Learning Commons; a seriously exciting shift in education

I spent my day today touring around and discussing learning commons’ in both Rocky View and in Calgary, and I have to say, it has been some time since I have been as excited about a project as I am about our school’s transition to a full-fledged learning commons.

Due to space considerations, our traditional library lost it’s conventional ‘home’ in the school two years ago (I am now teaching in that space) and at the time it was a hard feature of our school to let go of.  Our librarian worked exceptionally hard to transition the books and other physical attributes of the library throughout the school, and met with success with this reimagining of how books could be shared and used.  It was a commendable effort, and truth be told, there are many features of the learning commons around our school right now, including the open sharing of learning tools, reading and literacy resources, interconnectedness of classrooms and production of 21st century learning artifacts using embedded and transferrable technology.  However, since the inception of our broad learning commons, the one thing that has been missing is that ‘home’ of the program, that sense of place.  Our librarian has a desk, yet in the true spirit of the learning commons, the truly adaptable learning space that is tailored to student learning simply was not available.

What we saw today was the way other schools have answered the call of transitioning spaces to meet the changing needs of students for learning.  Some of the changes were subtle, (such as slips of paper that teachers send with students working independently to notify the librarian what task they will be working on) and some were profound (using the Metis system to sort books as an alternative to the Dewey decimal system) but one thing that struck me was how carefully all schools have considered the transition to be made to the new learning commons structure.  While I have done some extensive reading on this topic lately, I wanted to share a few ideas I noticed doing walkthroughs today:

  • exceptional and thoughtful use of space, highlighted by specific furniture choices and configurations
  • easy to transition spaces, and the ability to configure several groups in one space
  • independence of students and adults with students in the use of the space and resources
  • resources that were ‘common’ material (including digital tools) that could be moved within and out of the space
  • open spaces and the desire for more natural light
  • thought and attention given to curricular connections and ease of access to highly linked materials
  • development of the library commons culture, and a desire by administration to support it as a hub of the school.
  • thoughtful use of technology including limiting use to one specific task at a time
  • creative solutions to issues regarding space and resources; a can-do attitude
  • the use of specific technologies to simplify processes for students (a touch-screen monitor instead of mouse for checking out books)
  • engaging activities to draw students and classes in
  • projects that inspire collaboration

I’m not sure what our final learning commons is going to look like, but I am certainly excited to be on this journey and to be part of the team.  What a great opportunity to support learning and help create something spectacular for our students!

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What Creativity Brings to Student Accommodations

I have worked with several teachers over the years who have specialized in supporting students with exceptional needs, and  have also worked in my own classes to utilize the resources at my disposal to support learning in the classroom. I have learned through this work that one of the most effective methods of providing student accommodations is to look at the problem with a creative lens.  While at times this seems counter-intuitive, as there are long-standing patterns of support used in many schools, by thinking manly about the needs of the student and what they need to be able to do, sometimes we are able to bring a very cost-effective and meaningful solution that would have escaped us if we were just looking in the standard book of solutions.

Case in point; I was in discussion last year about several students in my class who were ADHD and or otherwise easily ‘distractible’ in my fourth grade class. We had tried several accommodations for them that had worked moderately, but they were still unable to function well in the quiet times of class, where they had to maintain focus on a single task for a period of time.  As I watched them carefully, I was reminded of my tenth grade non-academic students who functioned in much the same way during writing times.  Those students, with permission (or sometimes without,) would trot out their iPods and focus themselves by tuning out the rest of the class with their music.  While I didn’t always prefer their musical selections, or the level at which they played them, I could scarcely deny the effectiveness of this self-accommodation to tune out their peers.

With the support of our administration and the learning support team last year, I was able to purchase iPod Shuffles for the classroom. I loaded these up with classical music to drown out the background noise, nothing lyrical, just pleasant and engaging music. The results were astounding. While it didn’t work for every student experiencing difficulty; for those that were engaged, it was a profound change for them.  In fact, the students began asking for the iPods immediately as we sat down to work.  Since the iPod shuffles have no screen, no other distractions, the students are not tempted to ‘play’ with them and are not distracted by the technology.  They simply put the headphones in and get down to work, which is what I was looking for.

Our school has purchased 10 iPod shuffles and they are used in several classrooms now, with great results.  Students enjoy the independence and focus it offers them, and teachers are enjoying having another, relatively inexpensive, accommodation to provide for their students. If we can look ‘outside the box,’ sometimes we will find what we are looking for set just outside. How can you approach student accommodations differently?  What could your students need that no one has seen before?