The Learning Commons Model and Secondary School Library Redesign

Lately the idea of how to design for learning has become a focal point in setting up classrooms.  When it comes to a secondary school library, unique challenges face this space which is more mature than an elementary school library and more juvenile than a post-secondary library.  The secondary school library serves a role where the ambiance and activities need to serve the entire school community providing a communal area for learning that is unique compared to the classroom or the cafeteria.  Rather than looking fearfully at the future supposing that libraries are becoming rapidly irrelevant, the timely document of the Ontario School Library Association [OSLA] Together for Learning proposes that library spaces will become the “Learning Commons”: proactively envisioned as “the physical and virtual catalyst where inquiry, imagination, discovery, and creativity come alive and become central to growth — personal, academic, social and cultural” (2010, p. 3).  To meet the needs of the learning commons model, the secondary school library must become a school community showcase of equity, flexibility, innovation, collaboration and celebration.


Johnston and Bishop (2011) assert that in order for a school library to be effective, it needs to meet the social, creative, exploration and security needs of its patrons; and create a sense of place where children can identify themselves culturally and physically (p. 3).   While the collection itself must reflect the diversity of its patrons, it is through interactions with the resources, whether in print or online, that users will develop a sense of place (Johnston and Bishop, 2011, p. 7) Therefore the accessibility and availability of a library’s resources must reflect the needs of the entire community of families that the school serves taking into account variables such as “race and ethnicity, income distribution, level of formal education, extent of parent involvement” (Johnston and Bishop, 2011, p.9).  In 2013, the role of the teacher-librarian is no longer to keep information but to provide access points to our students.

Until recently, libraries were repositories of information and programming was secondary but the onset of the internet has completely changed this raison d’etre.  In other words, the school library is required to meet the needs of each new generation of learners.  Don Tapscott (2009) calls the current generation of students in high school “The Net Generation” and describes them as valuing these eight norms: freedom, customization, scrutiny, integrity, collaboration, entertainment, speed and innovation (p. 74).  As such education is experiencing a massive paradigm shift and is moving towards inquiry-based learning, where students direct their own studies.  Tapscott (2009) describes school’s new dominant role as one to “encourage students to discover for themselves, and learn a process of discovery and critical thinking instead of just memorizing the teacher’s information” (p. 130).  School libraries need to morph to extend this role as well, creating flexible spaces where student innovation can happen.

The learning commons model calls for a redefinition of the library space in order to accommodate these demographic trends in our students and the new demands of teaching:

“Design components of 21st century learning spaces need to consider collaboration, comfort and community. Wherever possible, learning spaces should be colourful, inviting and playful. Learning is fluid and participatory… as a result, space should not place limits on learning.  Instead, space should encourage collegiality and intellectual development.” (OSLA, 2010, p. 9).


Defining equity for the learning commons model includes these three tenets: 1) optimal physical learning spaces for all; 2) availability of all library resources to all users in the school community; and 3) accessibility of all library resources to all users in the school.  The OSLA generalizes these goals for equity:

“The Learning Commons seeks to expand and integrate the real and virtual choices learners have to share their experiences. Safe, inclusive and welcoming environments throughout a school are imperative to meet the diverse abilities and learning styles of individuals, teams and groups. Virtual learning spaces increase this potential” (OSLA, 2010, p. 7).

More specifically and in alignment with the shift to inquiry-based learning, the Universal Education Organization (2010) says

“Universally designed curriculum overcomes limitations by incorporating three principles of flexibility into the design: multiple methods of presentation, multiple options for participation, and multiple means of expression.  This built-in flexibility provides a wider range of options for students to choose from — meaning the curriculum adapts to the student, rather than the other way around” (OWP/P Architects, VS Furniture, & Bruce Mau Design, p. 200).

Providing this level of equity in one space is no small task.  Utah State University’s Centre for Persons with Disabilities in 2003 suggests that these “environments must be powerful enough to sustain the child’s interest and motivation without constant motivational and/or directional assistance from an adult” (OWP/P Architects et al., 2010, p. 204).  The learning commons model insists that true equity for each member of the school library community will include physical and virtual spaces that will appeal to the natural flow of learning and each learner.

An example of the complexity of these goals in equity might be found in the area of acoustics.  Since groups of teenagers can vary in their noise output, designing a static purpose in a static area of the library, such as creating an open computer lab, cannot work for the diversity of school library patrons.  OWP/P Architects et al. (2010) say “someone using English as a second language, or someone who suffers from an attention deficit disorder, is at a significant disadvantage in a noisy classroom (p. 42).  Ambient noise in the learning commons can affect all users:  “Research indicates that high levels of background noise, much of it from heating and cooling systems, adversely affects learning environments, particularly for young children, who require optimal conditions for hearing and comprehension (OWP/P Architects et al., p. 26).  Every choice made in design must consider the plethora of needs of the entire school community.

