Five Things You Need to Know about the Learning Commons Model, Heather Kindschy (Teacher-Librarian, Mt. Bethel Elementary School, Marietta GA)

This article is the first in a series highlighting the Learning Commons Model, a new way of organizing and constructing school libraries. It is important that anyone with a stake in the future of school libraries—current librarians, teachers, students, parents, future teachers and librarians, and patrons— understand what the learning commons is, what its primary functions are, what it means to you and your patrons, where it’s headed, and how to get started.Over the course of the past year, my media center has been transformed into a 21st century space, a fully-functioning Learning Commons that is fast becoming the heart of my school. It is a lively and dynamic environment where kids want to learn and teachers want to collaborate. It has not been easy, but it has been a labor of love. After fourteen years as an educator, this process has renewed my passion for teaching and reinvigorated my career. Thanks to this transformation, I love my work! 


1. A Learning Commons Is Flexible and Learner-Centered

Technology, research, teaching, learning, making, tinkering have all come together in one space. That space is the Learning Commons. Carol Koechlin and David Loertscher are both considered leaders in the push for the learning commons model in libraries of all kinds, and they define a learning commons as a “physical and virtual space” that helps today’s learners engage in more meaningful ways through “exploration, experimentation, and collaboration” (p. 15). The name says it all. The focus of the learning commons is learning! And, learning comes in all shapes and sizes. It is formal and informal. It is measured. It is spontaneous. Today’s learning commons can accommodate every type of learning and every type of learner.

2. The Learning Commons Is Part of a Much-Needed Overhaul

From the point of view of our patrons, libraries haven’t changed much in more than 150 years. We have been satisfied with the status quo for far too long. Because of this perceived lack of change, our programs, our spaces and our people have become irrelevant to many of our patrons. This fact is painfully obvious in the school library setting. Back in 2008, school library guru David Loertscher pointed out that libraries needed a revolution, a re-invention (n.p.). The burden is even greater now because of “increasing financial pressures, new media technologies, and a progressively media-savvy population”—patrons who are “mobile, wired, and digital” (Mihailidis, n.p.). Many of today’s librarians are breaking the mold and the stereotype of the stodgy, strict, bun-wearing, and shushing keeper of the books. We have embraced the notion that our number one job is not to manage the collection but to support the learner.

3. Creating a Learning Commons Requires Purpose and Intention

The transformation does not and cannot happen overnight. My transformation happened over the course of a school year and the following summer. It took hours of research; site visits to schools who had already implemented the learning commons model, and conversations with students, teachers, parents, community members, fellow media specialists, administrators, and my county-level supervisor. I attended educational technology conferences and soaked up as much information I could about this model. I met with furniture vendors. I woke up in the middle of the night from a dream about the future of our own learning commons. Some of my dreams were pleasant, and in other dreams, things went horribly wrong. Suffice it to say that I put a lot of thought into it.

Fortunately for our school, the conditions were just right for this transformation. It was a perfect storm. Our school received local sales tax money to update our floors and paint; it had been at least twenty years since our library had either. I seized this opportunity to completely re-design the physical space. I was also incredibly fortunate to begin my job at this school at the same time a new and forward-thinking principal was coming on board. One of her mottos is: “Everything in our school should have purpose and intention.” In other words, we don’t have stuff for the sake of having stuff. If something does not encourage or help our students learn, then it needs to go. Every part of my physical redesign was done with purpose and intention. One example: we have Legos. Our Legos serve the purpose of letting our kids tinker, explore, and create. You might be surprised how many math, science, engineering, and art standards “playing” with Legos meets. Another example: all of our furniture, including our new bookcases are moveable. This flexibility allows our users to adapt the space to meet whatever learning needs or goals they have at that moment. Whenever I was thinking of adding a piece of furniture or an element to our program, I always came back to our users. No matter what type of library we work in, we must realize that we work in a service-oriented industry, and everything we do should be done for the good of our users. The learning commons should be comfortable, inviting, engaging, and flexible.

