The Learning Commons: A 21st Century Research and Technology Center

I can admit it now; I was probably the wrong man for the job.

As building principal, I knew that we needed to redesign and reinvent the space we called our library media center. We had a pretty obvious problem in there—students and teachers were not really using it. This large space situated in the center of our school had been remodeled several times—it used to be the library and before that it was actually the cafeteria. I added some fresh paint, new carpeting, new furniture, and bought some new books—popular young adult fiction and non-fiction. There were a handful of desktop computers and a SMART Board. Despite these superficial upgrades to the learning environment, it was still essentially a warehouse for a mostly-dated print collection and still largely unused.

An English teacher and hopeless bibliophile, I just couldn’t bring myself to make the real mindset change needed in this space. I saw value in every single book, even the paperback novels that hadn’t been checked out since 1972. What if one student wanted to dust that thing off and found some real meaning in it? Shouldn’t we hold onto all of them just in case?

A combination of events helped me to see the light. First, we did an inventory of our print collection. Talk about eye-opening. We found that nearly all of our reference materials in print were not just old, they were inaccurate and useless in 2018. Next, we were able to add a teaching position to facilitate and supervise this learning space. Finally, the district secured some funds for the technology department to make some major upgrades to this space.

The Evolution of Our Community Learning Space

This redesign became a team effort with administrators, the technology director, curriculum coordinators, teachers, students, families, and community members providing feedback and ideas for what we needed in our school. We researched lots of new and exciting learning spaces, including fab labs, creation stations, STEM labs, STEAM labs, makerspaces. Our vision was a modern, open, and versatile learning space that would be accessible, welcoming, and useful to all students and staff and support the development of 21st century skills. After a spring and summer’s worth of collective hard work from the entire team, we decided on a design and the transformation began.

Features of Our Learning Commons

Here are some of the changes we made for our OMS Learning Commons:

  • A full-time Learning Commons Specialist teaching position who coordinates the space and collaborates with all teachers in all subjects to maximize its potential
  • Flexible furniture and storage that serves small groups, large groups, project-based learning, and professional development
  • A re-organized print collection (half was removed) to save space and to make the materials easier to find for students and staff.
  • Two self-checkout stations for print materials
  • New desktop computers with touchscreen Chrome monitors
  • An interactive touchscreen projection table
  • A touchscreen presentation table, a 14’ X 18’ projection screen, and a projector
  • A group of 3D printers for students to work on STEM projects
  • A newly-designed OMS TV Studio with new editing equipment, a green screen, and professional lighting and windows for audience viewing
  • Personalized signage for the Learning Commons and the TV Studio designed by one of our art teachers

One Space with a Big Impact

Today, the Learning Commons is everything we hoped it would be. It is the academic heart of our school, an open and welcoming research and technology center for 21st century learning. Lots of teachers and students have taken advantage of this wonderful new resource, and our instruction and school environment are better because of it. Students enjoy watching the OMS Knightly News live broadcast each morning from the Learning Commons. The financial commitment to this upgrade, which was substantial, has been worth every penny. Our library media center used to be a large space in the middle of our school that was almost always empty. Today, we show our busy Learning Commons off every chance we get.

What are your experiences with redesigning learning spaces in your school?

Matthew Colantonio is the principal of the O’Donnell Middle School in Stoughton, MA. He is the 2018 Massachusetts Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @MattColantonio.

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