MET:K-12 Learning Commons

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Contributed by Cecile McVittie Section 65C 2013. This page has been added to and edited by Randy Duggan (March 2014). This page has been added to by Keri Fleming (January 2018).

Learning Commons in the K-12 education setting are virtual and physical spaces allowing for individual and group learning or teaching. "It is designed to move students beyond mere research, practice, and group work to a greater level of engagement through exploration, experimentation, and collaboration." (Loertscher 2012) While learning commons models have been evolving in the public and post secondary library environment since the 1980's, a truly defined learning commons model for schools did not begin until 2008 when Dr. David Loertscher published The new learning commons: Where learners win!.

History of School Learning Commons

While loaned books have been part of instruction since the beginning of teaching, the history of formal school libraries is not well studied. (Valentine, 2010.) School libraries have traditionally been collections of both informative books (curricular related) and books read for pleasure and to reinforce literacy skills. As technologies have been added to the education system, they have made their way into library collections. In the last half of the 20th century, school libraries incorporated audio visual equipment for loan to classrooms and began to purchase audio visual materials for sharing with staff and occasionally, with students. The primary functions of school libraries continued to be collation and warehousing print and audio-visual resources, as well as teaching "library skills" to students. With the beginning of major recessions starting in the 1980's, school libraries began to lose funding for materials, programs and staff. The argument was made in jurisdictions across North American that because teacher librarians were not classroom teachers, they (and the resources which they managed) were luxury items that could not be afforded, as priority funding was required for classrooms. (Whelan, 2003.) As a result, students and staff over the last thirty years have had relatively reduced opportunities to work collaboratively or learn basic research skills, despite an increasing need for people to learn to work with digital information. At the time that recessions were forcing boards of education to cut school library programs and staffing, an increase in technological innovation radically changed how libraries function. School libraries rapidly adopted digital databases as a means of controlling library inventory and automation of circulation. Because teacher librarians (or library media specialists) were required to work with new technologies, they often became proponents of use of technology for learning and were among the first in schools to work with the internet, webmail, and cloud-based resources as innovations from the business world moved into the schools. The client service model of marketing was also adopted by teacher librarians as a means of promoting services and materials to staff and students. Knowing that academic libraries and public libraries were moving toward a client-based model, Dr. David Loertscher began promoting the idea of the Learning Commons in the school setting.

Image from

Defining Features of School Learning Commons

The video "Learning Commons in BC" is an excellent overview of both academic and school Learning Commons.

File:Johnston Heights Library Flickr page.jpeg
Johnston Heights Library Flickr page

According to Loertscher, the defining features of a Learning Commons are:

  • Flexibility of physical space to meet needs of learners and teachers
  • Client-centered services
  • an Open Commons area for multiple uses as defined by the school community
  • an Experimental Learning Center for innovative use of learning tools and teaching pedagogies by learners and teachers
  • a Virtual Commons which provides digital resources and assistance to the school community in a cloud-based setting
  • Leadership teams for providing integrated services to the school community
  • Comfortable. The Learning Commons should be a welcoming place where groups and individuals come to work and learn. It should be the learning hub of the school, offering a variety of seating arrangements, work stations, and gathering areas.
  • Inspiring. Works of literature and art should be prominately displayed, as should various forms of student work, to inspire creative thinking within the learning commons. (Linton, 2012)
  • Key program elements of a) Learning literacies, b) Knowledge building, c) Learning with technology, and d) Collaboration

These features are not dissimilar to those found in academic libraries or public libraries. The major differences are scale of services and a larger instructional role for Commons staff and educators in the school setting.

Theories and Strategies Supporting School Learning Commons

Constructivism [[1]] is a foundational element in Learning Commons, as the environment is established to support any and all means of learning by individuals and groups. The constructivist learning environment (CLE) should foster exploration , reflection, adaptation, scaffolding, collaboration, and coaching. The Learning Commons does all of this by having the teacher working with the teacher-librarian to develop, initiate, and facilitate inquiry-based projects where students learn together to explore their passions, reach out to experts, and ultimately come to enjoy the learning process.

Collaboration [[2]] is an instructional and learning strategy used in the Learning Commons. Loertscher defines collaboration as "planning, teaching and assessing learning experiences as a pair or group of teachers and specialists vs. teaching alone in an isolated classroom." (Loertscher, 2011)

Multimedia Learning [Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning] incorporates the use of various media in both learning and instruction. As many of the tools in the learning commons are multimedia, this theory has direct impact on planning and assessment for learning.

