Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Should our classrooms be more like coffeehouses?

There’s been a few coffee connections in what I’ve been reading this week and it’s got me thinking.

It started with reading this entry from John Spencer in Education Rethink that a colleague sent me while I was sat in a café on Sunday morning. In it there’s the lines, “I want my classroom to feel a little more like the youth section of the library.  I want an atmosphere closer to that of Starbucks. I want it to be less like we live inside of the pages of a textbook and more like we are a living ecosystem.” As someone who’s been trying to rethink the role and relevance of our library,is interested in classroom environments as well as having a penchant for a decent brew this was an interesting notion. Should our classrooms be modeled on cafes?

It stemmed from the author’s visit to his own local library; “Visit the youth sections of the Phoenix Public Library and it no longer feels like a library. It is not cold. It is not sterile. It is not silent. Books are everywhere, but they are displayed prominently like one would see in a book store. There are tables and bean bags and multi-height chairs. Kids want to go to that library and kids want to stay once they are there. And, despite the lack of silence, kids are reading.” Much like the café culture coffee house, there’s a range of seating, and the general impression is one of comfort, and conversation. And sure enough as I sat there, one look around shows that people are absorbed in reading, conversation and coffee.

What I like about the idea is the parallel to an ecosystem, the idea that the classroom is an organically growing environment, and one can imagine it, fertile with questions, discussions, connections and meaning making. Spaces like this are by there very nature collaborative spaces, not silent “I spaces”, but “We spaces”, characterized by active metacognition and reflection, authentic contexts, students building on their passions, peer and group feedback, and by teachers who know when to cause learning and when to stand back.

And this is where the coffee connection comes in. Jonah Lehrer, in Imagine: How creativity works, draws on the example of the Pixar Animation Studios in order to illustrate the power of collaboration. He talks about spaces such as the coffee bars, the art gallery, and watering holes being hugely collaborative spaces. The spaces at Pixar were strategically designed and positioned in order to encourage just this- extensions of the office. Not that all conversations and connections were of huge significance- just that some of them were. People constantly talked about what they were doing, the problems they were facing and spent time talking with colleagues that they wouldn't, in a more traditional setting, talk to. Kursty Groves in I wish I worked there, refers to much the same idea, in that the innovative businesses she visited all contained components of spaces to collaborate, spaces to reflect, spaces to play and spaces to stimulate.

Ray Oldenburg, whom Lehrer refers to talks about these spaces as ‘third places’ – interactive environments that are not the home, or the office - spaces that bring together diverse talents and view points. And he cites the eighteenth century coffee house as a great example, places where people gathered to discuss politics, science and literature. Which brings me to a paper that a principal on the Gold Coast sent me last week and which, until this point, had remained, unread, in my bag.

Erica McWilliam’s takes the coffee house notion a stage further and suggests that in terms of environments for enculturating lifelong learning, there is much that we can learn from the coffee houses of nineteenth century Britain: “The café provided a convivial space, a place of sociability, learning and public display where social learning opportunities transcended class barriers” (p. 258). They were spaces where customers, (and yes they were mainly men back then), came to discuss, read or be read to, share opinion and conversation and of course to drink coffee. Isaac Newton, according to the piece, apparently even dissected a dolphin in a London coffee house. Quite what dialogue was going on prior to that is anyone’s guess and one could anticipate a number of problems in the local Starbucks. But perhaps it simply illustrates the fact that these were seen as centres of learning.

And this is where McWilliam’s main point lies- the notion that in fact that seen alongside the mandated, foundational education of the school, it is actually the more bespoke, self- selected and sociable learning space of the café that serves as a more appropriate model for lifelong learning. She suggests that traditionally schools have been places of curriculum delivery, of socialization and places that shift children from home to the workplace: “… schools have done important work, but they have not, until now, been expected, or expected themselves, to take responsibility for the sort of learning that was made possible in the space of the café.”  (p.  259). The space best suited to lifelong learning now, she suggests, lies at the intersection of the two.

So what does it mean for the space, and where are the parallels with what John Spencer was talking about in his blog? McWilliam suggests that what we can learn from café society is about the discretion people have about when and how they learn. It’s about the messages that a student receives upon arriving in a space. It tell them a lot about what they can expect. Coffee houses aimed to be invitational spaces of ‘physical and mental comfort’, engaging spaces- places of “pleasurable learning affordances” (p. 266). How then can we mirror this in our classrooms? Is it about the aesthetics, seating, the layout and volume of furniture, the design of spaces to encourage active dialogue and collaboration? Or perhaps it’s more about personalizing learning and the parallels with engaging with lifelong learning.

Certainly it’s an interesting notion to be wondering about on a Sunday morning over a good flat white. Enough then for the time being, time for a coffee. Now where did I put that dolphin?


Groves, K. (2010). I wish I worked there! A look inside the most creative spaces in business. Chichester: Wiley

Lehrer, J. (2012). Imagine: How creativity works. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

McWilliam, E. (2011). From school to cafe and back again: responding to teh learning demands of the twenty-first century. International Journal of Leadership in Education: Theory and Practice, 14(3), 257-268.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, this was a well-researched and well-thought-out post. I've never thought that deeply about the cafe culture, but I get it. It makes sense. For what it's worth, I think the opening up of space is just part of the changing in a curriculum.