Creative spaces: flexible environments for the 21st-century learner

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Date: May-June 2014
From: Knowledge Quest(Vol. 42, Issue 5)
Publisher: American Library Association
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,039 words
Lexile Measure: 1270L

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INNOVATIVE. CREATIVE. FLEXIBLE. Independent thinker. Collaborative learner. These words describe the 21st-century learner, both in nature and expectations. School librarians have always seen themselves as creators of environments that nurture these characteristics--but do students and administrators agree? With the learning commons model David Loertscher calls for drastic change, change he describes not just as an evolution but rather a revolution <>. Part of this revolution includes modifying physical spaces in the school library to reflect and showcase model instructional practices. Despite the desire to embrace the vision of a learning commons, many school librarians struggle with how to make the vision a reality.

Mary Barbee and Holly Frilot of Gwinnett County (GA) Public Schools (GCPS) took time to talk about how their district is making the learning commons model a reality in their schools.

Mary Barbee, director of media services and technology training for GCPS, began embarking on that vision several years ago. Emphasizing the importance of flexible spaces for instruction, Mary encourages school librarians to move the vision forward:

   A school library that supports
   project-based learning, inquiry,
   reading, and collaboration has
   to be furnished and designed
   for those functions. It has to
   flex easily into arrangements
   that support group-project work,
   small-group collaboration, and
   individual study. Comfort contributes
   to learning in an obvious
   way--we are much less distracted
   when we are comfortable!

Today, through combined efforts of individual school librarians, local school administrators, and district personnel, the vision is becoming a reality.

Flexible instructional spaces are the hallmark of a learning commons model, and many schools in GCPS are embracing this idea by making changes to their current spaces. Large-group instruction areas morph from stagnant to active by changing the configuration of the tables, adding an additional projector and screen, and using wheeled chairs that swivel. When tables are placed in an "X" arrangement, the "front" of the classroom is eliminated. School librarians and teachers move easily from table to table to facilitate instruction. Multiple projectors improve visibility by showing the same information on several screens. Wheeled swivel chairs allow students to turn to see the screens without disrupting class and allow students to more easily break into small groups for collaborative work. Large-group instruction moves from impersonal to intimate in this new space. Freedom of movement in the school library has become a necessity. Classes often shift between large-group instruction, small-group collaborative work, and individual learning all within the same class period. The ability to shift between these groupings without major disruption is important.

Digital access must be as flexible as the rest of the instructional spaces. Online databases, e-books, and Web 2.0 tools provide rich resources for research and content creation; these resources should be accessible from all areas of the library. Computer mobility poses a difficult challenge in GGPS since many libraries still use desktop computers. Some existing schools address this challenge by changing the configuration of the computers from rows to small groups or circles. Even though the computers are stationary, collaboration is physically easier because of the small-group areas. When the district purchases new technology, an all-laptop model in the libraries will promote the greatest degree of flexibility. Students will use laptops in whole classes or move the devices about the library as needed for individual use or small-group work. As Gwinnett continues to implement a district-wide BYOD initiative, digital access points in the library to support research, creativity, and collaboration will continue to improve.

Collaborative work spaces in the school library are not limited to tables with computers. Tall project tables provide a large surface for group research, project work, or even makerspace activities. Some project tables are outfitted with power to allow charging mobile devices, further increasing instructional flexibility. If working at a project table seems too confining, students may opt for a more mobile option. With a swivel work surface to support books or devices and casters to move freely, Node chairs allow for instantaneous collaboration. (Look at <www.> to see examples of Node chairs.) Students transition easily from team work to individual work and back again. Throw in a few ottomans, and a quiet reading area has been transformed into a dynamic learning environment.

Pleasure reading areas are still valuable--after all, there's nothing like relaxing in a comfortable chair and curling up with a good book--but today's library spaces and furniture must be able to accommodate how students learn. Small laptop tables next to soft seating allow some students to read on devices or work on laptops while others read from print books. Couches and lounge chairs that were once reserved for individual reading now become a hot spot for collaboration. More space is often needed in the library to accommodate new and flexible furniture. With the availability of many district-provided digital resources, schools require fewer print materials, and as a result, less shelving. By using a combination of digital and print resources, the students benefit from having multiple access points, a robust selection, and more space for collaborative learning.

Creating these flexible environments requires vision, commitment, and planning. By developing a long-term plan that provides instructional focus and prioritizes needs, changes can be made in phases if necessary, especially if funding is an issue. To implement changes, schools often combine local school funds, PTA funds, and grants. In addition, funding at the district level for libraries in new and renovated schools will support more collaborative design and furniture options. Holly Frilot, a media instructional coach for GCPS, works with school librarians and local administrators to develop these plans and form a cohesive design for their space. "It's important to have a cohesive design for the space rather than purchasing an odd collection of pieces over time," says Holly. "The vision for the space is not just to accommodate teaching and learning, but to inspire teaching and learning. I want that excited buzz of learning to be evident when you walk in the doors. Administrators and school librarians often have the same vision--they want to see a lively space where teaching and learning happens in multiple forms." Administrator support and school librarians with strong instructional vision and focus make a winning combination for change and help make the learning commons revolution a reality.

Jennifer Helfrich


Jennifer Helfrich is the coordinator of media services at Gwinnett County Public Schools in Suwanee, Georgia. She received the 2011 Gwinnett County Public Schools (GCPS) Middle School Teacher of the Year. She is a member of AASL and currently serves on the AASL Standards and Guidelines Committee and the AASL Best Apps for Teaching and Learning Committee.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A371688436