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Library to Learning Commons

A recipe for success

The old-fashioned library model is no longer healthy for teachers or students. Converting your school library to a learning commons is one of the best recipes for school success in the current climate of educational reform. The library-as-learning commons functions as the hub of the school, where teachers and students collaborate, inquiry-based learning is promoted, and teacher-librarians provide instructional support to every teacher in the school while fostering a thriving reading culture.

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I RECENTLY INHERITED my grandmother’s recipe box after she passed away. My grandmother spent much of her time in the kitchen creating delicious meals that drew our family together. As I examined her recipes for hot milk sponge cake, chicken pot pie, and others, it suddenly occurred to me that these very recipes probably contributed to my grandmother’s heart attack, and our family’s tendency toward heart disease. Most of them were created before nutritional research confirmed the negative effects of high levels of fat, salt and sugar on health. Although I uphold my grandmother’s adage that great food brings a family together, the kinds of food I feed my own family have changed. The way we eat has been transformed, and we are healthier for it. 

Like great food, I have always loved school libraries. They are as important today as they have ever been; however, the recipes for a successful school library program have changed. Loertscher, Koechlin and Zwaan describe the contemporary school library as a learning commons, “the hub of the school, where exemplary learning and teaching are showcased, where professional development, teaching and learning experimentation and action research happen.”[1] Teacher-librarians, once primarily managers of school resources, can become instructional leaders, supporting and collaborating with every teacher in the school, promoting inquiry-based learning and fostering a thriving reading culture.

Our school libraries, at the physical and virtual heart of the school, are ideally positioned to lead and support educational transformation, provided that we are willing to consider new ways of working that better support our students and teachers. I invite your to consider the following recipes:

A recipe to foster student collaboration and personalized learning

I grew up in a time when the school librarian was monarch of his or her domain, daring anyone to upset the quiet order of the school library. These days, students have taken over. Flexible furnishings encourage students to sit together and chat about what they are reading or collaborate on an inquiry project. Many libraries host in-person and virtual book clubs, book talks and author visits. Students are now the ones creating book displays and book trailers to encourage each other to read. Students are encouraged to visit the school library learning commons to pursue topics of individual interest. Many school library learning commons incorporate performance spaces where students can “show what they know.”

One of the biggest challenges for contemporary teachers is meeting the needs of a diverse group of students that may include English language learners and students with learning disabilities and other special needs. The school librarian’s availability for co-teaching can help: As Fontichiaro and Buczynski point out, “Co-teaching halves the student-to-teacher ratio and facilitates greater levels of student support via feedback, conferencing, and personalized, differentiated instruction.”[2] The addition of iPads, iPods and eBooks to the library collection ensures that students have access to technologies that engage even reluctant and struggling readers. Add to that the possibility of students using the school library to conduct independent research, as a breakout space from their regular classroom, or as a place to attend book clubs, literature circles and other literacy-based programs, and we have a rich resource for meeting individual learning needs. 

A recipe to promote inquiry-based learning

Many teacher-librarians are trained in inquiry-based learning. Because they are in the unique position of being able to work with all teachers and all students within the school, teacher-librarians are able to model and encourage best teaching practice, thereby improving the instructional capacity of the entire school. Alberta Learning, for example, proposes that “cooperative planning of an inquiry activity involves a teacher working with a teacher-librarian.”[3] Haycock goes on to suggest that “students learn more, and produce better research products, following planned, integrated information skills instruction by the teacher and teacher-librarian together.”[4] As my grandmother liked to remind me, “Two heads are better than one.” 

A recipe to promote staff collaboration

Collaboration among teachers has been identified as one of the key ingredients for successful school improvement and increased teacher satisfaction. In fact, Zmuda and Harada go so far as to suggest, “Schools must eliminate the waste, turbulence and distractions caused by individuals working in isolation.”[5] The positive result of collaboration in schools is undeniable. Research confirms that “when school teams collaborate to clarify the relationship between design and the effect on achievement, we witness positive and constructive change at staff meetings, in classrooms, and in individual staff-development sessions.”[6]

In times of great change, it is evident that trust, relationships and respect are key components for school success. Haycock suggests that “the core of teacher-librarianship – collaboration and partnerships – rests on positive and productive relationships with colleagues and other staff.”[7] Teacher-librarians, embedded in the day-to-day life of the school community, are ideally positioned to collaborate with teachers and administrators in creating a recipe for success that is responsive to the unique needs of their school. 

