent some time reflecting on the why behind this change. My thoughts and mental meanderings lead to the following presentation:

Embracing change – it means daring to be different and accepting that people may strike at your idea like it’s a piñata. I want to talk to you today about the benefits of transforming a school library to a Learning Commons and how this change can provide the “street lamps” that help guide us along in our 21st century learning journey.

Change, moving from the known to the unknown, can be an unsettling proposition.    

How do we ask people to follow along and embrace change when at the outset all we can offer is the hope of a possibility?

Well, in terms of libraries, we show them what could be if we stay in the past and then what can be if we transform our space, our focus and our intent.

So what kind of transformation are we talking about? Well it’s a new balancing act:

From teacher directed to process and active learning;

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From simple information assignments to complex knowledge construction;

From 4 wall learning to networked and global learning;

From finding information to learning that explores big ideas and concepts;

From working in isolation to collaborative partnerships.

Ok great. But why? Why are we trying to change anything at all? What’s driving this movement?                                                                                                                                        

Well, I start (as always) at the heart of the matter.

My daughter, Lauren: great athlete and even better student – highest GPA in her grade and straight A student. She still has a vendetta against the grade 5 French teacher who gave her a B. She’s a great student but is she a great thinker?

Can she synthesize information and stretch it in new and unexpected directions?

Can she pursue inquiry and confidently invite others along within the learning discourse?

Is she discovering what it is that engages her intellectually? And, most importantly, is she being provided these opportunities in her school?

You see, Lauren will become more informed and better connected to others around the world than at any time in history

She will be asked to blend herself into a world that is both physical and virtual.


She will be expected to access and organize more information than any of her predecessors before her.

Will she be ready for this level of information and interconnection?

The fact that she will have access to more information and people does not mean that she will be living the dream.

Will she will know how to organize it, make sense of it, find meaning within it and become a good thinker?

Compounding this issue is the reality that we do not, consistently, help the Laurens of this world acquire requisite literacies through the use of the technology which is, in effect, their second skin.

How do we prepare our students for an uncertain future with multiple career paths?

How do we prepare them for a future where technical knowledge doubles every two years?

We pay attention to the skills that surround the content.

Change then focuses on ways of doing that will be transferable in an age of ever changing and increasingly sophisticated product.

 We move from a focus on content retention to a focus on skill acquisition.

We move from finding information to discovering knowledge

Put simply, we move our students from doing school to engaging with it

And this is where the Learning Commons is so important. It’s where the collaborative dynamics of the school library and technology-rich labs meet.

It encourages participatory learning and with librarians serving as learning coaches and knowledge brokers it moves learning beyond the reworking of data and requires students to think critically and creatively.

It’s a space (as @tlspecial will tell you) characterized by hum and hub, not hush.

A space that recognizes students are becoming not only better thinkers, but also makers, doers and problem solvers;

A space that promotes inquiry, collaboration and active engagement;

A space where students and teachers frame problems, generate ideas, refine solutions, collaborate with experts (locally and globally), and share results

Let’s look at a Library and a Learning Commons from the perspective of two regular students. Consider this traditional student perspective:

Student wakes up, tired, late, hungry, stumbling to school worried about the science lesson in the library:

“Oh, man, I’m gonna fail that. I didn’t memorize the vocabulary, can’t remember the habitat of the coyote. I’m skipping.”

Student gets a zero on the test, is disengaged from school, couldn’t care less about the coyote…you get the idea.

Now that same traditional student and his school’s Learning Commons:

Wakes up, stumbling to school worried about being late and disappointing the teacher. Isn’t today’s topic to be about habitat?

Gets off the bus, bleary-eyed, the student spies a skinny dog in the cemetery. Out comes the iPhone – video on – “Whoa!  That’s a coyote!” He jumps the fence, pursues at a distance – video rolling. Follows the coyote to the den and sees the pups ripping apart a neighbourhood cat.

Arriving late to class the student interrupts the chaotic setting demanding everyone’s attention. Hooks up iPhone to projector and shows live footage.

Forget YouTube. This is real life. Discussion follows – extensions, excitement.

Both of these students were late. Only one student was successful.

Why? Because of the habitat of the Learning Commons.

It’s an idea factory – the place where everyone can safely and confidently share their thoughts.

It’s a base camp where teachers and students bring the outside world in to inform their practice and learning.

It’s a place where everything created becomes a contribution to the world body of knowledge. 

The two student perspectives also touch upon a very specific point: libraries should reflect the world we live in today.  And we live in a social world with filled with an abundance of sensory stimuli. The Learning Commons is a space where students can learn how to learn within a social context. It’s also a place where students can learn to scaffold the sensory overload they experience and in doing so avoid the possibility of their learning becoming a series of goal displacements.

What the Learning Commons does well is reframe social networking as academic networking.

And most importantly it acts upon the premise that the acquisition of knowledge is now an open, transparent, non-hierarchical, interactive and real-time process. 

The Learning Commons is the starting point – it’s the nerve center of a school, the place where learning isn’t about collecting dots but rather connecting them through cross-curricular partnerships that boost critical thinking, problem solving, decision making and communicating abilities. 

It’s our experiment lab: a place where kids and adults can take risks and experiment with new ways of doing school.

A place where educational research can be played with and developed into programs that not only impact students but also provides “road maps” for teachers: “this is what innovation looks like to us in the Learning Commons, this is how it engages students and this is how you can implement facets of it in your own classroom.”

Why transform your school library into a Learning Commons? Because it sets the stage for good things to happen in education; it recalibrates our system to a new normal; and it provides us with a distinct hope of a concrete possibility for each of our respective Laurens.