In joining over 200 worldwide attendees at the third YSL Virtual Conference focusing on Library Design, I was struck by the essential interconnectedness of the considerations for design for the spaces dedicated to learning and new designs for learning. The impetus for upgrading, changing, or re-building school libraries comes not only from a “building” or Facilities perspective but also from an educational one. While here in BC we know that some of our buildings are not seismically up to standards, for example, we also know that the nature of learning is being changed seismically by the impact of technology even as we lag behind in social and economic policy that addresses the needs for education to create an engaged citizenry capable of keeping pace with change. Are we meeting the standards set by our students for learning that engages, motivates, and inspires?
First the Learning ...
For David Loertscher, the reality is that new, quite different, clientele are re-defining programs; they are by-passing school library programs as an information source, forcing systems to examine and re-think the role of the teacher-librarian in relation to student learning. School library programs require a grand conversation and a re-design process to which everyone contributes in order to construct what will work, to be an educational community where everyone has ownership of the new space, where active and engaged learning for all members of the community is the central tenet.
Another presenter asks, Is the school library the hub of the school? Is it central to the learning? Does it focus on client needs? Are students and teachers encouraged to enter for conversations, for food and drink, for meetings, for the relationships that make learning work? Is the school in the library, or the library in the school. Another predicts that school libraries face demise if no substantial changes are undertaken to address the “disturbing digital divide between home and school.” An educational architect discusses the need for transformation of school libraries for 21st century learners and goes a step further: design schools as libraries, by viewing the interdependent and collaborative nature of both learning as inquiry and space as integral to discussions about change.
Canadian Dave Cormier, UPEI, asks some challenging questions about new kinds of resources, literacies, and the future. His “seminar” was convened in an eLuminate session: a librarian is a lead learner, a digital Sherpa who is central to the school and to learning; he or she is the planning co-ordinator for the reading and learning journey, the info-ecologist, always in beta. Literacy is more than simply how-to; it is informed by socio-economic class and by cultural location and is directly related to political and social empowerment. Digital literacies are not different from other literacies, the group agreed; rather, the new literacies use different tools to build and engage the same skills.
The Alberta Education Initiative (SLSI FAQs), posted only a few days earlier, sees enhanced services for school libraries as the melding of learning and the real and virtual spaces that (school) libraries occupy to create “learning commons” or “gateways”; the website includes the following statement:
A prevalent concept for enhanced school library services is that of a central “school library learning commons” in the school. All libraries are moving toward the learning commons concept of flexibility, so activities and spaces in the library and on the library’s Web site are flexible in design and/or furnishings to accommodate a variety of learning activities; e.g., collaborative community space, a coffee house concept.
A school library learning commons also supports ongoing critical thinking, inquiry, action research, interdisciplinary learning and brain-based learning. A school library learning commons becomes a place of active learning in real-time or online with project, problem-based, experiential and cooperative learning that is ideally coordinated by a teacher-librarian. The school library is a gateway to the virtual landscape; e.g., Web 2.0, social networking, gaming, podcasts, animation, film, re-mix, online databases and libraries. Reading fiction and non-fiction in a multitude of formats is cornerstone to a student’s ability to access, examine, evaluate, restructure, create, communicate and reflect upon learning and knowledge. (from email from Judith Sykes, Alberta Education, School Library Support Initiative FAQs, Nov 2009, forwarded by Gerald Brown, IASL-LINK, November 11, 2009)
Then Designing for and Building Around the Learning
When a UK teacher-librarian was faced with re-building a school library program and facility in a small heritage space (1828), the first task was “stock-taking,” not only of the space and its previous uses, not only of the collections, but also of the kind of program that would enhance student engagement and learning. A Massachusetts TL also saw that one of the cornerstones for re-visioning was the program she knew needed to be delivered. She wanted to go beyond the “grocery store model” and being the place the students came for “stuff.” In developing the learning commons model for her school, she would need to ensure the facility had the capacity to support her program and the members of the school community would know what the implications were for them. Clearly, though, facility design, while integrally related to pedagogy, was to be driven by program.
