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At the Center of Learning

Kids working on a project in a library
Photo: ©Rawpixel/Adobe Stock

The world needs learners who can think for themselves and solve problems in creative ways, not blindly accept and reproduce facts. A good school librarian can use learning centers to help young people develop these attributes.
Learning centers, or stations, aren’t a new concept in education. Many classroom educators already use them, often to teach math and literacy. Learning centers provide focused, self-directed activities where learners work independently or collaboratively. In some classes, the learner chooses which center to visit, but in others the educator assigns them.

Learning centers also work well in the school library, where makerspaces have similarly paved the way for innovative library instruction. Makerspaces can vary according to setting, participant grade level, budget, and purpose. In general, they’re places where learners have choices and where learners make something. Many learning centers share these qualities. The difference is that learning centers are often more narrowly focused, allowing learners to engage in hands-on, often open-ended challenges.

This is an excerpt from Learning Centers for School Libraries by Maura Madigan (ALA 
Editions, 2021).

Each learning center offers a different activity or challenge. Learners may choose a center, complete the task, share their work, and clean up. Learning centers are flexible and easily adaptable to different schedules, grade levels, and content.

Learning centers that we have created for our own library cover a lot of territory. A few you might want to try include:

  • Simple machines. Learners build models of playground equipment that feature simple machines (pulley, screw, wheel and axle, wedge, lever, and inclined plane). They can analyze simple machines already in use and brainstorm ideas for new equipment.
  • Lego story. The emphasis here is on creating and sharing a narrative video. Storytelling is an advanced skill. Learners use Lego bricks, characters, and props to build a scene before filming themselves narrating the story.
  • Matchbox car engineering. Learners use Matchbox-style tracks to test how different factors affect the distance a toy car travels, incorporating math and science standards and engaging in the engineering process with its cycle of planning, implementation, reflection, and adjustment.
  • Blackout poetry. Learners use pages from discarded books and magazines to create poems by blacking out unwanted words with markers. If time allows, learners can share their poems by reading them aloud.
  • Endangered books. Learners choose a book that is under consideration by the librarian for weeding, read it, evaluate the book’s merit, and answer a series of questions. School librarians can use these recommendations when deciding whether to discard, reorder, or keep the books.

Learning centers benefit school librarians as well as learners. When learners are working independently, the school librarian is better able to work with individuals, conduct readers’ advisory, and facilitate book checkout. But of course, learners are the main beneficiaries. Learning centers offer differentiated instruction, encourage independence and collaboration, and build competencies and resiliency in learners. They’re also fun.

Providing options

Choice is one of the most important features of learning centers. It empowers learners to take an active role in their education and increases their buy-in. Learners are more likely to work hard at a task they’ve selected. Responsive Classroom—a learner-centered, social-emotional approach to teaching and discipline—stresses the power of academic choice in both the classroom and special-area subjects, like during library instruction. Offering choices encourages learners to “develop intrinsic motivation to learn” and “take greater responsibility for their own learning,” according to the book Responsive Classroom for Music, Art, PE, and Other Special Areas (Center for Responsive Schools, 2016). Isn’t this what all educators hope for? Thoughtful, independent learners will be able to use these skills throughout their lives.

For some learners, too many options can be overwhelming rather than empowering. Consider your audience when selecting which centers to offer. Younger learners or those with special needs may appreciate more limited options.


One of the most important attributes for academic success is resiliency. No matter how intelligent a person is, they will eventually face challenges and setbacks. How a person deals with these obstacles is what matters. Some advanced learners can become so used to everything being easy that they’re reluctant to persevere. If something doesn’t work out as planned or if they struggle with a new task, they give up. The school library presents the perfect environment to learn that it’s okay to make mistakes. Everybody fails sometimes. Often, that’s how progress happens. We may learn more from our mistakes than our successes.

In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol S. Dweck writes about the importance of having a growth mindset, or the belief that change is possible. Learners might not be able to complete a specific activity yet. That yet is hugely significant and hopeful. It suggests the promise of mastering that skill sometime in the future. Learners who embrace a growth mindset are generally more positive and willing to tackle challenges.

The American Association of School Librarians’ (AASL) 2018 Standards framework also stresses the importance of resiliency and a growth mindset. The key commitment of Explore—one of the six Shared Foundations that anchor the AASL Standards—is that learners will “discover and innovate in a growth mindset developed through experience and reflection.” Having a growth mindset makes it easier to be resilient. Although a growth mindset, reflection, and resiliency feature prominently in the Standards, not many other sets of national standards directly address these essential attributes for learning. Perhaps this omission is because resiliency is more a disposition than a skill. It’s trickier to teach than long division.

However, learning centers provide the opportunity to practice resiliency. For ­example, if you’re building a bridge and it falls, you need to start over. Becoming frustrated is part of the learning process. Being able to work past that frustration and start again is something learners will need to master. Learning centers provide a fun context in which to do so, making it even more possible for learners to persevere through setbacks toward genuine resiliency.