Connectivism [Siemens theory], while not academically recognized, should be considered in the functioning of a Learning Commons which as a network is both the respository of information and a source of information creation. Learning can occur within the Commons itself, as well as across the various entities within the Commons and through its various digital holdings and links.

Sociocultural Constructivism [theories]may be at the core of the Learning Commons experience. Sign/symbol mediation through the culture of the school/community/province/nation is a key part of the traditional library as well as the Learning Commons. Helping learners make sense of the world through language, both expressive and receptive, is at the heart of the role of Learning Commons. Vygotsky's theory of the Zone of Proximal Developmentis linked to the professional practice of "just in time" instruction, where adults or more advanced learners are able to provide assistance to students who have reached a point in learning where extra assistance (mediation) is needed to move forward. The needed strategy or learning can then be modelled by the more advanced learner or teacher.

Distributed Cognition [theory] developed Vygotsky's and Minksy's theories of social learning further to incorporate the idea that learning could be held and developed beyond the group into larger systems. Because Learning Commons incorporate a Virtual Commons and extend across the larger world of learning into many existing systems, Distributed Cognition would seem to describe the learning that can occur within and beyond the physical setting of the Learning Commons.

Used with permission -Ruth Wadsworth

Situated Cognition/Learning

[Lave and Etienne Wenger's theory] recognizes the idea of cognitive apprenticeship which puts learners into real settings in which to practice the skills necessary to complete a given task. In the Learning Commons, the process of inquiry is supported by the Experimental Learning Center, where educators can establish scaffolded means of modelling and teaching the inquiry process, as needed by the learners. Educators are as much a part of the community of learners and can demonstrate their own skills, which may be further advanced than the learners or can work with students in the process of acquiring information and resources to address an inquiry. The Commons then becomes a situated venue for the process of inquiry, as would be used in the business world or in academic libraries.

Marzano et al's 9 Instructional Strategies Loertscher cites Marzano et al as an example of the types of strategies which can be modelled and demonstrated in the Experimental Learning Center so that teachers and learners have an opportunity to try new methods with support from technology mentors, literacy mentors and teacher librarians. The nine methods include:

  • Identifying similarities and differences
  • Summarizing and note taking
  • Reinforcing effort and providing recognition
  • Homework and practice
  • Nonlinguistic representations
  • Cooperative learning
  • Selectiving objectives and providing feedback
  • Generating and testing hypotheses
  • Cues, questions and advance organizers

Backwards Design Wiggins and McTighe's strategy of instructional design for understanding focuses instructors on identifying the desired learning results, determining what evidence is acceptable to demonstrate learning and then planning the experiences and instruction. Further, Wiggins and McTighe describe six facets of learning:

  • Explain
  • Interpret
  • Apply
  • Have perspective
  • Empathize
  • Have self-knowledge

These facets of learning and planning strategies are also major ideas to be practiced in the Experimental Learning Center according to Loertscher.

Differentiated Learning The Learning Commons model is designed to be a center for all learners by providing a wide variety of learning experiences, instructional strategies and learning resources. [Learning] and Universal Design for Learning are methods of planning and instruction which recognize the wide variety of learners and how to plan instruction or learning experiences that will address deficits or challenges learners may face in acquiring knowledge. These planning and instructional strategies can be tested in the Experimental Learning Center to further refine and broaden the scope of learning for all learners.

Professional Learning Communities The Experimental Learning Center is one of the environments in which Professional Learning Communities (PLC's), as described by DuFour,DuFour and Eaker, can function. This space allows PLC's to inquire, practice and evaluate teaching strategies for improving student and professional learning. Three major ideas that come from the DuFours and Eaker are the PLC's must focus on

  • ensuring that students learn,
  • a culture of collaboration, and
  • results (achievement data).

Loertscher points out, though, that this process can "lock out the learner" and he advocates that PLC's include learner representatives, as well. This would stand in contrast to the model proposed by DuFour, DuFour and Eaker, which is very teacher-centric.

Personal Learning Environments

While the Learning Commons is both a physical and virtual common learning space for educators and learners, alike, it is also the space in which individuals can create a Personal Learning Environment (PLE). This is where learners take control of their own learning and learn collate the tools and resources which make up their learning experiences and knowledge base in a transparent manner. The role of the Learning Commons in support learners in creation of PLE's is to provide personal guidance, exemplars of tools and methods of collating information, as well as providing a "safe, but empowering learning space." The PLE uses portals of access (provided by the Commons) to create Personal Learning Networks (PLN's) enabling the learner to build a personal portfolio demonstrating what the learner knows and can do in a public manner. The process includes creation and communication, learning to learn and reflection on progress. PLE's are part of the overall ecosystem that makes up the Learning Commons in the school setting and are the end result of ensuring learners are able to work and learn in the 21st century.


