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Fostering Constructivism in School Libraries

Brian Farrell – February 27, 2011

University of British Columbia

There are many physical components of a school that are key in establishing an

effective learning environment. While school libraries have always generally been valued

as important pieces of the learning puzzle, with recent advancements in electronic

resources and students’ corresponding eagerness to use electronic research tools, these

facilities have come under greater scrutiny in terms of their relevancy in a modern,

learner-centred school environment. Developed correctly though, the physical school

library space and the resources it provides are still very necessary should a school wish to

foster effective constructivist learning.

Constructivism, in a very generalized sense, states that learners are able to create

knowledge based upon their own individual experiences, ideas, and interactions. Learners

are recognized as individuals, each of whom processes and creates knowledge in a

different way, but who are also impacted by the behaviour and interactions that occur

within their larger group and in their environment. Simply put in practical terms,

“Constructivism refers to educational practices that are student-focused, meaning-based,

process-oriented, interactive, and responsive to student interest.” (Johnson, 2009).

In the context of school libraries, the picture is similar. As has been noted by Ross

Todd (2001);

“Constructivist learning is not merely teaching a raft of information skills. Its

focus is on engaging learners in active inquiry, where, through the complex
interaction of technical, constructive, evaluative and affective learning processes,
learners are motivated to establish engaging, personally meaningful questions that
will direct their inquiry into an information search task either imposed by the
teacher, or one where self-selection of task focus is required.”

As a physical learning space then, a school library can be critical in creating the most

effective environment for constructivist learning to occur. School libraries are often one

of very few central communal spaces in a school, and their very nature as a knowledge

repository invites independent and guided inquiry. For learners to be effective in creating

a sound understanding of the world around them, they require access to knowledge

resources, and a comfortable and effective learning environment that can inspire and

enhance inquiry.

There are two distinct components of effective constructivist school libraries

spaces that need to be examined; the physical plant and layout of the facility, and the

learning resources that it provides access to. The professional library staff that organize,

teach, and manage in these spaces are of course also incredibly critical to ensuring a

library’s success, but could easily be the subject of another larger independent inquiry.

This paper will focus instead on the school library itself, and examine how it can be used

effectively to create constructivist learning.


When one imagines a school library, it generally goes without saying that such a

space would be home to a large number of books. Students increasingly use electronic

resources though, and the validity of having a large book collection available is being

challenged more and more often. This is not a recent phenomenon, as research has been

highlighting the decline in circulation of books and overall library usage for the past

decade or more (Carlson, 2001). Provided they are current, cater to the reading level of

students, and are easily accessible though (to be discussed further when we examine the

physical library space), books are still integral in fostering constructivist inquiry. Books

should be considered part of the puzzle of resources integral in a constructivist library

since they allow for a great deal of independent inquiry and knowledge development.

While perhaps not always having the most current information available on a subject,

books are still one of the most credible forms of information available to learners, and

key in instilling the higher order constructivist ideal of thinking critically about


What other resources then would a student expect of a school library? One recent

survey of students in mathematics programs (an area that is not immediately thought of in

the context of libraries where subjects like history and languages are more commonly

correlated) found that students expected their library to provide access to learning tools

such as advanced calculators, computers, and software, subject textbooks and related

print resources, as well as tutorial assistance (Betne & Castonguay, 2008). Expanded to

other disciplines, this list could likely include things like cameras, portable audio and

video devices, audio books, maps and atlases, learning manipulatives like dice, scales and

measuring tapes, and even building blocks and playing cards depending on the age level

of students involved. While not thought of as traditional resources of school libraries, all

of these things can be helpful in learners constructing knowledge and developing a

concrete understanding around more abstract concepts.

While not requiring a physical library space to hold them, online and electronic

resources are incredibly important for today’s learners. Electronic databases that include

research and scholarly journals, subscriptions to online news sources and periodicals,

access to streaming educational video and audio content, and e-books are increasingly

available from school libraries. Again, these do not require a physical library space as

they can generally be accessed universally across a school campus, however they do

often require management and instruction from trained staff, which, more often than not,

means librarians. In an age of instant access to a wealth of information through the

internet, it is increasingly important that libraries provide access to online resources such

as databases, as there is a large range of credibility in the resources found by simply

searching online. Judging the value and merit of this information is a critical skill for

information literate constructivist learners, and so libraries need to provide guided

instruction in developing these skills.

