Close your eyes and picture the school libraries you spent time in as a youth.

If we could take snapshots of every reader’s memories and compare them to each other, chances are they’d look pretty similar: Rows of thick wooden shelving piled high with books. Students sitting quietly at tables, reading independently or perhaps working together in hushed tones.

The school library was a place you came to check out books, or look up information in encyclopedias or other reference materials as you compiled a research report. Younger students would have story time, and older students might use the library for studying.

With a few notable exceptions, the advent of the Internet changed this picture only slightly. Banks of computers replaced some of the reference collections, but the basic design of school library spaces remained the same.

A Powerful Shift

Now, that has begun to change. Networked mobile devices have given students limitless access to information in the palm of their hands. With a world of information now just a click or finger swipe away, the teacher’s role is no longer just to impart information but to have students co-construct new knowledge—often in collaboration with each other. Learning is becoming more active and engaging, with students in charge of their own learning.

As teaching and learning have shifted in these fundamental ways, school libraries are transforming as well.

Active learning is an instructional approach in which students take an active and fully engaged role in their education, rather than sitting passively and absorbing information. This might involve several different kinds of activities, such as class discussions, hands-on learning, collaborative group work, or other dynamic approaches to instruction.

Active learning is more engaging than just sitting and taking notes while a teacher is talking. It’s more effective than traditional instruction, and it also helps build critical 21st-century skills that employers desire.

When students are actively engaged in their learning, they are thinking, creating, sharing, communicating, and constructing new knowledge. They are also taking ownership of their education. For these reasons, active learning is replacing the old-school “sit and get” approach to instruction in many classrooms nationwide.

For active learning to be successful, however, a number of important elements must be in place. For instance, teachers need to be taught proven strategies for leading active learning in their classrooms. They need support structures to help them implement these strategies effectively, while overcoming their fears of trying something new in front of their students. And they need the right kind of classroom environment to support and encourage active learning—which includes the design of the learning space and how student desks and tables are configured.

This guidebook aims to help K-12 leaders provide these elements. Within these pages, you’ll find information to help you create a culture and an environment in your schools that fosters active learning and enables it to flourish.