Know How

Aug. 18, 2018
Seven tips for designing a great knowledge commons.

As we get deeper into the 21st century, the way we think about schools and learning is changing. Libraries filled with books no longer are the first place people go to conduct research. In response, many schools are renovating their libraries to provide access to a broad array of learning tools. Some books still are included, but they now are sharing space with digital learning tools, audiovisual equipment, and maker spaces. These tools enable students to work on individual and collaborative projects for all their classes in one location.

The way people consume information has shifted dramatically in a single generation and continues to evolve. The most eager devotees of new technology are young people, and students today have a different expectation for information gathering and knowledge generation than their predecessors.

The traditional library—a space housing rows upon rows of books—is being incorporated into a vibrant, interactive knowledge commons. Libraries used to be quiet, low-activity study spaces where students working in groups had to sequester themselves to avoid disturbing others.

Today, the reverse is true: The main space emits an active vibe, and separate rooms are provided for those wishing to study quietly.

As libraries broaden their focus, they are equipped for various types of instruction and project work—from multimedia labs to maker spaces. With so much going on, the knowledge commons is a destination where students want to gather before and after school, and on breaks, even if just to hang out.

At the same time, school districts unfamiliar with the term knowledge commons are planning renovations that enable ideas to blossom by creating more casual, adaptable spaces better equipped to support modern pedagogy.

Creating vibrancy, however, is no small task. “Happening-ness” does not just happen.

Here are seven insights that will help schools create and optimize a great knowledge commons.

1. Make the knowledge commons a prominent part of a school layout, easily accessible from multiple corridors. Educational leaders can optimize use of a knowledge commons by situating the commons where it is easily seen. At the same time, providing user-friendly access also maximizes its use. 

In one example, a middle school knowledge commons was placed near the main entrance. It functions as a figurative gateway to the school that entices people to come in and experience one of the most academically vibrant areas.

In renovations, relocation is not always feasible, but planners still can increase access and change the nature of the space. In a centrally situated knowledge commons, multiple doorways create an interconnected circulation path through the school. Students pass through the knowledge commons and establish a familiar path and a popular impromptu gathering place.

2. Provide a commons where students can merge the hands-on and virtual aspects of a project and maximize their creative potential. Water access, durable flooring, and equipment storage facilitate a maker space. Flexible furniture can be moved and reconfigured for various uses. The lab/studio infrastructure makes a knowledge commons an adaptable space, and transparent walls can provide separation for clean/messy areas or noisy/quiet spaces without closing in the room. Touring other facilities and gathering feedback from faculty and staff provide inspiration and insight into what furnishings to select. 

 3. To accommodate modern learning styles, incorporate technology infrastructure for multimedia and video production into the learning commons.  Students live in a multimedia world and constantly use media to express themselves. In a knowledge commons with a maker space adjacent to multimedia rooms, students can build a robot, create a multimedia presentation about its features, and develop a manufacturing plan to mass produce it. This expansion beyond the core library invokes the concept of an “exploratorium,” where students can engage a variety of skills and knowledge. They need spaces where they can conduct research and development and collaborate on the planning and production, just as professionals do.

 Students may even take an active role in managing and deploying technology throughout a school. They can run a “genius bar” in the knowledge commons, where they help other students figure out apps, troubleshoot, and repair devices. School districts can invest in the equipment, networking infrastructure, and professional development so that staff can support the student experience.

 4. Create a commons with a casual “coffee shop” atmosphere. Although selling coffee within a knowledge commons is found primarily in colleges, the atmosphere popularized by casual dining franchises is an aesthetic that people of all ages appreciate. Students want a study space that breaks free from a rigid chair at a table, that offers comfortable seating so that they can work with their laptops in their laps, as they might do at home. With furniture on casters, students can reconfigure seating arrangements for individual or group assignments.

 5. Design a commons with agility so that as a large space it can easily adapt to support a wide range of functions. Space is at a premium in many schools. In one example, a middle school incorporated an agile, flexible, glass wall with a sliding bifold panel. The area can be closed off as separate rooms, and the semicircular transparent wall can fold away quickly by users themselves. An adaptable space such as this may be a classroom, presentation or collaboration space, or it may accommodate professional development and community events. Such small renovations provide more usable space for less cost than a major remodel. The cutting edge always is advancing, so flexible spaces enable schools to change with the times. 

 6. When leaders develop a knowledge commons as a destination point, students enjoy the energy that comes from seeing and being seen. Students are being encouraged to work independently in small groups, in a more collegiate and professional manner, at a younger and younger age. In small group collaboration rooms, glass walls provide transparency, and writable surfaces turn the remaining walls into display boards. These may be in individual rooms or in open collaborative areas throughout a knowledge commons. These study nooks might have mobile screens or mobile marker surfaces. Visibility also is important when breaking up a large space into several smaller rooms. It is safer for students to be in view of staff members.

 7. Incorporate many types of activities in a learning commons to optimize its ability to support many learning styles. Varying the types of activities does more than just create interest. It can help students learn more effectively. For example, some students need comfortable furniture or stimulating colors and textures in the room, and others find these things distracting. Providing different learning opportunities promotes the idea of discovery, where concepts are presented in a variety of engaging ways.

Where It All Begins

Kicking off the transition from a conventional library to a knowledge commons starts with a visioning exercise where students provide input. The students will be using the space, so their input is crucial to developing goals for the project.

Defined goals lead to a vision, and the team can design to support that vision. Goals for the space should reflect how educational leaders see the space evolving to engage future students.

A workshop with students, faculty, and community members can help synthesize the visions of the students, teachers, librarians, and administrators. The key is to help them focus on how to meet existing and future needs and even push the envelope further. 

Visioning exercises, in which participants design their ideal library or classroom, can lead to insights. 

Taking time to listen to those insights validates the opinions of students and makes them feel that the space is truly theirs, which will help make it a success.

A Space to Grow

With activities and facilities that go far beyond reading material, a knowledge commons can become the heart of the school. 

It gives students a safe and comfortable place to study, create, and work in groups, building the skills they will need to succeed.

When students are more participatory through the use of hands-on equipment, collaborative opportunities and the flexibility to study in a way that makes them comfortable, their excitement grows and with it the popularity of the learning commons as a destination.