Starbucks: A Model for the Future of Teaching

Post by Glenn Whitman

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In the last month, have you purchased a drink at Starbucks? In one study, it was estimated that Starbucks has 87,000 different drink combinations. For the record, I have never had a cup of coffee in my life but I do spend a lot of time in Starbucks. After I work out most mornings, I head to Starbucks and order a grande soy latte for my wife as I try to rack up good husband points. I tend to order a grande English breakfast tea for myself as well.

But recently, I was at Starbucks for a different reason, to grade the Oral History Projects for my two 11th grade history classes. At one point, I needed a break from reading some amazing interviews about 9/11, the March on Washington, and cars, to keep track of how many different orders customers requested over a 30-minute period. I stopped counting around 25. But what occurred to me was that Starbucks, maybe better than any teacher, school or other company, has mastered the art of personalization and differentiation, respecting each of us as individuals (while also exploiting our brains need for caffeine).

If Starbucks only served black coffee, equivalent to a teacher only lecturing every class period, nobody would be interested in the coffee or the class. It would go out of business. Starbucks, in my mind, is a great model for what teaching and learning should be. It honors each consumer’s individuality, drinking preferences and continually provides choice and novelty in its products. These are all things that our brains like. Starbucks also inspires creativity.

Our individual preferences, and how we see things differently, were also on display recently with the whole phenomenon around the dress. Research shows that vision trumps all other senses but we certainly do not all see the world, or a dress, the same way. I was amazed when someone asked me about the color of the dress, and I said, “Brown and Blue” and I was essentially laughed at. But both Starbucks and the dress are important reminders of how vital it is to honor and respect our individuality and the different ways each of our brains work.

Imagine for a moment if we thought of our students more as consumers, would they, if they had a chance, truly buy what they are being taught. Instead, let’s begin to share authority with our students in the design of our classes and schools. There is no question that this would enhance their intrinsic motivation but it is not new thinking. Robert Frost was famous for asking his Amherst College students, “What do you want to learn today?” Is that any different from a Starbucks barista asking each customer, “What would you like to drink?”.

So the next time you head into Starbucks, just don’t think about your drink order, think about all the ways Starbucks builds choice and differentiation into how they serve each of their customers as you consider how to bring more choice and differentiation into better serving each of your students.

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