Friday / June 14

Think Starbucks! Learning Spaces That Students Love

If people ask me how we should redesign learning spaces today, I say, “Think Starbucks!”


Stroll into any Starbucks located near a high school or university, and you’ll find students plopped down in its big chairs and couches as they text, surf, study, or just hang out. Lots of times you can’t even get a seat because of all the students. It’s their cool place.

When Starbucks first unleashed its earth tones and cozy furniture on America, it wanted your visit to be more than a trip—it wanted you to have a 10 minute mental vacation: “Have a seat. Sip some exotic coffee. Listen to our hip music. Relax for a few minutes…” Most adult coffee lovers divide their lives into two parts: before and after Starbucks. They remember the generic coffee poured by aproned waitresses in booth-filled diners—and then a Starbucks opened down the street and the Waffle House became just a place to get waffles.

But today’s kids? All they’ve known is Starbucks. This generation is growing up with touch pads—and they are growing up in Starbucks.

Educators should take note: Starbucks has created an environment where students can comfortably work alone or in groups, can text, surf, watch video, and  go online and do their school work. Our students accommodate us by sitting in straight rows in our classrooms, but when they get to Starbucks after school they enter their natural environment—and probably become much more creative.

If we could take some of the Starbucks concepts and incorporate them into our learning space and teaching strategies, we might be more successful in reaching today’s young people. To create a Starbucks classroom, try this:

  • Bring in comfortable furniture and give students options in where they sit
  • Ask students for color choices and paint over the white walls
  • Vary their assignments between independent and group work
  • Let them use technology to complete their assignments
  • Stress creativity, relaxed learning, and options in completing assignments

Of course, just redesigning a classroom won’t lead to better results; teachers still need to build trust, provide an interesting curriculum, and use the accepted best practices. Redesigning learning spaces without providing the fundamentals of great teaching is like buying a Porsche and driving it as if it’s a Model T—the driver will be really disappointed.

Principal Dwight Carter and his staff at New Albany High School in Ohio get it. They recently worked with their students to put a coffee shop into their high school. They’d already added some comfortable furniture and nooks where students could work independently or in groups, and the shift in environment has been a huge hit. Now they can sip coffee and study at school—instead of going down the street to Starbucks.

Written by

Mark White is a school leadership and training consultant. Previously, he was the Director of Education and Outreach at Mindset Digital and Academic Principal in the International Department of the Beijing National Day School in Beijing, China. As the superintendent of the Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools in Gahanna, Ohio, he played a key role in the design of Clark Hall and the implementation of global skills and technology into its curriculum. During his tenure as superintendent, the district earned the state’s highest
academic ranking, opened Clark Hall, and achieved financial stability.

Mr. White has been a consultant to both the College Board and the ACT and has served on two national education reform committees. He has frequently been a guest speaker at schools and universities and at local, state, and national conferences. Prior to being a superintendent, Mr. White was a band director, high school English teacher and department head, high school assistant principal, principal, and assistant superintendent.

Mark is the co-author of What’s in Your Space? 5 Steps to Better School and Classroom Design.

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