A School Library Repackaged?

By now we’ve all heard the term ‘learning commons’ and it has become so you can’t go to any school library professional gathering, conference, or workshop and NOT hear the term referred to by a presenter or keynote speaker. There are amazing stories of schools, school libraries, and school districts that have embraced the concept of the learning commons and transformed their school libraries into a hub of inquiry-learning in their respective schools. Massive culling of dusty tombs of nonfiction, new paint, thousands of dollars of new furniture, all in an attempt to re-position the facility as the centre-piece of the school may have paid off.

But is that enough?

Since becoming teacher-librarian at L.V. Rogers Secondary I have culled nearly 75% of the non-fiction collection, purchased a used couch and some dingy softback chairs, brought in newer work tables, a laptop cart with thirty devices, purchased iPads, experimented with ereaders (in an attempt to support a growing collection of ebooks), did away with the ‘no food and and/or drink’ signage, refused to ‘shush’ anyone, and yet the name of the library is still…well, a library. 

Yes, the library has become ‘the’ room in our little rural school. Teachers, students, and visitors from all groups grace the library with their presence and quite often we reach over 600 visitors a day in a school of 780 community members. For the latecomer, on most fall and winter days there’s not a seat or computer station to be found. 

And yet, the tiny 1200 square foot room in the basement floor in exact furthest corner from the main school doors with its fire exit door opening up into the student smoke pit, is still not ready for a renaming of sorts. Why am I reluctant to join the other trailblazers across BC and rename what has become the hub of our school in just four short years?

And according to learning commons guru, former teacher-librarian, and educational consultant, Carol Koechlin, it takes more than a new name and new furniture to truly re-purpose a school library as a learning commons. First and foremost, you need a team: an administrative officer and a handful of other faculty leaders that truly understand the power of inquiry-based learning. Without buy in from stakeholders other than library staff, the chance of long-term success and realization of an actual learning commons is close to negligible. Our principal is in only his second year (at the school and as a principal), but he quickly recognized the key role the library plays in the culture of the school. Two colleagues readily utilize both the library and teacher-librarian as tools to help foster and support inquiry-based learning in their classrooms. 

Which brings me to Koechlin’s second key to success of a true learning commons: it is part of a robust inquiry-based program that is associated within the culture of the school itself. A true learning commons does not service the ‘one off’ ‘Google’-project (which rarely involves the teacher-librarian or a project/inquiry based approach) because it does not serve its students nor allow them to take advantage of the newly created space. And it might even be argued that the learning commons must not be the only place of inquiry learning within a school. PBL must become part of the culture of the school. It must reach all faculty members, departments, subjects, and classrooms as its tentacles engulf and define the atmosphere of the school.

I recognize that education loves to flock to the nouveau, the sexy. And how could the term ‘learning commons’ not be either? Many school and senior administrators around the province are looking for ‘innovation’; grasping for the new. And maybe the LC really is the GG (golden goose) and can offer much to many. And then, maybe again, it is a loaded term that most of us (myself included) really don’t quite understand.

I am proud to acknowledge that we are somewhere on the path towards the vision of a ‘learning commons’ (what that will look like who the heck knows!). I also take comfort in knowing that we are headed in the right direction, and that the journey truly never ends.

I wonder that without truly working towards implementing these two key components into any plan or initiative, isn’t the vision of a learning commons really just a school library repackaged?

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