Our Learning Commons: One How To for 21st Century Learning

A few months back, I began reading Building the Learning Commons: A Guide for School Administrators and Learning Leadership Teams.  Much of what follows is a summary of the book, the impact that it has made in transforming our library at John Oliver and the importance of the Learning Commons as a “hub” or centre of learning in our school (and the district).  It is a facility that will be characterized by “hum and hub, not hush”.  @tlspecial will tell you that in the JO Learning Commons, observers will encounter:

  • A welcoming, service-oriented, tech-rich environment that is open for extended hours on a regular basis and that invites students and the community in to find resources and services that support their work.
  • Students actively engaged in the work of the Learning Commons and consulted on the policies and procedures for its operations.
  • Comfortable reading areas that attract young people to books and to developing the lifelong habit of reading.
  • Comfortable working areas that enable different groupings of students to work, from independent learners to pairs and small groups to whole-class instruction.
  • 24/7 access to digital resources and services as well as a pared-down but robust and dynamic collection of print resources all supporting curriculum and reading.
  • The Innovative Teaching Centre, an area that would invite teachers, student teachers, authors, artists, and students to work with “an audience” (a class) and with the support of the teacher-librarian or technology leader to integrate technology with instruction and to present multimedia or other performances.
  • The Multimedia Centre, an area that would provide students and teachers with opportunities to learn more advanced technology skills and create more complex digital products.
  • The district’s Technology Educational Development Centre that would be available for teachers to work in groups in workshops or “sandbox sessions” to learn new skills or collaboratively develop new resources, tools, or instructional capacity
  • The first refurbishment of a school library and the creation of an example of what investment in the Learning Commons for Vancouver school

In short, the JO Learning Commons would be the impetus for a cultural sea-change that would enable every student and every teacher, as well as parents, teachers from other schools, and other members of the community to share in the 21st century learning experience.

What is a Learning Commons?

Keechlin, Rosenfeld and Loerttscher define it as “a learning “space” that is both physical and virtual – a place to experiment, practice, celebrate, learn, work and play.  But, it’s more than a room. It calls for the creation of new environments that improve learning. It is about changing school culture and about transforming the way learning and teaching occurs. It is a transformation that calls for physical, virtual and pedagogical changes as well as a shift in mindset for all players.

It provides student centered, flexible spaces that promote higher order thinking, encourage participatory learning and with librarians serving as learning coaches and knowledge brokers (with technology as a tool and not the “driver”) designing high level work that moves beyond reworking of data and requires learners to think critically and creatively.

Every day someone is writing about 21st century learning and where schools should be “moving”:

  • From teacher directed to process and active learning
  • From simple information assignments to individual and collective knowledge construction (what I like to call the move from finding to discovering)
  • From classroom learning to networked and global learning
  • From test driven to learning that explores big ideas and concepts
  • From teachers working in isolation to collaborative teaching partnerships

Lots of proclamations of what we should be doing but no ‘road map’ to help us get there.  Koechlin et al. provide a guide that we are using here at JO to find our way:

The Learning Commons is a real world whole school approach to creating such a new collaborative learning model. In joining the collaborative dynamics of the school library with technology-rich labs and expertise and providing a seamless portal of flexible physical and virtual learning resources and spaces.  Top that with relevant participatory learning experiences and students will be energized to make meaningful connections and develop strategies for successful learning.

What will the JO Learning Commons look like?

  • It will involve all school members as equal active players in the drive for excellence
  • It will be the classroom extension just down the hall that provides opportunities, space, technology, information resources, and adult specialists not usually available in the contained classroom
  • It will be a part of the classroom and is accessible not only during the school day but at any time on any device where students and teachers are connected
  • It will be an interactive learning and meeting space, a common classroom, a common office and a think tank
  • As the hub of action research it will be the best spot in the school for a community to measure real teaching and learning growth
  • It will be a place where everyone in our community (school and district) can multitask with a variety of digital devices and work collaboratively to create content and publish it widely

In the end, we will provide students with not only the deep understanding of various disciplinary knowledge but also with the transferable skills that boost their critical thinking, problem solving, decision making and communicating abilities.  And, through this “space” we will impact delivery within the school as a whole and ultimately provide the “street lamps” that help guide us along in our 21st century learning journey.

