Digital Natives Embrace Coffeehouse Culture
I’d like to make a risky statement: the school library should be replaced with a coffeehouse.
I hope that you’re either excited or upset by that idea. First, because as an architect I love that people are passionate about their ideas of what a place should be. But more importantly because there are some crucial educational principles behind my proposal.
In creating schools today, we’ve seen a shift in district philosophies toward a greater emphasis on building relationships and school community. This isn’t to say that the desire for community is new, but rather our understanding of the value of community has expanded. This shift is also occurring at the same time that we’re beginning to question the relevance of certain kinds of places, such as the library, thanks to dramatic changes in how we access stories, knowledge, and information through new technology.
Coffeehouses have transformed from a place into a culture. They are artistic and intellectual. They allow students - and all visitors - to explore their creative side by participating in open mic nights, poetry readings, book signings and art exhibitions. Coffeehouses provide a place to learn more about special interest or to collaborate on a project and the comfy furnishings create the perfect escape – be it for a few minutes or many hours.
Kids today are living in an open, collaborative world outside of school, however inside the walls of a school many students are still learning in a fragmented environment that’s increasingly incongruous with how they best learn and connect with one another. This coffeehouse culture stems from the way we live: open, interconnected, comfortable.
A coffeehouse concept allows us to simplify our designs, creating flexibility to meet various needs. Years ago, our approach to educational design was based on a singular modality – dining spaces were used for dining; classrooms were used for learning; and the auditorium was used for performing arts. Not only were these spaces separated, but often sized for utility and efficiency instead of real human interaction. Today’s concept allows us to exercise a hybrid approach to create interdisciplinary, multi-functional spaces that enrich the learning environment.
Imagine an intimate space featuring digital collaboration nodes with TV screens lining the walls, multiple seating formations, informal and formal gathering areas, a gallery to exhibit student work, and shared media options. Square footage is pulled from surrounding areas to create this in-demand coffeehouse vibe. The added bonus is that the space is a neutral zone. It is not wholly owned by students or staff. This neutrality encourages relationship building between teachers/teachers, students/students and teachers/students.
Integrating the coffeehouse culture into our schools doesn’t necessarily mean adding square footage or costs. Recapturing space that would have gone into a place that students don’t want to use unless they must – like the traditional library or cafeteria – can become a space students are eager to connect, hang out, learn, and create.
Just as exciting as the in-school use of the space itself is the opportunity for students to gain real-world experience by operating a business, and the inclusion of the whole community in a lifelong lesson. An exterior storefront could allow a coffeehouse to function independent of a school. Community members, students and staff would be welcomed as customers to the business.
As with any new concept, challenges will surface and must be addressed. I see two primary challenges that a school might face in trying to implement the coffeehouse concept, and have some ideas on how we can overcome them. The first is safety. If the coffeehouse is operated by students, and the community at large is welcome to visit, supervision is essential. The space could be connected to the marketing or business program, allowing for constant supervision from the adjacent program instructor. Or the space could be designed with an open concept, similar to a kiosk coffeehouse in an airport. A clearly defined zone outlines the coffeehouse, but the openness allows for sightlines from all corners of the school.
The second challenge is furniture, especially providing comfortable furniture that does not cause maintenance headaches. The solution is selecting types of furniture that convey the coffeehouse effect but are durable and easily maintainable. A win-win for both students and maintenance staff.
Unlike the institutional spaces that we often find in schools, the coffeehouse offers a culturally valued landing place. Such an environment might inspire students to linger in their school with friends or classmates past their 3 p.m. dismissal bell. Imagine what could happen when students, parents, teachers and community members have spaces within a school on which they can impose their own identity. After all, isn’t that part of the allure of the coffeehouse? The ability to say, “that’s my coffee shop,” and then invite others to meet you there?