ASSESSMENT To begin the transition from a traditional library to a Learning Commons (LC), one must first consider the current library environment, and ask some questions. What are the demographics of the school? The library patrons ? What is the yearly circulation of books ? Has it gone up or down over the last few years ? Has curricular book usage gone down ? How many students frequent the library ? How many teachers use the library for professional research ? Are collaborative projects as prevalent as they once may have been ? Does the library have a vision or mission statement ? How is the library perceived by the administration, and what role does the library play in the expanding vision of the school ? Understanding these questions is vital to transitioning to a learning commons model. (Benthiem, 2013)
VISION Transitioning to a LC does not require a huge investment in technology, but it may require a change of mindset. The LC is not a warehouse of books, with the librarian as the gatekeeper of to all knowledge, rather the librarian should be the advocate for the unfettered access to information and resources. (Harland, 2011) With that in mind, one must consider the role of the library in the learning culture of the school. The learning commons should become the learning hub of the school, where students and teachers come to explore their passions, learn collaboratively, and express their ideas. The hierarchical structure of the past must make way for a student-centered, teacher mentoring environment where all feel welcome, valued, and included.


To move beyond the traditional library to a Learning Commons, it is imperative to have buy-in from a broad spectrum of of the school community. In the fast-changing world libraries, one must first present the case for a LC to the administration. Vast quantities of books may be discarded, furniture purchased, timetables made flexible, all of this requires administrative approval. To get that, one needs to present one's vision, justification, and current literature . 

Creating a library committee that involves administration, teachers, and students serves well the transition to a LC. This allows the Teacher-librarian to express their vision and invite ideas from all stakeholders. It It creates an environment of inclusion, and team purpose. Staff meetings are a great place to share one's vision and show one's passion for the changes about to take place. Teachers need to feel that they and their students have much to gain by working with the Teacher-librarian in the new learning environment. One's commitment to them must be understood and unwaivering. Students must come to see that the Learning Commons is there for them. They should be involved in the development of the new centre, and their input should be seen as valued. Students can be called upon to create and display posters, artwork, anything to foster inclusion. Student aids can be trained to assist teachers and peers with technology and navigating the new space. Students should be encouraged to express themselves on library blogs, whether that be to discuss new books, or to introduce new computer programs to create book trailers, movies, and presentations. Students must come to feel ownership of the new environment. Christina Bentheim talks of creating a brand for the LC. Using banners, staff and student shirts emblazoned with the LC logo, hallway displays, and a prominent online presence, all to promote the Learning Commons as a new place where all are invited to participate and learn. (Bentheim, 2013)
Pamela Harland states that the new physical space should be "flexible, scalable sustainable, and easily adaptable" (Harland, p. 15). With the ubiquitous nature of technology, and hence instant access to up-to-date information, the first change of the physical plant will be the discarding of books, many books. Weeding of the old collection is essential to creating new spaces to facilitate twenty-first century learning. As the books go, so too do many of the shelves. This frees up space for new mobile furniture to create a flexible environment which can accomadate a variety of activities and change as needs change. Storage space is changed to interactive learning space. New areas of the LC may include reading and writing centres, movie-making centres, project display areas, and presentation areas. Couches and comfortable seats may be installed where students feel free to share ideas, read, research from their mobile devices, and simply relax and mingle. These areas should be student-centered and inviting to children and teenagers . Bulletin boards and displays should be prominent throughout the LC to share and promote student work. This promotes community and student ownership. There should be no blank walls.
Students today thrive in the virtual world. They connect with one another through social media, do research online, and are generally comfortable with technology. To that end, connectivity in the LC must be assured by providing ubiquitous internet access through a wireless network. The Learning Commons should have a strong presence online, and should be seen as the central hub for research, learning, and for creating a positive school culture. Seen as a portal for all research, the learning commons must create a website that directs students and staff to information that is up-to-date, relevant, and appropriate for the tasks at hand. Links to full-text databases, peer reviewed articles, and other sites which are consistent with academic scholarship must be included, as should tips on research techniques, proper referencing, and areas to teach students how to create book trailers, movie clips, blogs, and numerous presentation technigues. The learning commons website should foster inclusion and collaboration. Teachers and students should be invited to mold the website, add blogs, new links, and new presentations. This requires trust, which may require a change of mindset, but it is vital if students to feel ownership for the LC, and by extension, their own learning. ( Harland, 2011)