  1. Gino,
    What a great piece. It not only talks to the vision of 21st century learning but also to address the physical space that will support it. There has been much talk about the technology and the virtual world, but this extends the conversation to speak to the physical space that can be a ‘home base’ to support the movement. You have nicely pointed out that to achieve this there only needs to be a shift in mindset, not a whole need for purchasing and other major rearrangements.
    Thanks for the foresight!

    • Shifts in mindset – absolutely.

      Bernie, we need to create new ways of doing to move beyond addressing those frustrating issues that sound off the all too familiar alarms: we can’t do this . . . we can’t do that (as if we’re in a never ending fire drill paradigm). Stop!

      Let’s create new contexts that will unpack all of the historical baggage and in so doing allow us to move forward, supportively and effectively.

  2. As usual, Gino, this is a very inspirational and instructive post. I can completely envision this at your school. Last week, I was fortunate enough to tour the new “House of Learning” at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, and they have designed a space much like you described: ubiquitous tech access, movable and comfortable furniture that allows for small and large group collaboration, access to varied resources, and a genuine feel of being able to create, discover, solve and learn.

    My mind is whirling with ideas–thanks again, and make sure you snap some photos for us!

    • My mind is whirling as well, Cale

      You write of the ability to “create, discover, solve and learn” and I move this to the real purpose of the Learning Commons: engage, transform, embed and achieve.

      Thanks for your comments

  3. Awesome post. I really like the “What will the JO Learning Commons look like?” part of your post. As I read more and more on the topic I find that I am thinking … OK you sold me … now lets figure out what it looks like. I know the first version is likely to be a “beta build” but you have to start somewhere. Thanks for the thoughts.

    • Richard, exactly: “Let’s figure out what it looks like.”

      I see Rosenstock’s “High Tech High” in San Diego and I say, “Why not here?”
      I hear Larry Rosen talking about “knowledge brokers” and “learning coaches” and I think, “This is what a librarian is within this 21st century paradigm.”
      I hear @tlspecial talking about “sandbox sessions” and I say, “Let’s play!”

      Will keep you posted about how it’s developing

  4. Gino, what an exciting vision and space. Like Cale, I would love to see some pictures of what it looks like. Is it in the annex that most of the Edcamp sessions were in? I think that the more we can blur the lines between school vs. community, student vs. teacher, school vs. the “real” world the closer we move toward the 21st century vision of education. I look forward to hearing more about your journey.

    • Pictures will be forthcoming, Darcy.

      The Learning Commons is where we met in the morning to begin the Edcamp sessions. It’s located in the heart of the school, right across from the Main Office which allows my librarians to “invade” my office with their new ideas and insights.

      The Librarian, in my mind, needs to have access to my office because the Library is the “heart” of the building (just as the kitchen is the nerve centre of a house party!) It (the Learning Commons and the Librarian) provides access and entry points around learning for all stakeholders.

  5. The findings shared by Keechlin, Rosenfeld and Loerttscher in defining the “Learning Commons” as “a learning “space” that is both physical and virtual – a place to experiment, practice, celebrate, learn, work and play. But, it’s more than a room.” To that end, the design of our brand new school library took these visionary words to heart and incorporated them into our new area. It has resulted in a dynamic, attractive learning area. The other key piece is that the space is flexible and may be changed or updated in short order. We know how quickly apps are developed and supersede current programs and thinking. Those who embark on this process need to recognize that change is the constant and that the “space” associated with it has the same capability, a preparedness for change. I congratulate you on your visioning of the new space. The students will love it.

    • Marilyn, sounds like an exciting space you have there.

