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More than Book Repositories: The Library as a Learning Commons

Written on November 7th, 2013

[caption id=”attachment_4135” align=”aligncenter” width=”325”]Book Club Lunch 2012 (1) Students at Woodland Christian High School gather in the library for a book club lunch.[/caption]

With emerging technologies, portable workstations and new uses for the internet appearing every day in education, the concept of a room packed with books may seem like an archaic artifact of the past to some. But confusing a school’s library with a book depot would be a mistake.

Libraries can be so much more than book repositories. That’s become increasingly clear to Margaret Grift—member of the OACS Library Advisory Council and librarian at John Knox Christian School in Brampton. Grift’s growing interest in what the Ontario Library Association (OLA) describes as a ‘Learning Commons’  has framed much of her thinking about school libraries this year.

The Learning Commons movement aims to foster both student-directed and collaborative learning.  According to the OLA, it is a school-wide approach to education that encourages students to explore big concepts, integrate technology into their research habits, inquire and experiment together. Built into the Learning Commons movement is an emphasis on global learning as opposed to classroom learning, which focuses on forming new learning partnerships, instead of relying on individual teacher expertise.

A library has the potential to serve as the “hub of a school’s Learning Commons” in several ways, says Grift. Ideally, it would be staffed by librarians who are intentional about not only finding resources that support a school’s curriculum, but also updating those resources on a regular basis. Within a Learning Commons model, a school’s library can act as a gateway to an ever expanding bank of relevant, high quality digital resources, accessible to students 24/7.

Offline, Grift believes that a library is most effective when it functions as “a flexible space for collaborative learning.” That way students can reconfigure the room, depending on what they hope to accomplish; some might wish to work on a group project, prepare a complex multimedia presentation, or study with friends. Something as simple as filling a library with lightweight, moveable furniture could make that vision a little more achievable, she says.

Imbedded in a Learning Commons vision is a focus on teaching and assessing information literacy. With an increasing amount of schools moving from the “teacher fed” educational model towards more collaborative learning that fosters student inquiry, that matters more than it ever did before, says Grift. As students sift through an overwhelming amount of online content, the ability to competently find and process the information they need is essential.

The mission of a Learning Commons, as outlined by the OLA, is broad in scope. Those who find its expansive vision to be a bit overwhelming might need to start small. Sections of OLA’s Together for Learning document move from seemingly lofty goals to practical, specific suggestions: librarians could connect individual students to “just the right book”, organize and lead online or face-to-face book clubs, teach effective search strategies that enable independent learning or think about providing audio books and assistive technology tools to meet the differing needs of students. The list goes on.

It could take time and a good deal of creative thinking for a librarian to transform her library into a space that reflects a Learning Commons approach to education. But, many would agree that the potential is there. As the OLA points out in its Together for Learning resource package, a library “is already established as a physical and virtual cross-curricular space.” It has a multi-grade focus, and a “mandate to support the needs of all learning.”

Members of the OACS Library Advisory Council have already begun to explore and implement the Learning Commons vision within the wider OACS community. Grace Van Harten, teacher at London Christian Elementary School, led a workshop about the concept of a Learning Commons at the recent Edifide convention. Currently, the group is gathering information in survey form from all OACS schools to evaluate the characteristics of libraries and to explore the feasibility of a Learning Commons. (If your school hasn’t already completed the survey, you can access it here.) Members of the council will meet again at the end of November to review the data, discuss ideas, and prioritize their goals for the year ahead.

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For a brief but helpful summary of the OLA’s Together for Learning document, take a look at the video below!