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.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A library or no library... that is the question

Our library is one of those spaces in school that continues to intrigue me in terms of its purpose and role in today’s 21st Century learning environments. At times I walk in and see it’s a hub of activity and learning - often at lunchtimes and when teachers are working in there with groups of children. But at other times when no one is in there I find myself reflecting on how else we might better use the space. Could it be a media centre, a recording studio complete with green screen, a performance space or perhaps something else entirely?

But would we want to loose the library entirely? And if we were going to replace it with something else, we would need to be very clear on the why, and to identify what we might be losing in the process.

There are, as I see it, three main roles that the library performs. One with the library as a service, where students go to help build knowledge and make meaning, a place where they can find new directions in inquiries, and a space where a skilled teacher/ librarian can help support and make those connections with them. Secondly a place to simply get absorbed in reading, in learning to love turning the pages of an inspiring book, and to help develop a deep love of books and literacy. And thirdly the idea of the library as a sanctuary (see previous post) – a place that’s sought out at breaktimes as a calm alternative to racing around outside or kicking a ball on the field.

Over the past few weeks we’ve spoken with a number of principals and visited a number of schools that have approached the library in slightly different ways. It’s interesting to see what they’ve done.

Consider one school for example that has taken the concept of the library and had divided it up. The space that previously had been a traditional library had been converted into a comfortable space with bean bags and soft furnishings, and was home to newly acquired books as well as graphic novels and picture books. At lunchtime it was a busy place with children absorbed in reading and sharing the new titles. These were not titles that could be borrowed yet – instead set aside for literary lunchtime  grazing. Material that could be borrowed was in the main collection. This however was split up amongst the different learning houses around school – shared spaces with 120 plus children in each. Here the books were set out in more traditional library shelves, accessioned and categorised and at times reallocated to a different space by the library technician. Students could borrow the books using the self-issuing system in each of the rooms. And if they were looking for something specific, and it wasn’t in their learning house, the catalogue would tell them where they could find it.

A second school, with open learning spaces, had positioned the library at the centre of the school; it was a room without walls and a space where children, by nature of its very position, circulated through on route to their learning areas. Being in close proximity to the learning spaces meant that it became an extension of the class space and it’s tables were full of children absorbed in their learning. There was still a librarian though, responsible for accessioning, displays and working alongside children.

In questioning the length of time involved in covering, cataloguing and barcoding books, one principal we spoke with recently has decided to forgo the administration of the library and accept the potential losses that may ensue. He had discovered that only 20% of the collection was borrowed regularly and had calculated the cost of employing someone to do all of the work necessary to get the new books on the shelves. Instead he took a group of students to a bookshop along with three thousand dollars, got them to purchase coffee table books that would interest and inspire them, and then put them through the learning centres. The books are all now where students can easily access and read them and is reliant on a high trust model of issuing and returning.

Another school, again with the cost of covering and administration in mind, is looking at purchasing books and putting them into learning spaces with no covering and no cataloguing. The theory being that if a percentage are lost, then it is still only a fraction of someone’s salary to replace them. And also if they are sitting at home and a student is reading them, is that too bad a thing?

What you give up by not cataloging books is the knowledge management side of being able to find something you’re looking for - the ‘library as a service’ function. It means that if a student is interested in for example, frogs, they are unable to go onto a catalogue and pull up all the resource that the school has. That said, you could argue there are so many web based materials offering more up to date content that it’s not necessary anymore anyway.

Library or no library will, I think, be a conundrum that schools, and perhaps new schools in particular, will take time to resolve. Schools will have their own philosophies on how they will be staffed, how they will be used and where the emphasis will be placed. I think it’s probably most important for schools to decide on the most important elements in their particular context, setting and school, whether it’s about the library being a service, a place to learn to love reading, or a sanctuary - and then to take those elements and do them really well.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Open Learning Spaces Professional Learning Group: The great leap forward

Exciting news for the Open Learning Spaces PLG group this term as we take the dialogue into the secondary school context.

The next get together will be on Thursday September 6th at Albany Senior High School

We'll kick of the workshop at 4.30pm but if you're keen for a look around (highly recommended), then make sure you're there about 4. 

What's it all about?
The PLG started last year as a place for teachers to talk to teachers about learning, teaching and collaboration in modern learning environments. With many schools investigating open learning spaces, what are the opportunities and challenges that they present? What can we learn from each other about as we seek to maximise the benefits of these new spaces? The PLG provides a great opportunity to talk with other teachers and leaders who are either already in open learning spaces, are about to embark on new buildings or conversions, or simply those who share an interest. The group has grown from 10 to 45 over the year with teachers from about 15 different schools participating. 

What can you expect?
The meetings are a combination of short presentations, workshops and dialogue. There's always afternoon tea and a good opportunity to network with other teachers. They usually last about 90 minutes.

How do I get involved?
The website is now up and running with details of registration and previous meetings. It's free to come along and if you register it helps with the catering.

If you know anyone who may also be interested in getting involved in the group, please pass the details on. All are welcome.
If you have any questions. feedback or suggestions for the PLG, these are welcomed too - just email

Look forward to seeing you there.

Image retrieved from