      I envision our Learning Commons becoming a Neighbourhood Learning Centre, a nexus for professional development and a powerful space to embed a culture of learning within our community – one that gives weight to the intrinsic merit of an inquiry based approach not only to learning but to life.

      Students are already buzzing about the changes and we’ve only just begun!

  6. Gino,

    Your observation about it being more than “the room” is absolutely correct, but the room also helps facilitate the changes in attitude. How did you find the financial support to make the physical changes that allow for the variety of uses that a commons has? We have begun these changes with our physical space (and our cognitive spaces) and want to continue the good work you’re describing. Cale’s description of the House of Learning at TRU is exactly what we’re aiming for! I’m sure the teacher librarian at Cale’s school appreciates his support, as I appreciate the support of my principal. Being able to plan together makes visioning like this possible.

    • Thanks for the comment, Cecile.

      Every Principal should have a copy of “Building a Learning Commons” to make the case of how important the Principal/Librarian relationship really is.

      I firmly believe that as the Librarian needs the support of the Principal, so too does the Principal need to be in a conversation about transformative educational practices with the Librarian on a regular basis. You see, as a Principal, I need my Librarian to help move forward “the” educational agenda.

  7. Love this vision and philosophy of the School Library 2.0

    If school libraries were more like this, then it’d be hard for critics to justify cutting funding and librarians, like we’re hearing of around the country.

  8. Gino,
    You may wish to read the 2010 document, Together for Learning, published by the Ontario School Library Assoc. We here in Kitchener-Waterloo are also working on implementation of the Learning Commons and have to this end developed a web site we call the Library Learning Commons. Best wishes as you journey down this road.

  9. I’m very excited to hear about your JO ‘commons’ project. Good on you because I too strongly believe that the model you present is not fiction. Maybe not as articulated or planned as yours but through evolution and constant professional development with my teacher-librarian partner Sharon Bede, we have a school library that happily meets most of your criteria- not in the future but now. It is very obvious to visitors that something is unique about our library and I believe it is because the students believe they matter and take some ownership. We have rules of course, but traditions and daily practice mean the Library is a busy and valued part of their school culture. I believe it serves many current needs to many different teens. It is not perfect design by far. Sharon and I have experience and always question our services and methods but really we are just two passionate teachers with a great big classroom and a 1100 patrons/day. Why the lengthy blurb? While a vision and a progressive model is lovely reality is often much harder. Case in point- we are losing the large instructional computing lab, that also served as a student media centre, because the space is ‘required’ for new timetabled classes. We have no more classroom space and no portables to squeeze the courses offered. The Library’s lab was the painful option. The course based financing structure in BC does not adequately take into account those facilities and programs that serve a school ‘commons’. The student body as a whole or as a culture is too seldom not evaluated. The pedagogy and services ‘designed’ with this lab as a main part, now will be forced to adapt but clearly not operate as harmoniously as it currently does. More reason that I observe the developments of your project with great interest and wish you luck. I believe it will come to pass. You are doing all of BC a forward thinking favour.
    yours truly,

  10. I think I am little late to this discussion, but my district is piloting the learning commons for Calgary. I am a former BC Vancouverite and will be back for spring break.
    I am wondering if there would be a chance to visit John Oliver to get a glimpse of the possibilities and see the vision being implemented?

  11. Hi Gino, you’ve articulated some very important parts to a successful Learning Commons. As Director of Learning Technologies for Foothills School Division in Alberta, we’re embracing the move from Libraries to Commons.

    We have a focus at the Divisional level to move students from Consumers to Creators – the Learning Commons is a part of that. We’re excited about the shift as we implement it fully at Westmount School (http://westmount.fsd38.ab.ca) and work with our staff in upcoming sessions to move our other sites along the continuum – it’s an evolution not a paradigm shift.

    Thank you for the work you’ve done to consolidate the thinking so precisely. It’s an excellent launch pad for discussion and action.

Comments are closed.