4. The Learning Commons Model is Often Misunderstood

When I gave a presentation about the learning commons model to the other media specialists in my district at the end of last school year, I was met with curiosity and excitement-but also fear, resentment, and misinformation. Change is hard. I get it. Last school year was one of the most professionally challenging and physically exhausting years of my career, but I felt excited to walk through the front doors of my school every day. The learning commons model is a big paradigm shift for our profession. Literacy is still a fundamental part, but it is not the sole focus. Allow me to answer some of the questions I have heard, dispel some of the rumors, and assuage some of the fears:

  • “So, you’re getting rid of all or most of your books?” No. That isn’t the case at all. In fact, I invested a good chunk of my budget in appropriately-sized, moveable casework. One of my first steps in the transformation was to weed my collection. I weeded my nonfiction heavily. I used various criteria to determine what to weed and what to keep. However, if a book was taking up precious real estate on our shelves and hadn’t moved in years, it had to go. Like I said before, reading and literacy is still a part of our profession. Our users still want to read books; they still get excited about new titles. We spend our book budgets based on the needs of our specific population.
  • “Can you tell me exactly what you did? I want that for my library!” There is NOT a one-size-fits-all learning commons formula. Your learning commons should reflect your specific population of users. You should know your patrons better than anyone else. If you don’t know what their needs are, ask them. Before any furniture was ordered, I surveyed students and teachers. Some of the surveys were formal, but truthfully much of my information about my users came from informal conversations and observations. Is everyone going to be happy? Of course not. But, everything that goes into your learning commons should always be with the user in mind.
  • “If I buy fancy moveable furniture and call myself a Learning Commons, is that it?” The learning commons may have received a noticeable, physical facelift. Much of what I have done with the physical space in my learning commons is meant to be appealing to my elementary students. I want them to come in and stay awhile, to curl up with a good book, or work on a group project. I can accomplish this appeal with cool furniture and bright colors, but the furniture means NOTHING without a strong teaching program in place. In addition to transforming the physical space, I have made a consistent and continued effort with my teachers to show them that I am not just a resource librarian but a true instructional partner.

5. If You’re Going to Eat an Elephant, Do It One Bite at a Time

About ten years ago, when I was working full-time and attending graduate school, I felt overwhelmed with the amount of stuff on my plate. I think I had two papers due, a group project to contribute to, on top of my work obligations that included planning lessons and grading papers. I reached out to my dad who had immeasurable faith in my ability to get it all done. His advice was that I could eat an elephant if I did it one bite at a time. The transformation to a learning commons was an elephant-sized project. Even though my physical space is transformed and I am teaching now more than ever, a successful learning commons is continually evolving. If you are contemplating making this leap of faith, start small. It may begin with a simple conversation with a colleague. Your journey may begin with reading some of my sources and suggested further readings. Whatever it may be, it begins with a first bite.

Check back next month for another article about the Learning Commons. I’ll cover some specific first steps and share more practical advice about transforming your own space.

In the meantime, you can follow our progress at Mt. Bethel Elementary:

Works Cited

Mihailidis, Paul, Ph.D. “Media Literacy and Learning Commons in the Digital Age: Toward a Knowledge Model for Successful Integration into the 21st Century School Library.” The Journal of Research on Libraries and Young Adults (2012): n. pag. YALSA. ALA, 30 Apr. 2012. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.

Loertscher, David. “Flip This Library: School Libraries Need a Revolution.” School Library Journal, Nov. 2008. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.

Loertscher, David V., and Carol Koechlin. “Climbing to Excellence: Defining Characteristics of a Successful Learning Commons.” Knowledge Quest 42.4 (2014): 15. American Association of School Librarians. ALA, 2014. Web. 1 Sept. 2014.

Suggested Readings

Harland, Pamela Colburn. The Learning Commons: Seven Simple Steps to Transform Your Library. Santa Barbara, CA: Libraries Unlimited, 2011. Print.

Loertscher, David V., Carol Koechlin, and Sandi Zwaan. The New Learning Commons Where Learners Win!: Reinventing School Libraries and Computer Labs. Salt Lake City, UT: Hi Willow Research, 2008. Print.

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