I like coffee. No – let me rephrase that – I LOVE coffee. It plays a big part in my teaching – at times providing a versatile prop for explaining the difference between an object and operation, at others simply providing the nervous energy to keep the learners learning. (I’ve been re-reading #MoveMeOn, curated by Doug Belshaw @dajbelshaw. thanks to @frankcrawford for that particular gem!)
I managed to clear my desk on Thursday earlier than planned so took the opportunity to walk around the three shopping malls near my new workplace. Not just to kill time (heaven forbid Mr McCormac!), I wanted to expand an ongoing series of lessons on data protection and loyalty schemes I had delivered to my S4 ICT class earlier in the term and me having an up-to-date knowledge of the businesses in the local area was a pre-requisite. It didn’t take long to complete what I needed to do (UK shopping malls or shopping centres are much smaller than in the US with perhaps 20-40 stores, some smaller) so I had a quick stop at the Apple store in Aberdeen to eavesdrop of a group of six pensioners who were being shown how to use their brand new iPads then started my lunch break at the nearby Starbucks with a crème brulee macchiatto and a quick refresh of my social media sites on their free wi-fi.
It was a lot busier than usual – I had, in the past, only used this particular Starbucks as a go-to when late afternoon trains were cancelled and I had an hour or so to kill before the next one – but I found a small table with plenty of scope for people-watching. The coffee-house furniture is a mixture of hard back chairs and small “regular” tables, sofa chairs and low tables, benches and long tables, stools and narrow bars. Students, parents, office workers and transients like myself sat and chatted, read quietly, enjoyed their purchases and from time-to-time accessed their devices if they had them and if they needed to. A few of my Advanced Higher Computing students had had a similar idea to my own, joined me at my table (they asked first!) and then… we had a fantastic unplanned seminar on what had been taught over the past few weeks, about mobile apps, about Steve Jobs, about programming, about social media, and then finally about learning spaces! During this enthralling conversation (I think we all learned a lot in this half-hour) one asked why schools didn’t create spaces like this and I saw immediately what he meant because it had been percolating in my head at that moment too. Why can’t we all have learning rooms where the furniture offers visitors choice of working areas, where the wireless Internet access is a background consideration that “just works with a quick log-in”, where there isn’t a designated space for the teacher to lecture from, where learning becomes personalised? All three of us had mobile devices on the table between the cups and plates and augmented our conversation with these when we needed to: I showed them Twitter for example and explained why it was such a great resource for me to make contact with others who share similar interests. I posted this tweet:
Coffee chains have undoubtedly studied the effect of their environment on their customers from a financial point of view and have generally come to the conclusion that a varied, customisable, slightly eclectic environment is the worm that keeps us on the hook. So who is doing this for education? There are educators in each authority, in roles from classroom to management, who are striving to find the best furniture or layout for existing classrooms. Most of us tend to tinker with our rooms if we can. But if you’ll indulge the point of view of a Computing teacher for a moment (well you’ve got this far!) this may be the problem – moving the furniture in any space which has been built to deliver the Victorian model of education has inherent restrictions but when you also have electrical equipment, cables and power sockets to worry about you really can’t change very much without the firm belief and financial support of your school management team. And then you move on and the next teacher has a different idea… it’s really not that feasible an option for any subject with fixed resources.
But why do they have to be fixed? Hasn’t the last decade of technical innovation shown that mobile devices are here to stay? That an increasing number of learners arrive in classrooms with devices that can easily be personalised to suit their learning, rather than forcing the learner to make use of a machine set up to a generic specification? Are educators really, as a group, nervous about losing control?
And who is studying the effect of the coffee shop environment on learners? Well, a few have come to my attention. I stumbled on a paper whilst writing this blog post called “The Classroom Coffeehouse” which focusses on reworking the layout of an English classroom to promote sharing of written work between New Jersey 8th graders – well worth a read! Also highly recommended is the well-considered post “The Coffee Shop: A Classroom for Creativity, Reflections from a Coffee Shop in Harbin, China“. The Edinburgh Coffee Morning model is something which I envied a few years ago while at Inverurie and provides a nice text break below!
Last night I read Angela Maiers’ post “What If You Knew You Mattered?” where she describes an increasingly common experience of customer non-service where recognition of failure and empathy with the customer would do much more than a discount voucher. It’s at the core of GIRFEC policy for teachers to make their learners feel included and respected while at the same time encouraging their development as respectful and inclusive citizens. The two words “you matter” apply to each young person who steps into your classroom, but if you are delivering your education as if you were working a conveyor belt at a factory when do you have the time to make sure your well planned generic summaries (and even the differentiated materials) are actually arriving at their destination? Through spending some time listening to the learners and learning something new yourself. Where better than the relaxed environment of a coffee shop?
I’m not advocating that we all abandon our classrooms for the nearest coffee chain but that school leaders and decision makers take a look around the wider world and really see what engages people. I highly recommend you view the articles, blog posts and videos I’ve linked to if you are in any way interested in developing mobile learning, and please suggest more using the comments option below! I am already planning to make this chance meeting a more formal part of my teaching at upper secondary level in the next term and although, yes, it will be more work initially filling in risk assessments and carefully planning my mobile lessons and – depending on the numbers – speaking nicely to the manager of the coffee shop! Escaping the classroom might be just what our learners need, and all it took was a coffee.