5 things schools can learn from food trucks

By Michael Niehoff 6/2/2017 Personalized learning

Unless you’ve been hiding out in the Appalachians or something, you’ve probably noticed the proliferation of food trucks over the past couple of years. Food trucks and mobile food carts are popular because they offer an easy and affordable way to sample an array of cuisine on the go. 

In my own town, we have several special events based on food trucks as well as several new bars or pubs that allow the carts to serve as their mobile kitchens.

This trend has me thinking about what educators could learn from food trucks. Here are five ideas schools could borrow from the food truck industry.

1.  Simplicity. Because food trucks are small and compact, they have to keep their menus simple. They cannot prepare an exhaustive list of dishes, so they stick to a handful of menu items and do them really well. People flock to food trucks because they know what they want and what they’ll get.  

Schools have long suffered from trying to do – or offer – too many things. Most schools have dozens and dozens of programs, initiatives and plans all trying to address hundreds of standards, needs and goals. If schools could focus – or simplify, if you will – they might find their schools tastier and maybe more successful.

2.  Specialization. Along the lines of simplification, there is specialization. Schools, like food vendors, cannot be great at everything. All of us need to figure out what we do best and do that. Charter schools are attractive to many people because of their focus or specialization. They don’t do everything, but get very good at something. Too many of our schools are not known for being really good at any one thing because they don’t specialize, they generalize.

My last school focused on the arts and agriculture. Those two subjects were foundational and thematic throughout the entire school. But a specialty doesn’t have to be curricular. Maybe it’s a unique schedule, technology, work-based learning, community partners, pedagogy or a leadership model.

The ISTE Standards for Students focus on empowering learners and learning with technology. What if your school focused on democratization where student voice and choice governed the curriculum, instruction and more? Technology offers great opportunities for personalize learning. Students can choose from project menus or design their own projects. 

Think about any school, program or organization that you admire. You admire them because they’re exceptional at something. And they’re exceptional because it’s their thing – it’s their specialty. Schools can’t do it all, or at least do it all well.

3.  Fun. Why do we visit a food truck when we could just as easily go to a restaurant? Certainly food trucks are convenient, but many food truck diners are also after an experience that is fun and social. Schools should be the same way. Food tastes better when we’re having fun. We also learn at higher levels when we’re enjoying ourselves.

What if we mixed it up a little, or even a lot? How are our classrooms, buildings and school facilities decorated? Do they feel like a great place to hang out or like a penal institution? Do they have comfortable, contemporary furniture, art and amenities?

Why can’t we bring the Starbucks vibe to our libraries and cafeterias? It’s no coincidence that giants like Google, Apple and others have created work spaces that are not only productive, but fun. It’s really about the culture. When people enjoy themselves, they are more creative, invested and collaborative.

Our schools should be vibrant places complete with lots of visitors, new ideas, surprises, new technology and equipment – a fun place where students want to be (not have to be).

4.  Flexibility: Food trucks come to you. Whether it’s at a concert, a pub, a special event, a game, or the workplace, they bring their cuisine to where the customers are. This allows you to enjoy their food in many different environments. Schools and educators could learn a great deal from this.

Students should be learning outside the classroom in environments that are authentic and engaging, like field trips to community locations and industrial complexes, field study, internships, externships, work-based learning and more.

Even simple tweaks, like taking students outside, can inspirelearning and engage students. Technology allows our students to access our curriculum and programs anywhere and anytime. Create flexible and individual environments, assessments and projects that extend beyond the walls of the classroom, and your students will be clamoring for more.

5.  Experiential: More than anything, food trucks offer an experience – the place, the people, the unique moment. Because food trucks tend to be simple, specialized, social, fun, flexible and mobile, they create a unique experience each time. This is often what is missing in schools. Learning should be an experience. If we don’t shoot for that each and every day, then learning becomes fleeting, meaningless and disconnected. Maybe it’s time we changed the menu.

ISTE member Michael Niehoff has been an educator for 25 years. He is the founding principal of the award-winning project-based Minarets High School. He is a regular blogger, a Google Certified Innovator, a CUE Lead Learner and a Buck Institute National Faculty Member. Follow him on Twitter @mwniehoff.

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