Most centers are set up for learners to work both independently or collaboratively, and educators may choose when or whether to intervene to facilitate learning. Instead of providing the answer, educators lead learners to consider other possibilities by asking key questions. To an adult, it may be obvious that no matter how much glue learners use, those heavy pieces of cardboard won’t stay together. But educators shouldn’t steal learners’ struggle. The finished product is not as important as how learners get there. Learners are working toward becoming self-sufficient. Experiencing small obstacles and failures in a safe environment prepares them to handle bigger obstacles on their own later.


Fun in education is often underrated. When we enjoy an activity, it becomes play rather than work. We tend to stay engaged longer, focus more attentively, and retain what we’ve learned. Unfortunately, after kindergarten most learners don’t have the opportunity to play in school outside recess. Modern education focuses heavily on testing and covering standards according to a timeline, both of which can cause stress and neither of which is very fun.

A visitor to your school library may question why learners are working with Lego bricks. They may see this as “just playing,” with an implicit message that play doesn’t belong in school. Learning is a serious business. Play, however, is not a dirty word, nor should we be embarrassed to use it in connection to learning centers. This isn’t an either/or; something can be fun and educational. Numerous psychologists and educational researchers—including Carl Jung, Jean Piaget, and Erik Erikson—have studied the role of play, demonstrating its effectiveness and importance in child development and education.

First, play helps facilitate brain development, and not just in early childhood. Second, play relieves stress. Learners today are often overscheduled both in and out of school. Many are engaged in so many extracurricular activities that they have little free time for fun, relaxation, and creativity. School days can often seem like a triathlon, rushing from one activity to the next, trying to cram it all in. Who wouldn’t be stressed?

The school library is the perfect place for learners to experiment without the fear of failure, where they can simply play. Learning centers also enable an autonomy and independence that learners don’t often have in school, where so much of their time is directed by adults.


A good amount of preparation goes into establishing learning centers in a school library. You must purchase or gather materials, make copies, and package them all together in a storage container, but that’s a one-time chore. Once you’ve done the initial work, most of the centers require little upkeep.

Next, you need to establish the rules and routines and then introduce each center by modeling or explaining it. Limit the number of new centers introduced at the same time, especially the more complicated ones requiring adult support. Once learners are familiar with the routines and the options, learning centers tend to run themselves pretty smoothly.

When thinking of the number of centers to offer, consider how many learners can work at each center and the number of learners in the class. You want to ensure that even the last learner to pick has a few centers to choose from. Depending on class size, 10 or more centers is usually enough. In the beginning, consider offering more than one section of each center if you don’t have enough variety.

All school librarians will set rules and routines specific to their situation and preferences. Although these may vary, establishing them at the beginning will help learning centers run more smoothly. Displaying a chart with these rules and routines and providing verbal reminders periodically are helpful. A review may be necessary when new learners arrive or when there’s been a lapse between uses of a center.

Here are some rules and routines that have worked well in my elementary school library:

  • Begin with all learners sitting or standing in one place (story area, big spot on the carpet, or lined up).
  • List all the centers that learners can choose from that day and explain how many spots are available at each. Decide beforehand how many learners can work at each center at a time; two to four is usually appropriate. You want to ensure that enough materials are available for each learner to participate fully.
  • Explain any new centers and briefly re-explain more complicated centers. If some centers require adult supervision, mention this.
  • Select learners one at a time to choose centers. This could be done randomly, according to who has been listening most attentively, or according to a predetermined rotation.
  • Learners may take their time choosing, but once they sit down, they cannot switch to a different center for at least 10 minutes. This limitation helps prevent chaos.
  • Learners must work at their center for at least 10 minutes before requesting to switch. To do so, they must stay at the center, raise their hand, and ask to switch. They must clean up that center before switching unless they are working with a partner. In that case, learners should ask their partner if they want help cleaning up or if the partner will clean up all materials at the end.
  • Once a center is full, it’s full.
  • Learning centers are not spectator sports. Everyone has to choose a center and participate.
  • Reading is always an option. Some may choose to read books or magazines instead of choosing a learning center.
  • If learners are not behaving safely and respectfully (with materials or partners), they will be asked to leave the center.
  • The last class of the day can put the centers away.

It’s important to consider how learners can share and save their work. Many learning centers ask learners to dismantle their creations at the end, which can be heartbreaking for some. Taking photos of the creations can help tremendously. You could periodically print these photos to share with learners or to display in the school library. You could also include the photos in a newsletter or on the school library website.

Learning centers are meant to complement rather than replace other types of school library experiences. They are ideal for those weeks when learners are particularly antsy, such as before and after winter break and at the end of the school year. Regardless of space, time, and budget constraints, learning centers can be adapted to fit any school library’s needs.

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