What can food trucks teach us about project-based learning?

When we think of innovative companies, it’s easy to imagine an open-air tech startup with ping pong tables and free drinks and huge windows and chairs so modern you’re not sure how you’re supposed to sit in them or look at them. Sometimes I look at those spaces and think, “Man, I wish schools were more like this.” But they’re not. Schools don’t have millions in startup money flowing into making the spaces perfect. And, while these companies often look amazing, many of the startups go bankrupt within the first three years.

Meanwhile, some of the most innovative ideas are happening in a much more humble environment — in greasy, tiny kitchens parked by the side of busy streets. If you want to find innovation, look no further than your local food truck. That’s right. Food trucks. See, food trucks continue to redefine the way we view food through a fusion of flavors that are unabashedly different than typical restaurant flair. Unlike the massive tech startup world, food trucks are often nimble, small, and focused on a very distinct mission.

It has me thinking about the “food truck approach” looks like when teachers are implementing PBL units.

The Food Truck Mindset

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The Biggest Myths About PBL

When I was in the eighth grade, I had this epic History Day project that changed my life forever. I owned the entire process, which means I conducted interviews, did research, crafted a script, and ultimately put together a multimedia presentation. I had always been great at playing the game of school. However, this was different. This was disruptive. I engaged in critical thinking and creativity and in the process, I learned project management, communication, and story-telling. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, that experience is why I became a middle school teacher.

And yet, when I first began as a teacher, I didn’t embrace project-based learning. Don’t get me wrong. My students completed projects. However, they were always culminating projects we would get to if we had extra time. I chose the end product and reverse engineered it for them with detailed step-by-step instructions. I set tight parameters so they would know exactly what to do. In other words, these weren’t projects. They were recipes.

The truth is, I was afraid. I had bought into seven big lies about PBL. I assumed students wouldn’t pass the test and that I would be reprimanded as a result. Besides, I didn’t have the best high-tech gadgetry. I believed there wasn’t enough time for it and I assumed that the curriculum map was too tight. I couldn’t imagine how I would get every student to participate. But these weren’t actually external barriers. This was a failure of imagination. The problem wasn’t with the system. The problem was with me.

But then we had our food truck moment. I took the most low-risk week of the year (testing week) to pilot a documentary project. We went small with the project. Students interviewed immigrants in our community and put together a documentary called Voices of the Immigrants. After the week was up, I had students coming in before and after school to edit their videos. They were hooked. And so was I. It was the start of a bigger journey that ultimately led to a full embrace of the PBL process.

However, it didn’t start out that way. It started out humbly, like a food truck. We had limited options, limited technology, and limited time. We didn’t have a green screen or a multimedia studio. Instead, kids had to film the videos on their cell phones, at a time when cell phones were not that great at capturing video. We shared our work early and revised on the fly, often sharing segments in smaller multimedia packages in a blog that we created. We brought the learning out into the community. In other words, we were food trucking it the whole time.

What can food trucks teach us about project-based learning?

It’s easy in PBL to get fixated on the stuff. Check out a school where the entire approach is PBL. Visit a makerspace or a fab lab or a multimedia studio and see how they have redesigned the space to maximize the quality of their projects. This can feel inspiring. However, while there’s nothing wrong with these examples, we often have to work within tighter constraints. We don’t always have the same resources or school systems that encourage PBL. But this is where we could learn a thing or two from food trucks. They are nimble, creative, and deeply connected to the community — all things that we need to be in order to engage in authentic PBL. So, with that in mind, here are six things we could learn from food trucks.

1. Start with empathy.

Food trucks begin with a place of empathy. The best chefs are developing new recipes because they know their customers. They’ve built a relationship with people and developed a tribe of loyal fans. This doesn’t mean they create exactly what their customers are asking for. Nor does it mean they start out with a specific survey. Often, they will create recipes that surprise people. But the focus is on this deeply human connection with the customer.

The same is true of authentic PBL. This is one of the reasons I love design thinking. Students might begin with a problem, a natural phenomenon, or a scenario. However, somewhere in the Look, Listen, and Learn phase, they begin to build empathy with their audience. The end result is something more powerful and meaningful both for the audience and for the students.

I remember encouraging empathy in a design-oriented project. We were trying to tackle the problem of graffiti in our school. One group wanted to create a wall that would spraypaint anyone who tried to tag it up. I’m pretty sure that would have been illegal. Another group focused on better security cameras. However, one group began in an unlikely place — empathy with graffiti artists. This group pitched a unique idea. What if we painted murals? See, they learned that the graffiti artists and tagging crews in the area had a respect for art. This group thought that a mural would go untouched. It was risky. If the wall was tagged up, students would be crushed. And yet, it worked. For the next three years, we ended up painting tons of murals. But it began with empathy.

Last night, I had the chance to participate in an IMMOOC discussion. Dr. Eric Chagala and Dr. Kaleb Rashad have both done amazing design thinking work with their faculty despite working in very different contexts. Yet, both of them spoke about the power of empathy as the starting place for innovation.

2. Focus on the community.

One of my all-time favorite food trucks was a barbecue place in Austin. I wish I could remember the name. I know, there are about a million barbecue food trucks in Austin. However, there was something powerful about the vibe created by having a restaurant right there in the middle of the community. This food created a vibrant atmosphere that was part of the larger community. By the way, this is also why I love when symphonies do flash mobs and when artists take their work out into the community instead of only staying inside of a museum.

My favorite student projects are also the ones that connect to the community. My friend Trevor Muir did this epic World War II documentary project. His students went out to nursing homes and veterans homes to interview former soldiers. They continued to connect with the community in their final launch, where they called around to every movie theater in Grand Rapids until they were able to get a place that would donate a screen. In other words, they had a food truck mindset. They focused on ways they could go into the community rather than confining the project to the walls of their classroom.