The Virtual Learning Commons (VLC)is similar to a traditional library website, but integrates a collaborative aspect to the site. The site is adaptive, ever evolving, and invites input from the school community at large. David Loertscher defines a VLC as "the online force of the Learning Commons; it's a digital learning community in which the whole school participates. It is not a library website that only provides a one-way stream of useful information. Instead, both the instructors and the students of the school collaborate to establish the VLC as a place where individuals and groups are actively learning, communicating, and building together in real time. This participatory community of learners is powered by software that allows many contributors, and it is as public or private as the school wishes it to be." (Loertscher, 2012)
David Weinberger calls for libraries to reinvent themselves as 'platforms.' He urges libraries to switch from a portal mentality to one of an infrastructure that is ubiquitous and persistent. "A library as platform is more how than where, more hyperlinks than container, more hubbub than hub." (Weinberger, 2012)
Steve Hargadon describes the foundational reasoning for developing a virtual learning commons. (Hardagon, 2012). He states that through access to the internet, students are regularly immersed in the following cultures:

  • Information Culture

The Web provides instant access to high and low quality, and at times inaccurate, information.

  • The Participation Culture

The Web invites and encourages a community of learners to join together build knowledge.

  • The Creative and Co-Creative Culture

It is now easy for anyone to participate in creating and co-creating art, music, music, and other forms of expression.

  • An Engaging Culture

People from a wide variety of backgrounds can come together to express their passions, interests, learning and ideas.

  • A Sharing Culture

The internet brings together people with varying amounts of expertise to share their knowledge and allows for general improvement and remixing of ideas.

  • A Mobile Culture

Cell phones , wireless devices, and wireless networks are now ubiquitous.

  • A Social Culture

Facebook and Twitter are just two of many emerging systems that link people from across the world together.

  • A Global Culture

Time and space no longer separate the peoples of the world.

  • A Long Tail Culture

This suggests that while dominant groups, publishers have long controlled much of the content on the Web, individuals are now becoming a force for spreading ideas and publications such as music, self-published books, videos, etc.

  • Real World Culture

Not everyone has access to unfiltered content on the Web (Hargadon, 2012)

A Virtual Learning Commons creates an environment where everyone in the school may explore the cultures which Hargadon describes, and which are a part of most of our students day-to-day lives. What one is seeking to accomplish by creating a VLC is to invite students into a virtual environment which is similar to that which they experience regularly, to make learning at school seamless with how they naturally learn outside of school, while encountering roadblocks and exciting avenues of pursuit that they regularly encounter. The VLC is attempting to adapt to the students' world, instead of having them adapt to an old-school model of learning which was once rigid and authoritarian.

Elements of the Virtual Learning Commons
When building a VLC site Loertscher (Loertscher, 2012)suggests elements be incorporated into the VLC portal. They are as follows:

  • The information Centre

This is the front page of the VLC portal. It contains link to traditional sources of information, such as databases, other libraries, reference tools, museums, etc. It is the starting point for student and teacher exploration.

  • The Literacy Centre

This is a place where reading, writing, listening, creating, collaborating, and celebrating on all things literary. Everyone is invited and encouraged to comment and provide input with their ideas, new-found knowledge, and their passions. Teachers, students, and administrators are encouraged to participate through book clubs, writng clubs, and book trailers. Individual classrooms are encouraged to showcase their work in this public forum.

  • The Knowledge Building Centre

This is where the teacher librarian and other specialists are designing and conducting collaborative learning experiences with classroom teachers. This is a virtual construction zone of what students are learning. Students and teachers learn from one another and contribute to the shared knowledge space. Through video tutorials, book blogs and games, students construct their own learning projects. Their learning is personalized and allows them to pursue their interests. Online portfolios resumes, and video blogs can be a large part of this section of the VLC. The Knowledge Building Centre is a hub of collaboration, coaching, mentoring, reflection, exhibiting, and problem-solving. This is where teachers, students, outside experts come together to facilitate a community of learners.

  • School Culture

This is a yearbook or newspaper for the school which is published in real time. It showcases the activities of clubs, sports teams, music, art, and current events for the school community. This may be done through text or video, and is meant to be the place to check to see what is happening at the school.