When an Australian TL was given the lead role in moving her program from a sixth-floor of an office building to the ground level of the downtown heritage site of her private school, she drew from the work on school libraries and achievement, on virtual learning environments, on geo-politics and social spatiality, and from applicable standards documents and the work of notschool’s Stephen Heppell on educational building. She also drew heavily on creative thinking and understandings about colour, furnishings, order, and enrichment, as well as her own and other experts’ capacity to think BIG PICTURE. Of course, considering factors such as staffing, workload, safety, accessibility, lines of sight, sound, colour, electrical services, furnishings, shelving, signage, access to natural light, and costs, a delightful new learning environment was crafted that is described as a Learning Commons where the school community has a sense of ownership; it is comfortable. Students are engaged in relevant learning. Spaces are both practical and purposeful; they are ICT-enabled, airy, spacious, and light. The library is a marketing tool for the school in its front-door reception-area location; it is both a haven and a social space. Flow of traffic in the new library works intuitively in clearly understood patterns of movement and allows for different groupings or configurations of students for the purposes of reading, learning, and being “the whole child.” The program is curriculum-driven, proficient and inviting for learning, connected to the school and the world. The learning experience for students in the new library is comfortable, sustainable, and joyful.
Another interesting series of workshops focused on designing for a lively, welcoming, inviting, and relevant learning environment. For one, Kevin Henna, formerly a visual merchandiser with Body Shop, now a consultant and in-demand speaker about library design, uses principles of design that work in successful bookstores. By presenting a number of relatively inexpensive ideas for re-thinking, re-inventing, and rejuvenating the way “business” is done in the library, he creates a more visible presence for school libraries, space efficiencies, simple but effective interior design, and plenty of signage, internal and external.
Much of the work in any re-design or renovation is predicated upon rigorous weeding and a critical look at the kinds of furnishings and arrangements that have been in place over time in the school library. What is the impact upon arriving in the space? Are the young readers drawn to hot new “impulse” reads? Are there places where books, often hard to find in non-fiction collections, can be placed front-facing? Henna stresses the importance of shelf-end displays as they are too often visible, wasted display space. How about “saleable stock” with signage that says, New, or Returned Today, or What’s Hot, or In the Media? Suggestions from Henna: Empty display space is unappealing. Seating shouldn’t resemble the doctor’s waiting room; punctuate the school library with seating pods and spaces to meet, study, read, or have a time-out. Look for moveable furnishings with interesting colours and fabrics that allow students to create the spaces they need to work and read alone and together. And get rid of paper signs and posted rules. Non-fiction signage is seriously under-addressed issue in the visual merchandising of school library stock.
Also within the theme of re-design were a number that focused on pedagogical, architectural, and institutional change. Perhaps the “biggest” name in this category at the conference was Stephen Heppell whose focus is on the ways the education system needs to re-design itself and, if it doesn’t, risk missing the “learning revolution” that is already under way. For him, we are killing education with the “factory model” that offers students rewards for conformity, certainty, and “incrementalism,” or being a little bit better, rather than offering them opportunities to participate in a “stellar system.” The factory model with its delivery of short-term targets is not sustainable.
When conceptualizing spaces for this kind of learning, design needs to focus on agility, as opposed to flexibility, for rapid student-designed reconfigurations; social/community-building opportunities where focus, clusters, family-learning, and us-ness are as integral a consideration for meaningful learning as content, where learning design acknowledges the importance of the sense of belonging and of engagement; playfulness; appropriate scalings of space that seduce learners; and very practical ways of enabling collaboration, such as the location of sockets and furnishings. The voice of the learner, says Heppell, is powerful, not just for the teacher’s reflections but also for their own practice. Exciting learning is happening, and educators can’t wait to be told what 21st Century learning is; students are pushing the boundaries beyond where their parents and teachers are and it will lead to a learning revolution.
I would highly recommend any of the videos on The Mobile Learning Institute: A 21st Century Education. Heppell’s is one of several whose voices and vision for educational reform have been captured “en route” ... see also Randall Fielding and Alan November.
The YSL3 Conference on Designing the Future for school libraries was an intense and demanding 21-day schedule of sessions. Here is what one Vancouver TL had to say:
I have thoroughly enjoyed the online conference .... The information that was delivered was inspiring, intriguing and intellectually stimulating. This virtual conference has served as a reminder that there is still more that can be done. And, this has sparked a great deal of enthusiasm in me. Suffice it to say that, as a 25+ year veteran in the area of library resources, both in a school and public library setting, the YSL conference has reaffirmed my belief that student-centered learning for the future is where we must focus our attentions. I'm looking forward to the next phase for me: school and library re-design. (GB, email)