“The challenge today is shifting schools from a schooling culture to a learning culture”

Earlier in the year I was fortunate enough to attend a session from the IB 2016 Speaker Series – Inquiry Learning in a digital environment: differentiation and the new routines – Dr Erica McWilliam. My initial thoughts for the evening were, that I would take home some innovative ways to implement inquiry based learning with the use of technology. I was at first I was disappointed that this was not the case, despite this, I was very quickly transported to a situation where my head was exploding with pedagogy to ‘test’ upon returning to the classroom.

McWilliam explored the concept that historically schools were about custody, training and preparing students for industrial work. This is stark contrast to the origin of life long learning the ‘coffee house – the cafe’.

Typical London coffee house in the 18th century

People went to coffee houses to learn, they paid a penny, sat at round tables and shared with people from all walks of life. There was always dialogue, those who were illiterate were read to by others, young men visited the coffee house to be introduced to new people – they were places to debate and discuss.

So the question stands – what does it mean for us as teachers in today’s society to provide a learning environment? A place of collaboration, dialogue equity of learning and people of aspiration.

Creativity and routines are important, inquiry based learning should not be about giving students one question and then leaving them astray from there, we all need routines.

For cafe learning to work we need to see less:

  • Content delivery
  • Linear cumulative ‘telling’
  • Teacher as the authority
  • PowerPoint  and fact sheets
  • Staying with one discipline
  • Correct answer assessments
  • Truth mode pedagogy

And more:

  • Meta questions to open up a conceptual field
  • Sub questions for wide and deep scrutiny
  • Collaboration is the dominant pedagogy strategy
  • Opportunities for disciplinary boarder crossing
  • Holistic assessment/student designed evaluations
  • Design mode pedagogy

I certainly took home a few key ideas to bring back to my classroom, but the most simple yet effective was to let my students have access to the ideas and thoughts of their peers. Often as teachers we try to orchestrate who gets to answer questions and avoid allowing the same student to always answer. At first it was hard to not let the regulars always answer, but over time I watched their peers learn from their learning. Soon we had more students contributing to classroom content as confidence and trust slowly built between them.

Over the past term I have implemented many different ways to explore cafe learning in my classroom, at first students were angry and frustrated that they were being challenged. A term later we have a different group of students who take more ownership of their learning and have become ‘fussy’ if their learning isn’t collaborative or inquiry based! Read below for an example of ‘real cafe’ learning in PDHPE.

Off to the Cafe we go!

As teachers here in the city often grabbing a coffee is our only chance to grab some fresh air, have a conversation with our barista about the day ahead or the weather. So much that we develop quite a rapport with the bearded man who greets us with a smile and a cup of liquid gold at our times in need. Joe – my local barista at Part One Espresso on Kent Street kindly agreed to give up his cafe space for an hour to enable me to practice the cafe learning for real!


Prior to the real ‘cafe learning’ I had done a few lessons in class where the students were given collaborative tasks in which they had to share their ideas and knowledge about certain topics. Visual thinking routines were commonly used to start conversations. Students were made aware that at any stage they could change groups should they wish to learn new things or share their knowledge if they heard another group talking about something of interest to them.

In preparation for the cafe lesson I had made colored newspapers using book creator app which had content about various Australian Olympic athletes, given we were exploring the components of fitness. I had also made some matching card games to play to revise content as they drank their coffee and had breakfast.

While a lot of planning took place to ensure the students were busy and on their best behavior in public, this was not necessary. They all took up different seats at the cafe and read their newspapers, asked questions about the components of fitness, at one stage they were using post it notes to stick to the wall above their table to express their ideas and understanding. We had a central space for posting questions. Much to the student’s excitement members of the public were asking what they were doing, to which they replied, ‘we are learning – in the cafe’.

My first experience of ‘real’ cafe learning was not necessarily seamless – mainly due to the excitement of being out of the classroom, however it certainly was successful. The learning that took place and the mature approach to collaboration, in particular an open public space left both the students and I on a natural high as we walked back to school. I am constantly asked if we can go back to the cafe, we often have cafe learning in our classroom on a budget with Tim Tams and the real cafe experience is now a reward each term.

Being a city school I look forward to finding more places to take my students to learn under a ‘cafe’ concept where they can share their learning among each other and professionals within our city.