Are you a Learning Commons or converting? LC as sandbox

Response to a BCTLA Forum inquiry…thanks Tracy R GOOD LUCK

Big BIG topic…. I thought I would kick some sand. First my general view. I love the learning commons. I also bring my history to the process. I spent my undergrad years inside the old UBC Main Library and the modern Sedgewick Library ( now gone ) The two were contrasts but did UBC tear down one and build another? No. They built both because in the 70’s the two libraries served the needs of a diverse community. I think high school libraries have something to learn here. Don’t simply take the crowbar to everything just because you love the idea of something new and shiny. Envision an ‘Irving K. Barber Learning Centre’ – a new form that included the useful functions of the old while bringing the new formats to the front. The Chapman Commons housed by the antique old UBC Main Library. It is their culture. That was brilliant conversion. That was planning by design. I say convert your library to a learning commons just as you would design and build a large teaching unit. Use all the brilliant collaboration skills you have as a TL and the instructional design skills you have acquired as a teacher but don’t throw out what you know produces learning for kids.

I’m coming from the perspective of a TL(s) with a high school library program that has evolved closer to a learning commons model but by no means have we deliberately made a CONVERSION nor reached any kind of destination point.  I’ve seen it firsthand for 12 years. I saw changes secondhand in usage for 9 years before that.  My conclusions are layered and indecisive as any educators because teaching inherently lacks clear outcomes like sales data or building a house. I’d say we are along a continuum.  I don’t belief one just wakes up and creates a learning commons because they have a new sign on the door.

Our school culture pushed the nature of our program as much as we pulled it into its current form. Our new facility ( 11 yrs ago ) prompted us to rethink and remodel before the learning commons was in vogue; however concepts of service from people like Haycock and Loertscher were breaking stereotypes. We had I chance to design a space and program that could do many things. As it turned out it has organically taken on a commons look and feel. Our library access points, services and instruction supports the commons but because we have a culture that also demands a range of service we also do traditional instruction as a classroom. Sometimes we also bring the ‘library’ and ‘librarians’ to the classroom. We have stacks and books and booking calendars etc but we also have 2 TLs and we can adapt to the skills or opportunities of each. When my partner Sharon, is teaching with an English class I might do nothing more than float and handle all the stations and tutoring of individuals or perhaps be teaching another group blogging in another space. We get 50-90 drop in students into the commons area who sometimes need minimal support and other times run me off my feet. Other times I need to literally kick them out because I have 4 classes booked in or the Library has been hijacked for testing or whatever…. the increased flood of DL kids has compounded the situation because they need technology, support, seating, resources, etc. The irony is that the school has expanded its roles and delivery models faster than our ability to evolve and design methods of practice. Sharon and I, like other departments and teachers, are reaching a junction point where priorities and a new mission need to urgently be addressed.  Evolution is no longer manageable. Our local colleges love what we do as far as transition but we cannot sustain the program as it stands.  A true learning commons model, like anything, has trade-offs. You WILL lose something and gain something. What I hear from the uninitiated or uniformed is a lack of comprehension that an LC needs professional support and partnership by the people using it- everyone needs to be members but not just lurkers.  It is not just a space or new furniture. Nice new chairs break.  I have seen new building project come and go.  Beautiful commons areas get ruined if there is no systemic appreciation, ownership and supervision.  A learning commons is no different.

The learning commons space includes the virtual spaces created by the teacher-librarian and the district level personnel who can deliver assets and tools required in this complex digital age. If my community is going to access library resources from home I need more than a web page. We need platforms, social media networks, PLNs, databases, etc.  When I can have discussions with a parent about why her daughter is blogging for me, she is part of a commons. When my Trustee gives a FB shout out about a project that my students are building with a charity we have a commons. When an author retweets a students photo at our student book club luncheon we have a commons- with learning and no walls or fancy furniture. This is my vision of how a learning commons can convert but not overnight. It also doesn’t happen because an architect or director or individual like the idea.  A Learning Commons is kind of like a sandbox.

In my view, ‘learning’ must precede ‘commons’.  So the pedagogy must fit your school culture or it is just window dressing or a multipurpose room with books.  When a parent builds a sandbox for their children and equips it with toys and what have you, they do not simply abandon the project there.  They design for 2 kids, just girls or boys or whatever…They supervise, nudge, coach, fix bandages, remove the neighbours’ cat…etc. They might crawl in and build something now and again but they don’t sit in it all day.  Is there rules? Yes. Is there some freedom? Yes. How do the parents know it is working? When do they outgrow it and need something else?

A successful Learning Commons- converted or otherwise, needs dedicated, skilled, teacher-librarians and support staff, along with a team of admin, teachers and students members who recognize the value added nature of sharing. It needs equipment and rules. It needs assessing and retooling. I think the KSS Library, despite being a great place to learn is just revisiting the state of the sandbox!

I bet the week after John Oliver opened up it s new Learning Commons @gmbondi and @tlspecial were thinking of things to change.

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4 Responses to Are you a Learning Commons or converting? LC as sandbox

  1. Judith Comfort says:

    Good onya Al for the down-to-earth perspective!
    After a lot of research I am convinced that a school-based “learning commons” is just another name for a school “library”. Here’s my report on the research.
    http://www.judithcomfort.ca/43lc/

  2. Pingback: TechShop- what we could learn about learning « reflectiveteacher2012

  3. Hi Al: Things to change at JO Learning Commons? Unquestionably. At a recent meeting of our Collaborative Inquiry into Elementary Learning Commons here in Vancouver, there was agreement that a Learning Commons is “always in beta.” It is something I am observing here in Vancouver — LCs are places of on-going change; there is no sense of complacency, no notion that one or two changes are going to finish the project. The success is measurable in their impact on the learning culture of the school. We at JO are incredibly lucky to have undergone the physical transformation with support from @gmbondi but there is so much more to do. Would love to have your staffing and spirit here. Love this post and am sharing liberally with VSB TLs and others. You are so right! We have been evolving for many years, using the inquiry-based approach to reading and learning, supporting technology integration with teaching and learning, and providing access (intellectual, social, equitable, socio-economic, and physical) to a range of resources and tools suited to the needs of the assignment and the abilities and interests of students for years: the new tech-based excitement — and concurrent pedagogical attention to terms like personalization and differentiation, concepts like the joy of reading — has been foundational to our programs. I fear the new tech-fascination is far too shallow and frantic to adequately prepare our young people to participate in the adult work, learning, and recreational environments. We do not teach technology; we use it to teach students how to critically evaluate, select and use information effectively and ethically, transforming it into meaningful learning. For my obit: I agreed with Al Smith and am thankful he’s one of us!

  4. Such a great post, full of advice, caution, energy and excitement. Its opportunities to evolve in a measured, directed way that help people understand the shared direction and ultimately, the creation of a space that extends beyond walls, operating hours and creates community and access. Thanks for writing up your thoughts!

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