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Introducing the Learning Commons (it’s a bit like a library, only really cool and super popular)

How do you encourage reluctant readers (in this case boys) to engage with books? It might seem counterintuitive to get rid of most of them and house what’s left in a cool, flexible space replete with computers but that’s what Devonport High School for Boys has done. And it has worked.

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Ben Forte was appointed Director of Learning Commons at DHSB with the brief to create a learning commons that would accommodate multiple learning activities, provide unfettered access to technology and get the boys reading more. From the outset Ben, whose background is in IT and resource management, worked closely with students and staff, creating a Learning Commons Planning Committee to build consensus around the design.

For inspiration, some lucky students visited Google and Innocent’s London offices and found that both had a variety of private, communal and adaptable spaces with clean and natural designs. Bringing these ideas back to Devonport the team looked for furniture companies with a similar commitment to innovation and inspiration and contacted Spaceoasis.

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The resulting space has transformed the old library into a buzzing, social space where learning is collaborative, creative and effective. The downstairs is carpeted with astroturf and features Baa Stools (life-size sheep) and bean bags surrounded by bookshelves that look like hedges to create a relaxing environment where boys can socialise and read. Upstairs in the Learning Commons, Learning Surface® dry-wipe tables allow students to grab a whiteboard pen at any time so they can work together on projects. In the main area mobile Bite tables, also with dry-wipe LearningSurface®, can be moved around by students and teachers to create whichever layout suits their task. Seven study booths ranging in size from meetings rooms with presentation facilities for up to eight people, to medium size rooms seating up to four and smaller spaces that accommodate two, provide flexible space for group or individual work.

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In 2013 a group of DHSB students created ThinkSpace, a dedicated space where students come together to learn to code and create apps, games, websites and even social networks. Richard Branson, Stephen Fry, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales and many other members of tech royalty voiced their support, saying that it was high time schools encouraged the rigorous analytical thinking of coding and computer science.

With this recent illustrious history (the founders of ThinkSpace are already embarking upon entrepreneurial technology careers) it made sense to include a ThinkSpace within the new Learning Commons. Here students have access to computers that are not locked down or restricted in any way, to enable them to access coding resources, social networks and anything else they need to create the next world-changer. Beyond the ThinkSpace room, technology is fully integrated into the new Learning Commons with a Chromebook Lending Library enabling easy access to computers.

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So, what happened to the books?

“We might have fewer books but they are better curated,” explains Ben Forte, Director of Learning Commons at DHSB. “Although I hate to admit it, boys tend to judge books by their covers so we’ve made sure the ones we have are appealing and we’ve seen a rapid increase in the number of books being read both at school and at home.”

Beyond the increase in reading, the space is enabling teachers to deliver learning in ways that simply weren’t possible before with groups of students engaged in different tasks at the same time in the same space.

“You’ll see some students working collaboratively on the dry wipe tables – we had to buy a lot of pens – while others are in the booths practising their presentations and some will be working together on the floor,” said Ben. “Outside of lessons it’s amazing to see students able to do their homework, eat lunch and socialise all at the same time. It’s always busy in here, every day. Many boys choose to remove their shoes when they come into this space, because it’s relaxed and comfortable.”

Want one?

If you’re thinking that a Learning Commons might be for you, Ben has the following advice:

“Find a furniture company that doesn’t just shift boxes. Spaceoasis stands out from the crowd because they’re thinking about learning and how to inspire productivity by creating education specific furniture like the tables with LearningSurface®. They also helped by providing 3d models of the layouts which helped us visualise and further inspired the design process.

“Also, think really hard about the purpose of the space, you can’t just stick some grass down and hope for the best. Our aim was to increase literacy but you might have different goals. Lastly, work with all of your stakeholders, staff, students and parents to bring them along on the journey, then when you get there you’ll all have a sense of ownership.”

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