3. Learn by launching.

Food trucks often allow a chef to continue to improve on his or her craft by learning through making. You figure out if it works by sending it to a real audience. Part of why food trucks can experiment so well is that they are moving through the design cycle faster than a typical restaurant. They are able to test things out to a real audience and see if it works. Schools can easily get bogged down by meetings where they are planning about planning. But if they take this “ship earlier” approach, they can test things, modify them, and then create a new iteration faster.

Too often, as a teacher, I created larger, elaborate projects for students, but they never went anywhere. We never launched to an authentic audience.  Our work was confined to our own classroom walls. But on those times when we did share our work with an audience, students were more engaged and worked harder. There was more at stake and, as a result, they were more likely to modify their projects and move through iterative thinking.

This was one of the key reasons A.J. Juliani and I developed the LAUNCH Cycle:

As students launch, modify, and re-launch, they also learn the value of pivoting.

4. Pivot like crazy.

Because food trucks are smaller and they have less financial risk, they are able to stay lean. This allows them to change things up whenever they need to. The best food trucks learn the art of pivoting — where you keep one foot on the things you are doing really well and then move around, trying new things out and seeing if they work.

This was a hard lesson for me as a teacher. I struggled with this idea that projects are iterative and that sometimes you have to pivot. You attempt something and then you take a hard turn in another direction. It can be frustrating and even messy. However, in the end, you are able to figure out what works. This can be challenging as a teacher. You want projects that run smoothly. However, when you model this type of flexible thinking, your students are then able to engage in iterative thinking as well.

This type of flexible thinking is vital for students. Someday, they will work in an unpredictable global economy and they’ll need to be nimble. When they create real projects in the real world, they will run into challenges and they’ll need to solve problems rapidly as they innovate.  One of my favorite student examples happened a few weeks ago. I got the chance to participate in a two-day design challenge at St. John’s – Ravenscourt in Winnipeg. As students moved through the prototyping phase, they sometimes abandoned their idea for something new. I watched one group growing frustrated as they struggled to find a solution to a pressing problem. I remember thinking, “Maybe this isn’t working. Maybe I should help them.” But then, minutes later, they were cheering and giving high-fives. Because they pivoted, they designed something far more creative.

5. Embrace Creative Constraint

Some of the best food trucks embrace an idea of creative constraint. They will use only local ingredients. Or, because of their size, they will limit the number of items on their menu. Typically, they don’t have the same equipment as a traditional restaurant. In some cases, they’ll take a Chopped-like approach and ask people to give them specific ingredients they must work with. In the process, they design something more creative. This constraint pushes them to create something quirky and weird for a smaller audience actually turns out to be the very thing that allows them to reach a massive audience. Some of the best restaurants I’ve been to began as food trucks. They grew slowly, spending months or even years in an incubation period where they were able to take creative risks with their menus.

This is the core idea behind creative constraint:

The same is true in project-based learning. Limitations can be frustrating. You are stuck with a tight curriculum map when you really just want the freedom to create a project with a blank canvas. Then there’s the time constraints and the lack of resources. However, every roadblock is a chance to innovate.

I remember wanting to do blogging projects with my students. However, I had this four-hour block that had to include an hour of grammar. Plus, I still had to teach reading, writing, math, social studies, and science. But this constraint pushed me to find new ideas and suddenly I realized I could treat the grammar structures as a design feature rather than a barrier. I would incorporate verb tense structures into choice-based student blogging projects. In the end, students mastered their grammar while doing their Geek Out Blogs. We were food-trucking it.

6. Be unabashedly geeky about your craft.

Food truck owners tend to be unabashedly geeky (even to the point of snobbery) about great cuisine. This devotion to craft is the difference between viewing food as fuel or food as an artform. The same thing is true with project-based learning. This is chance to geek out on your craft. Share your passion for what the students are learning and create an environment where kids are excited about each little discovery they are making.

One of the first things I notice in a quality PBL classroom is that students have embraced the idea that it’s okay to be geeky. It’s more than that. they’ve embraced the idea that it’s fun to geek out on creativity and learning. They are pushing back on the narrative that school is boring and irrelevant. They’re not asking “how will I use this?” or even “will this be on the test?” because they’re too excited about solving problems and designing products.

This is one of the reasons I love Genius Hour. It’s a chance for students to engage in projects that begin with their passions, interests, and hidden knowledge.

Some students might geek out on Minecraft and others on fashion. Not everyone is going to share the same interests. But that’s okay. Your classroom becomes a Foodtruck Row, packed with different quirky flavors and unified by a common sense of craft and artistry.

Find the Food Trucks

Innovation is happening all over the place. Teachers are experimenting with new ideas. They’re embracing project-based learning and design thinking. In the process, they’re empowering their students to own the learning. In other words, they are creating their own food trucks and serving something a million times better than the fast food factory fare of traditional schooling. So, find the other food carts and get to know the chefs. Create your own communities. Partner up with like-minded creative risk-takers at your school and start a movement.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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4 responses

  1. […] What can food trucks teach us about project-based learning? – John Spencer […]

  2. […] bigger picture. Loved his latest blog, What can food trucks teach about project-based learning? (http://www.spencerauthor.com/food-truck-pbl/)! The Buck Institute for Education also has great resources to support a start-up with PBL. You can […]

    1. Awesome! I first wrote about this idea two years ago. I think it’s a metaphor we have both embraced for awhile. Here’s where I first wrote about it: http://www.spencerauthor.com/the-food-truck-mindset/

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