  • The Experimental Learning Centre

This is the heart of experimentation, testing, trial, success, and failure-and projects of school improvement and action research in the school. It is not only a place constructed and frequented by administrators, but where the leadership team of the school, grant projects, or adoption of new initiatives such as Common Core evolve and thrive. Both adults and students are experimenting in the space; it is the place to take risks knowing that it is okay to fail and regroup for success." (Loertscher, 2012)

While the physical Learning Commons should be the gathering and learning hub of the school where all are invited and made to feel welcome, the VLC should also be welcoming, user-friendly, and inviting. It should be a vital starting point for research, class learning, and for casually traveling on the virtual highway during a student's day. Design considerations should ensure that it is visually appealing, user-friendly, and well-organized. It should not be text-heavy, but rather provide visual navigation as much as possible. It should also be current. This requires constant updating, and while this may seem time-intensive, much of the workload should be shouldered by students and staff. That requires training, but most importantly, buy-in.(Loertscher, 2012)
David Loertscher has provided a template to begin building a VLC here:


Once seen as the gatekeepers of knowledge who resided in the warehouse called the library, teacher-librarians today must adapt to the changing environment brought on by the ever expanding digital world and emerging technologies and become leaders in integrating technology into the learning environment. That environment may at times take them out of the library and into the classroom, where their expertise in research, and in developing inquiry-based projects can be utilized through the use of i-pads and other wireless devices. While feared by some, this adaptation can well be embraced and celebrated. The opportunities afforded by the technological revolution allow librarians to reach more students, and collaborate with more teachers than ever before.
The TPACK (technological, pedagogical, and content knowledge) model, advocated by Jayme Linton (Linton, 2012), is a framework to guide librarians and teachers in this new environment. The collaborative environment of the LC is the perfect setting for development of teachers' technological pedagogical content knowledge (TPACK). Several years ago, Shulman (1986) introduced the concept of pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). He argued that effective teachers must not only possess knowledge of their content areas and knowledge of effective instructional practices but also an understanding of how content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge interact within the classroom (Shulman, 1986). Mishra and Koehler expanded Shulman's model of PCK to include technological knowledge as the third domain of knowledge effective teachers should possess." (Linton, 2012)
Technology is merely a tool to enhance student learning, and must be alligned to curricular content and effective instructional practices. The overlap of content knowledge, teaching strategies, and technology knowledge is what drives the TPAC framework. Teachers utilize the teacher-librarian (T-L) by bringing expertise in content to the Learning Commons, and then work with the T-L to develop engaging instructional and learning strategies that benefit from the technology offered in the LC, or those that are brought to the classroom by the T-L in the form of wireless devices. In the new LC, teacher-librarian is a partner in pedagogical design, and importantly, a technology specialist who is there to lead teachers to discover teaching strategies that excite and motivate students to learn. Collaborative partnerships between teacher and librarian lead to results that would not be possible in the traditional isolated classroom or in the library alone (Koechlin et al., 2011).
Linton provides an example of the evolution of the TPAK framework as demonstrated in an Economics class:
Pedagogical content knowledge (absent technology knowledge): effective instructional strategies for teaching economics (e.g., simulations); techniques for assessing student understanding of economics (e.g., problem solving in a real-world scenario); awareness of misconceptions that might interfere with student learning of economics (e.g., past experiences); knowledge of multiple ways to represent understanding of economics (e.g., graphically)

Technological content knowledge(absent pedagogical knowledge): awareness of technology tools for accessing and exploring information about economics (e.g., New York Stock Exchange website); use of technology tools to organize, display, and share economic information (e.g., spreadsheet)

Technological pedagogical knowledge (absent content knowledge): integration of technology with effective instructional practices (e.g., video case study); use of technology to implement assessment techniques (e.g., online polling site); use of technology to increase student engagement and motivation (e.g., collaborative online discussions); use of technology to adapt instruction to meet individual learners' needs (e.g., adaptive technologies)

Finally, the TPAC framework in action:

Technological pedagogical content knowledge: integration of technology into effective instructional practices for teaching economics (e.g.,. online stock market simulation); integration of technology into techniques for assessing student understanding of economics (e.g., online checkbook template) (Mishra & Koehler, 2006)

Questions to guide teacher-librarians in collaborative planning:
What content do students need to learn?
What are students expected to know or be able to do related to the content?
What resources can help students access, organize, and understand the content?
What are common misconceptions and breakdowns in student learning of the content?
What research-based instructional practices will best facilitate student learning of the content?
What formative and summative assessment practices will allow the teacher to evaluate student learning and adjust instruction based on student progress?
What adaptations of content, instruction, and assessment are needed based on student needs?
What technological tools are available to support selected instructional and assessment practices, help students access and organize content, create products of learning, display students' understanding of content, adapt content, instruction, and assessment? (Linton, 2012)

The TPAK framework can help T-L's work effectively with teachers to integrate technology, not for the sake of integration itself, but rather to create a seamless alignment of content and instructional strategies that engage students to become excited about learning. This collaborative teamwork brings a strength and rigor to design and delivery methods seldom seen in the isolated classroom.

The Learning Commons model

Stop Motion video detailing Learning Theories in Alignment with Learning Commons


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