Designing a Successful K-12 Collaboration Center
Media centers. Libraries. Learning commons. Collaboration spaces. No matter the name, these spaces have always served an important purpose in schools. Cultural shifts and changes in pedagogy have pushed many schools away from a traditional media center into a different model.
Media centers of the past included features like:
- Large book collections
- Heavy, bulky furniture including fixed bookcases
- Emphasis on physical media and research
- Limited technology; primarily related to research or presentations
- Individual, focused work
- Central gathering space
- Large circulation desk
A shift toward project-based learning and teaching soft skills like collaboration require spaces that support these activities. Increases in individualized learning plans for students have also brought about a need for spaces where students can engage in online curriculum and distance learning.
Other trends we are seeing include:
- Decreased circulation of physical books and a corresponding reduction in the size of the circulation desk
- Pervasive technology
- Flexible spaces – for large group instruction, individual time, and small groups
- Light, mobile furniture that can be arranged in a variety of configurations
The changes needed to the physical environment depend on the teaching model embraced by the school administration. One of the first decisions to be made is what to do with book circulation. Some schools have done large “weeding” efforts to their circulation, while others have gone entirely book-free.
At the elementary level, physical books are still a vital component of the learning process. Some schools feature “mini libraries” in each classroom to provide increased access to books, while still providing a shared library location that houses fewer titles.
Schools who decide to reduce their circulation will need to undergo a weeding exercise before specifying new bookshelves – often targeting a reduction of 40-60% of their books. The Texas State Library and Archives Commission has a great weeding manual posted online that can help provide a framework for the weeding process.1
So what happens to the books when schools remove them from a library? Some go to community libraries, some get dispersed into classroom libraries, and others are donated.
“Libraries are reinventing themselves as content becomes more accessible online and their role becomes less about housing books and more about connecting learners and constructing knowledge. Libraries become a different kind of learning destination when schools reimagine them as open, transparent spaces that invite student communication and collaboration.” Beth Holland, edutopia.org2
If you are removing books, the bulky bookcases and large circulation desk that supported an old model, what’s next for the space itself?
The grade levels within the building will inform the design to some extent, but many principles are the same regardless of the grades served.
Location, layout, technology, and furniture are all important. A prominent or centralized location for a collaboration center makes it more accessible for students and teachers and puts this type of learning on display. Activating these spaces for classes and a variety of collaborative activities requires a large, open space with flexible furniture. Placing any remaining books along the perimeter, or on mobile shelves helps keep most of the space flexible to accommodate various teaching and learning styles. Breakout rooms are important for individual or small group work and can be fully separate or utilize operable partitions to join them into a larger instructional space if needed. And lastly these spaces need integrated technology at all grade levels.
In addition to being great for class and individual work, many of the features of these collaboration spaces also make these spaces great for staff and student groups, and community use outside of school hours.
These new spaces are rarely brand new – many districts have remodeled an existing media center or repurposed under-utilized spaces in their schools to become collaboration centers.
East Grand Rapids High School utilized the footprint of an existing traditional media center, transforming it into a Learning Commons. The space features six small group rooms for 4-6 students, a large conferencing room sized for 50, and a help desk staffed by media specialists and technology staff to support student needs. They significantly reduced their print collection, which is now concentrated in one corner and peppered throughout on low mobile shelving units which double to define zones for different kinds of work. The remaining area features zones for more individually focused tasks as well as a variety of settings for focused group work or social interactions.
The Freshman Campus at Kentwood Public Schools was one of the many schools in the district to receive a new collaboration center in recent years. Previously the building had a media center with a large book collection that emphasized individual work but was not suitable for group work or large group instruction. This project repurposed under-utilized classrooms and storage areas to create a new collaboration center that allows for individual work, full class instruction, and the ability for groups of various sizes to meet. A large open space features flexible furniture, screen-sharing technology, and breakout rooms. A presentation platform supports group instruction, while mobile lecterns and a variety of furniture configurations allow for multiple classes to use the space simultaneously.
“The Collaboration Centers provide a perfect mix of the traditional library with new and improved technology. This has provided a creative and multi-purpose learning environment for our students. It has provided new energy and student traffic in collaboration/media centers.”
– Michael Zoerhoff, Kentwood Public Schools Superintendent
The role of the librarian or media specialist is changing along with the spaces. Some schools are shifting away from specialized staffing, but there remains a need for technical staff to support students as they use the space. This staff needs to help students navigate online content, set up presentations, teach the students to use technology, and provide technical support. Project-based learning is much more successful when support staff is on hand and trained on how to use the space and the technology within.
A collaboration center should be a learning destination that is dedicated to helping students achieve their learning objectives and transform them into lifelong learners. Updating classrooms for an entire district is a huge undertaking, but updating media centers in each building is a great starting point because you can impact all students in the building.
How do your schools’ media centers stack up?
Larson, J. CREW: A Weeding Manual for Modern Libraries. Texas State Library and Archives Commission, 2008. Retrieved from tsl.texas.gov/sites/ default/files/public/tslac/ld/pubs/crew/crewmethod08.pdf, Nov. 20, 2019.
Holland, B. 21st-Century Libraries: The Learning Commons. Edutopia, Jan. 14, 2015. Retrieved from edutopia.org/blog/21st-centurylibraries-learning-commons-beth-holland, Nov. 20, 2019.
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Lisa Maycroft is an architect who also leads GMB’s Technical Team. She is passionate about integrating code and technical detail into designs to get the best functioning spaces and systems for clients.
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