drawing of two mugs of beer in a toast

A couple of years ago, I wrote a piece called 5 Things That Schools Can Learn From the Food Truck Phenomenon.

Some readers thought it was funny, and pertinent. I thought it was appropriate. One, I am routinely advocating for educators to look outside the field of education for ideas and innovation. Two, I loved the inspiration, innovation, creativity and customization that the food trucks were offering and wanted education to be inspired to do the same. 

Now I’m taking it one step further. I have been a craft beer lover for over 30 years. The huge and recent popularity of craft beer in America has motivated me to consider what the field of education can learn from the craft beer movement. Here are three main ideas:

1.    Keep It Simple Smarty (I never liked the word ‘stupid’)

Just like food trucks, craft beer establishments have moved in the direction of simplicity. They are only about good and unique beers. Taprooms may just be a part of a warehouse or other repurposed building, with minimal décor and simple furniture. Brewers leave things like the food to others. The current, and most successful model, is for breweries to have the food be provided by various food trucks. They don’t want to create a menu or manage a kitchen. They want to be experts in beer, not food. 

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 content standards, student needs, and various other goals. If schools could focus - or simplify if you will - students might find their schools “tastier” and they might be more successful. (Ed. Note: This is what the visionary educator Ted Sizer meant by an “essential” school.)

Schools, like breweries, cannot be good at everything. What is attractive about many charter schools, academies, pathways or magnet programs is that they have a 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 something, or being the best at anything. And most schools cannot since they don’t specialize; they generalize.

2.    People Don’t Know What They Don’t Know

Across American cities and communities, local breweries are popping up everywhere serving a variety of high quality and uniquely brewed beverages to an anxiously awaiting consumer base. But just a few years ago, most of those consumers either didn’t drink beer at all or only drank mass-produced, mass-marketed inferior beer products that shall remain nameless. How did this happen? Well, never underestimate culture and trends. But also don’t underestimate better. Once people discovered there was something better, that’s what they wanted. 

This reminds me of our mass-produced, mass-marketed educational system and curriculum.

We have the same old courses we’ve had forever, the same old classrooms, the same old textbooks (now often used digitally), the same old teacher training programs, the same old school schedules and structures, the same old compliance instead of creativity. Admittedly, there are exceptions. Some things and some schools have changed ... but certainly not everywhere and they are certainly far from being dominant.

Just like people are discovering that new-hopped IPA or fruity, tart sour beer, we are starting to see things in schools like Project Based Learning, design thinking, tech integration, micro credentials and badging, personalized learning, and more. Once the consumers - i.e., the students (maybe even teachers and parents too) - experience something better, they want more.

Once a learner experiences truly transformational learning, like creating high quality, publicly-shared projects and using professional tools/applications, they are not going to accept sitting at a desk reading a book or completing a worksheet. Just like when a local brewery-goer tastes something fresh, unique, and real, they can’t go back to something less tasty. 

3.    Make It an Experience

The craft beer movement is also about a unique social experience. In addition to having guest food trucks, many of our local breweries also offer pub quizzes, cornhole and other yard games, and live music. They make it fun to go there.

Students, too, are looking for a special experience, but this is what is missing all too often in schools.

If we don’t shoot for that each and every day, learning risks becoming rote, fleeting, meaningless, and disconnected. If most of us reflect upon our most impactful learning moments, we would identify them as experiences.

More and more, our students are searching, although sometimes it’s disguised as disengagement, for a better learning experience. That’s our challenge in education. Traditionally, the “fun” is what happens outside the learning (games, rallies, dances, etc.). But we need to make the learning part fun too, if not always then at least regularly. We don’t have to compromise rigor—just the opposite. Real rigorous learning is highly engaging, collaborative, applied, relevant, and personalized. Science supports this too. The more we are engaged, the higher the level of our learning.

Last Call

So next time you hear someone enjoying that milk stout or hazy IPA, think about all of the students in our country who have yet to experience craft education. Let’s see if our school menus - what and how students learn - can look and feel a lot more like what all the happy customers get at local microbreweries across America. 

Michael Niehoff, National Faculty
Michael Niehoff is currently the Career Services Director at the College of the Sequoias and has been a secondary educator as a teacher, advisor, director of activities, learning director and site leader.