Whatever mix of resources a school library ultimately chooses to offer, it should

be with an aim to expose learners to the broader world around them. Learning is

culturally influenced (Jegede, 1995), and so for learners to have a broad perspective of

the world around them, they need libraries to provide a range of books and other

resources that represent global perspectives and a range of opinion. This is particularly

true in developing knowledge about literature and writing, but can also be said to be

relevant when talking about historical perspectives, social issues, the arts, and really any

other subject that is open to debate and interpretation.


Much like the traditional classroom space has evolved from a very precise and

orderly network of desks in rows with a chalkboard at the front of the room, so too have

school libraries changed their layouts and physical infrastructure to better accommodate

constructivist learning. If we are to acknowledge the very basic tenant of constructivist

thought that learners create and understand knowledge in very different and individual

ways, then we must create school library spaces that cater to these various learning styles.

By their very nature, school libraries have always served a variety of user experiences, as

they are created to support whole schools, across grade and age levels, supporting every

subject of instruction offered as well as supporting the ideal of basic literacy development

and reading for pleasure.

The traditional image of a school library as a dusty place with row upon row of

tight shelves is not one that is effective in fostering constructivist learning for all

students. In accommodating multiple modalities of learning and inquiry, a library should

include a diversity of spaces that offers choices to patrons as learners (Sykes, 2006). The

space should allow for independent work, small and larger groups, louder and quieter

activities, and easy access to relevant information in all its formats (print, electronic,

audio, etc.). How this space will look will of course depend upon the physical, budgetary,

and facility use constraints of each school, but it should include input from all

constituents who will ultimately use the space to be effective. The individual nature of

constructivist learning means that no two users of the school library will be identical in

their needs and learning style, and so the more input into design considerations, the


Librarians are generally the drivers and key decision makers in the development

of school library facilities. While these professionals certainly have developed a specific

skill set when it comes to searching for, classifying, and organizing information, they

may have a bias towards a certain way of (generally very methodically) arranging a

space. To foster effective constructivist learning, facilities such as school libraries should

be student-centred, and this should be obvious in implying that student input is required

in facility design.

In its role as a resource repository, a school library needs to be accessible to its

users. Librarians should consider the demand for each of the resources that it provides,

and then develop a corresponding layout that provides easy access to these materials.

Lessons can be learned from retail development and design, and thought should be given

to including things like front facing (cover visible) book displays, shelf end units, and the

disbursement rather than clustering of computer work stations (Hennah, 2010). If

librarians and schools hope to foster independent inquiry, they need to make relevant

resources accessible, user-friendly, and intuitive to the learner.

As well as a space for independent inquiry, school libraries need to be a teaching

space that can accommodate a range of learning activities. Facilities that allow for larger

lectures, small group activities, and independent inquiry will further position the school

library as a key academic space in the minds of the learners using it. Libraries can help

engage students in teaching themselves and transferring knowledge to their peers by

offering resources such as white boards and projection equipment that is open for all to

use, rather than confining these resources to a teacher-only role.

Common Threads

Fundamentally, constructivist learners are independent seekers of information

who aim to create connections and develop knowledge of the world around them. In a

school library environment, these learners need to have easy access to current, relevant

information resources, and need to have a working space that is conducive to their

preferred method of inquiry at any given time. For school libraries to stay relevant and

effective in developing constructivist thought, they must provide a flexible facility that

operates universally (e.g. also online) in providing access and assistance with the best

learning materials for its students. This facility should be inviting, and conducive to

collaboration as well as independent work, and should fundamentally be driven by the

needs and input of the students that it seeks to serve.


Betne, P., & Castonguay, R. (2008). On the Role of Mathematics Educators and

Librarians in Constructivist Pedagogy. Education, 129(1), 56-79. Retrieved from


Carlson, S. (November 16, 2001). The Deserted Library: As Students Work Online,

Reading Rooms Empty Leading Some Campuses to Add Starbucks. Chronicle of

Higher Education. Retrieved from

Gordon, C., and Markuson, C. (2008). The School Library as Classroom: Creating a

Constructivist Learning Environment. [Power Point slides]. Retrieved from





Hennah, K. (2010). Kevin Hennah Design Ideas [Power Point slides]. Retrieved from

personal email correspondence.

Jegede, O. J. (1995). Collateral learning and eco-cultural paradigm in science and

mathematics in Africa. Studies in Science Education. 25, 97 - 137.


Johnson, G. (2009). Instructionism and Constructivism: Reconciling Two Very Good

Ideas. International Journal of Special Education, 24(3), 90-98. Retrieved from


Sykes, J. A. (2006). Brain Friendly School Libraries. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.

Retrieved from Questia database:


Todd, R. (2001). A Sustainable Future for Teacher-Librarians: Inquiry Learning,


and Evidence. Orana, 37(3), 10-20. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.

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