Schools Need to Work More Like Coffee Shops

August 27th, 2012

Category: Policy and Practice

As technology proliferates and continually increases our ability to personalize learning for every student, educators can use this opportunity to completely rethink everything from school design to instructional formats to the tools utilized for instruction, according to a blog post on NPR’s KQED.

The blog post documents the transformation of the Hartland-Lakeside school district in Wisconsin from an industrialized model of desks in rows with the teacher up front lecturing to a classroom organization that better enabled differentiated instruction. The article highlights how the district didn’t try to squeeze different components into their current classroom structure; instead, they redesigned the school ecosystem. As I read the blog post and looked at the pictures, I thought of my time in graduate school, my experiences here at Rodel, and how my work in these environments more closely mirrored that of a coffee shop than a traditional row of desks.

As any graduate student will tell you, there are times when you’re sipping coffee late at night as you read a recently released study to bolster your argument for a final paper and others where you’re asking how to input a regression formula into excel. Or, in my case now at Rodel, there are times when I am at Brew HaHa writing for this blog or in a meeting with my team talking about our roles at an upcoming event. As my experience and those of the students the article highlights, both of these situations are not uncommon and require completely different learning environments, one in which you can constantly change in order to meet the needs of students at that the moment. And while the article no doubt documents ways in which educators and students can rethink how this redesign impacts classroom design, the more important thread that underlies this is how teaching will change as a result. In a constantly changing environment where students move in and out of groups and assignments, educators are no longer the deliverer of content, but facilitators of learning.

This sentiment was perfectly captured in an article highlighted on our blog previously, in which Atul Gawande, giving the commencement speech to the Harvard Medical School, stated that, “we train, hire, and pay doctors to be cowboys. But it’s pit crews people need.” While not the medical profession, the parallels to education are clear – rather than thinking of teachers as individual islands within a school, we need to reorient our thinking and focus on building teams of teachers (and the spaces they work in) who work with kids in varied and constantly changing ways in order to meet their needs.

While an intuitive concept, it can be hard to imagine; however, the work of Opportunity Culture highlights what this could look like in practice. It can range from having a teacher work with small groups on a rotating basis to one teacher being responsible for and monitoring other educators. While no doubt benefitting students as they learn and move through content at their own pace and style, another benefit would be to redesign educator responsibilities to reflect their strengths. For example, a teacher who is great at motivating struggling students could work in small groups or one-on-one while another who can explain content clearly and concisely could be responsible for delivering content. For all this to work, as the article highlights, we need to start thinking of classrooms as coffee shops – one in which it’s not static but continually evolving – which includes everything from the teacher down to the pieces of furniture. 

Looking at the picture of Hartland-Lakeside online, I’m hopeful that every Delaware kid will have the opportunity to attend a school that looks like that in the near future – one in which the design better enables every student to learn and prepares him or her for what they might experience not only in college, but in his or her career afterwards.

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Brett Turner



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