The Tao of a Learning Commons

In an earlier post, I wrote about our school’s redesigning of the library into a Learning Commons: the creation of a new environment that alters and improves our school culture by transforming the way learning and teaching occur.  It provides student centered, flexible spaces that promote higher order thinking and encourage participatory learning.   With librarians serving as learning coaches and knowledge brokers, students are encouraged and motivated to design high level work that moves beyond reworking of data, requiring them to think critically and creatively.  It joins the collaborative dynamics of the school library with technology-rich labs and expertise, providing a seamless portal of flexible physical and virtual learning resources and spaces.

In the end, the Learning Commons is a collective space in which students can redefine the learning experience; it’s a place where Pro-D can be embedded into the regular rhythms of the school day; it’s a physical forum where teachers can move their pockets of excellence from closed classrooms into a space accessible by all; it is the location that will serve to inform and impact the learning experience in each respective classroom and concomitantly in each student’s own respective world.

In the spirit of sharing my colleagues’ vision of the Learning Commons, I have invited Dr. Emi Garzitto to serve as guest blogger today at Learning the Now.  Emi has been working in Education for the past 21 years and since March 2010 has served as Vice Principal here at John Oliver. Her graduate and postgraduate research has focused on conflict in the body and positive communication practices. In addition, she has taught courses and implemented workshops to clients that include the University of British Columbia, Langara College, Kwantlen College, and the Bank of Montreal.

The unofficial biography: Dr. Garzitto is currently working as the third member of the John Oliver administrative team.  She struggles to keep up with basic tasks such as understanding remote references from modern and obscure films and television series in order to have conversations with the current Principal. She works tirelessly trying to accomplish half of the administrative duties completed by her vice principal colleague (commonly referred to as the “glue”).  She also enjoys training and running half marathons and she used to love to knit when she had time, before she became an administrator.

In all seriousness, as well as creating a blended model of Planning 10 for our John Oliver students, Emi is proving to be a dynamic educational leader as exemplified through her initiative in re-defining the role of our peer tutors, using the Learning Commons as her starting point.  These are her thoughts about our Learning Commons.

The Taoist symbol for Earth contains an open column of emptiness between two sets of lines.  The common way to think about this image is to view it as three broken lines, three lines with a gap. But then the focus is on the lines and not the white space.  The important element is the column of emptiness; it denotes the potential of energy to flow through.  This requires a purposeful surrender, a willingness to be taught by tools or the wind or a horse leaping a fence. (Laird, 2001, 29)

One of the first things you notice when walking into the John Oliver Learning Commons is space.  Stacks and rows of journals, books and paper have been replaced with tables, chairs, gadgets and space.  At first glance it can feel downright uncomfortable, especially if you are used to hiding in the midst of a row of books on cooking and crafts. Where did all the books and shelves go?

Training and supporting Peer Tutors in the Learning Commons, whose primary responsibility is to sit alongside and work with students, is a vital part of helping school communities navigate the new space.   A grade 8 student who struggles in Math, decides to skip the class and hide in a hallway. Once the struggle has been identified, the student is paired with a Peer Tutor who works with the student one on one, going over the work. Individualized support happens in the Learning Commons on one of the small or big tables, by a computer station, or even by the row of books on cooking and crafts where a small set of tables and chairs have interrupted the rows of books.

Peer tutors inside the Learning Commons will model learning that is not about books or laptops or the latest interactive white board but one that is rich in human experience and connection. 

All of that empty space is the beauty of the Learning Commons as we receive opportunities in the column of emptiness to “be taught by tools or the wind or a horse leaping a fence”.  The new focus is on the Human Capital, not the Technology or the Books and in my opinion, this has the power to change school cultures.