A recipe to steward valuable time and resources

Schools across this country are being asked to generate improved student outcomes, while at the same time facing unprecedented budget cuts. How can we make every penny count? The answer, once again, is to draw upon the expertise of a qualified teacher-librarian. Being aware of student reading levels and the curriculum being taught across grade levels, teacher-librarians can ensure that the school is purchasing resources that meet the needs of students without creating redundancies. By creating classroom library carts that can be rotated from classroom to classroom, teacher-librarians can ensure that library resources are getting into the hands of students, while reducing the cost of purchasing books for each individual classroom (books that students will eventually tire of). Teacher-librarians are knowledgeable about virtual resources and databases that can fill the inevitable gaps in the school library collection, and direct teachers and students alike to those that address their needs.

EDUCATION IS UNDERGOING unprecedented change. Faced with ever-tightening budgets, some jurisdictions have severely cut back on or eliminated school library services. Other jurisdictions have begun the library-to-learning commons shift by making cosmetic changes to their school library spaces. However, it should be apparent from these recipes that the library-to-learning commons transformation involves more than flexible furnishings and a new coat of paint. In fact, it is great staff, not great stuff, which is the hallmark of a thriving school library learning commons.

If you are fortunate enough to have a teacher-librarian on staff, I encourage you to try some of these recipes, taking advantage of the many benefits of planning and teaching with a like-minded colleague, using your school library as the learning hub and centre of inquiry. If your school has not yet adopted a learning commons approach, I invite you to consider, as a school community, the potential of your school library to create a feast of learning, for teachers and students alike.

Photo: Nicholas Monu (iStock)

First published in Education Canada, January 2014


EN BREF - L’ancien modèle de bibliothèque n’est plus sain pour le personnel enseignant ou pour les élèves. La conversion d’une bibliothèque scolaire en carrefour d’apprentissage constitue l’une des meilleures recettes de réussite scolaire dans le contexte actuel de réforme de l’éducation. La bibliothèque comme carrefour d’apprentissage fonctionne comme une plaque tournante de l’école, où les enseignants et les élèves collaborent, où l’apprentissage fondé sur l’enquête est favorisé et où les enseignants-bibliothécaires soutiennent chacun des membres du personnel enseignant de l’école et engendrent une culture de lecture dynamique.


[1] David V. Loertscher, Carol Koechlin and Sandi Zwaan, The New Learning Commons: Where learners win! (Salt Lake City, UT: Hi Willow Research and Publishing, 2008),123.

[2] Kristin Fontichiaro and Sandy Buczynski, “Connecting Science Notebooking to the Elementary Library Media Center,” in 21st Century Learning in School Libraries, ed. K. Fontichiaro (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC Clio, 2009), 161. 

[3] Alberta Learning, Focus on Inquiry: A teacher’s guide to implementing inquiry-based learning (Edmonton, AB: Alberta Learning, 2004), 26.

[4] Ken Haycock, “Research in School Library Programs Linking Teacher-librarians, School Libraries and Student Achievement,” in Achieving Information Literacy: Standards for school library programs in Canada, eds. M. Asselin, J. L. Branch, and D. Oberg (Ottawa, ON: Canadian Association for School Libraries, 2003). 

[5] Allison Zmuda and Violet H. Harada, Librarians as Learning Specialists: Meeting the learning imperative for the 21st century (Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2008), 4.

[6] Zmuda and Harada, Librarians as Learning Specialists, 4.

[7] Ken Haycock, “Leadership from the Middle: Building influence for change,” in The Many Faces of School Library Leadership, ed. Sharon Coatney (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 2010), 5.