One way to begin achieving equity is to begin with the language of equity.  OWP/P Architects et al. (2010) insist “What you say influences what you think and what you do.  Use the term universal design, rather than accessible design, as a reminder of what it’s all about: creating an environment for all learners” (p. 201).   Achieving equity in the school library means accommodating diversity in all its resources, its programming and its virtual and physical environments.


In order to tackle the challenges of providing equity, each space within the learning commons needs to be improved for its fluidity in purpose and, where possible, accommodate these sensitivities to design.  Feinberg and Keller (2010) suggest that the school library needs to cater to a wide range of developmental programming needs to allow for these age and ability differences that make it an essential and unique part of every community (p. xi).  OWP/P Architects et al. (2010) proposes “Make classrooms agile. A learning space that can be reconfigured on a dime will engage different kinds of learners and teachers” (p. 89).  While these ideals are noble, implementation in schools at first seems quite difficult.  One of the main reasons that teachers bring their classes to the school library is to allow for, as OWP/P Architects et al. (2010) suggests:  “Change up the locations of regular activities so children can explore new surroundings with their bodies and their minds” (p. 49).  The stimulation of moving to a new environment of learning can signal a change in curriculum tempo.

Improving flexibility in the school library reiterates the need in our teaching to become more flexible as well.  Sir Ken Robinson (2010) says “if we’re looking for new pedagogical practices, we have to have facilities that will enable those to happen.  So you want flexible spaces where people can group and re-group, where you’re not stuck in one configuration with teachers at the front” (OWP/P Architects et al., p. 58).  This reconfiguration calls for spaces in the learning commons which do not have static purposes, and where equipment is mobile.  It not only improves the teacher’s ability to bring student-centred inquiry to the forefront of the curriculum, but it also allows for the equitable accommodation of multiple learning styles.   Feinberg and Keller (2010) say that in order to accommodate different learning styles in gender, that spaces in libraries need to be flexible enough to accommodate student preferences for the kinesthetic tendencies of boys, and the group-oriented tendencies of girl study groups. Feinberg and Keller (2010) emphasize  that “Teens frequent the library for a variety of reasons, and the more options provided the better the array of experience.  But somewhere in each library a core of students who see the library as a resource for study and quiet learning can probably be observed” (p. 75).  The learning commons isn’t only a place for stimulation, it needs to provide security for patrons who cannot find that in other school places.  Feinberg and Keller (2010) suggest that one way to provide this security is to honour the nature of adolescents in furniture choices which need to be comfortable to accommodate multiple sitting positions for the variety of tasks that might be completed by the full range of users in school library space:  “Curved work surfaces at two different heights can be accompanied by adjustable-height stools to accommodate varying heights of teenagers, either for standing or perching on stools halfway between sitting and standing (p. 42).  Once again, achieving equity in learning styles can be achieved by building in flexibility in task furniture.

Flexibility in learning design doesn’t just mean from moment to moment, but from season to season. Feinberg and Keller strongly suggest that “activities and needs are driving factors in how the space is used at any one time or for any one purpose” and that these needs can also change according to the time of day or the time of year (p. 112).  One way to maintain flexibility when implementing the infrastructure for technology, Feinberg and Keller (2010) suggest using flat wiring underneath carpet tiles so that moving anything requiring power only involves moving these tiles for access (p. 127).  Even in a static, traditional environment, flexibility in space and purpose can improve equity leading to greater opportunity for innovation.


From an outsider point of view, it may appear that the library has no place in a digital future where information is at everyone’s fingertips.  Balas (2012) suggests that “the library is evolving from being a place that houses materials to a place where users can work (p. 33).  An emerging trend in public libraries is to create a ‘makerspace’ where learning happens through tinkering.  The makerspace, or area devoted to ingenuity in hands-on learning, can incorporate any sort of laboratory for experimentation from digital media to textiles.  The underlying concept of a lab space is to create a Da Vinci-esque space for exploration which transcends the curriculum.  Ken Robinson (2010) says that real innovation and creativity come at the intersections of disciplines — the way they merge and blend” (OWP/P Architects et al., p. 58).  With improved flexibility in how a space is used, occasionally teacher-librarians will need flexibility in separating zones for different purposes.  While the learning commons advocates for innovation, innovation cannot infringe on the other purposes of the learning commons.  Feinberg and Keller (2010) suggest that in order to maximize the potential for innovation and to “achieve full multifunctioning for these spaces, sliding doors can be used…the same design device can be applied to computer labs and small meeting rooms” (p. 51).  A teacher-librarian maximizing every corner can easily see how dividers can separate off areas for use as the seasons of purpose change.   Feinberg and Keller (2010) propose that the necessity of innovation is so great that any space that is single purpose needs to have a separate room built specially in order to alleviate scheduling demands on multipurpose areas (p. 51).  Tasks associated with specific and static areas of a library, like research and computing, will need to become possible in every facet of the learning commons.  The alternative is to create separate static areas which do not infringe on the flexibility and innovation happening in the learning commons model.


An age-old skill that has been reemphasized in the paradigm shift happening in education is the need for students to graduate with a firm grasp of collaboration on a global scale.  The learning commons model, incorporating new levels of flexibility and innovation, will naturally lead to cross-curricular collaboration.  The OSLA document Together for Learning describes the natural connections that will form in the new model:

“A Learning Commons is a vibrant, whole-school approach, presenting exciting opportunities for collaboration among teachers, teacher-librarians and students. Within a Learning Commons, new relationships are formed between learners, new technologies are realized and utilized, and both students and educators prepare for the future as they learn new ways to learn.  And best of all, as a space traditionally and naturally designed to facilitate people working together, a school’s library provides the natural dynamics for developing a Learning Commons” (p. 3).

A harmonious learning environment is one where socialization can naturally happen as Tapscott (2009) says “Students need to talk among themselves.  In fact, research has found collaborative learning to be more effective in increasing academic performance than individual or competitive learning” (p. 137).

In creating physical and virtual spaces for collaboration, the nature of working towards common goals will become permeated throughout the processes of creation and student work will reach a more authentic and diverse audience.  Tapscott (2009) advises teachers to “Encourage [students] to work with each other and show them how to access the world of subject-matter experts available on the Web” (p. 148).  There are many experiences that a learning commons can provide to stimulate discussion, relationships and deeper connections within the physical and virtual space.  OWP/P Architects et al. (2010) suggest that one way to support innovation is to “Emulate museums.  An environment rich in evocative objects…triggers active learning by letting students pick what to engage with (p. 67). Although this could of course be a solitary task, inquisitive discussion is a derivative of evocative objects.  Evocative objects provided can lead to the innovation and creation of new objects made by students themselves.  A natural extension of collaboration of this sort is the celebration of achievement in student work.


The learning commons model enriches the traditional function of the library which is to serve its community.  There are few spaces in a school where student work can be shown to the entire community, and fewer still that will recognize the complete diversity of the community.  Once the learning commons model is achieved OWP/P Architects et al. (2010) suggests “Open the doors.  Give students places to exhibit their work as if it were in a public gallery, then invite the public to come and have a look” (p. 189).  Furthering the innovation of the traditional library space once more, the learning commons becomes an ideal place for the arts.  Feinberg and Keller (2010) suggest that “the creation of a performance space…used for small concerts by the teens, poetry readings, and other special events” can have a stage, curtain, lights and acoustics built in (p. 75). In order to create a sense of community and ownership of the learning commons by its users, student work must be honoured and celebrated in the physical and virtual spaces.

Libraries need to revisit their spaces to ensure that they are:

  • equitable, reaching every member of the school community;

  • flexible, allowing for learning processes to evolve naturally and adapting to the learner;

  • innovative, allowing for authentic cross-curricular creation;

  • collaborative, encouraging connections on a local and global scale; and

  • celebratory, recognizing the achievements of student work that embodies the aforementioned tenets of the learning commons model.

If these objectives are met, then the library becomes about the community within rather than the tasks associated with the space.  The traditional role of libraries is no longer pertinent when reading and research can happen anytime, anywhere.  Rather Feinberg and Keller (2010) maintain that the future success of high school libraries lies within our ability to create a space where teenagers perceive that they are “needed, respected and …belong” (p. 17).  Instead the mandate of accessible and available learning becomes embodied in a physical and virtual space known as The Learning Commons.


Balas, J. L. (2012). Do makerspaces add value to libraries? Computers in Libraries, 32(9), 33.

Feinberg, S., & Keller, J. R. (2010). Designing space for children and teens. Chicago, IL: American Library Association.

Johnston, M. P., & Bishop, B. W. (2011). The potential and possibilities for utilizing geographic information systems to inform school library as place. School Libraries Worldwide, 17(1), 1-12.

Ontario School Library Association. (2010). Together for learning: School libraries and the emergence of the learning commons. Ontario Library Association.

OWP/P Architects, VS Furniture, & Bruce Mau Design. (2010). The third teacher: 79 ways you can design to transform teaching & learning. New York, NY: Abrams.

Tapscott, D. (2009). Grown up digital: How the net generation is changing your world. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.



Leave a Comment

  1. Our library is what I have considered to be a learning commons and we are very flexible. You name it, we will have a go at it! Everything, including the stacks is on wheels so we can even push everything to the side and have art shows and science fairs, as well as visiting authors and workshops. We allow students to play cards and chess. No shushing, except when it gets excessive or is exam time. We have an interactive white board, and 3 glass fronted rooms where the walls can be folded back to make one room. The physical flexibility and our open door policy allows us to meet all the needs of our secondary community – well I hope we do!


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