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. Amid the pandemic and the subsequent quarantine, food trucks have actually been some of the most resilient businesses.
I’ve written before “food truck mindset” and how it relates to project-based learning. But what are some of the lessons food trucks can teach us as we step into virtual and hybrid learning?
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What can food trucks teach us about remote and hybrid learning?
The following are a few things that food trucks can teach us about hybrid and virtual learning. The following sketch video explores what it means to have a food truck mindset:
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.
As an educator, you can design systems and structures from a place of empathy. You might send out a survey to students and families to get a sense of who they are and what they need. This survey might include questions about technology access, daily schedules, preferences in learning tasks, topics they find interesting, and overall concerns they might have. If you’ve developed trust, you can ask students and their parents or guardians to walk you through a day in the life at their home. By starting with empathy, you can search for strategies and materials that are more closely aligned to the needs of your students.
As you move through your course, you can solicit feedback from your students. One strategy I love is to have students annotate the course syllabus and course calendars to help clarify questions they have. I also use short 2-3 question surveys to gauge student engagement. Just as a food truck modifies location and menu based on customer feedback, I try to change my approach based on the student survey data. When I taught middle school, I had optional Student Leadership team meetings. Any student could participate in the student leadership team and help generate project ideas and give feedback on lessons.
However, empathy is much deeper than course feedback. And that’s where the food truck analogy breaks apart a bit. For educators, empathy is about providing access and advocating for justice. At the basic level, we need to think about digital access. Not every student has the same access to technology. But we also need to go deeper than technology access and view equity through the lens of empathy. It’s important to remember that not every student has the same access to a quiet workspace at home. Not every student has the same access to physical materials.
Showing empathy means we recognize that students at every level are likely to be experiencing varying degrees of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These catastrophic situations can exacerbate mental health issues. I’m struck by how many teachers are so intentional about making sure they take the time to discover the whole story when a student seems to disengage.
An empathetic approach might include flexibility with deadlines and missed work. Allow students to resubmit work if need be. Let them turn work in later. Some would say this approach models low expectations, but I think this approach actually models higher expectations because you’re saying, “I’m going to let you turn this in late, but my expectation is that we can find a way for you to get this done. I’m not going to let you get away with failing. I’m going to be right beside you, supporting you.”
We can’t ensure full equity and access for students. There are injustices outside of our control as educators. However, we can provide scaffolds and supports that help students increase their access to the learning. We can start from a place of empathy.
2. Limit your menu.
By necessity, food trucks must limit their menu given the constraints of the smaller kitchen and the needs of customers who are on the go. It’s not uncommon to see a taco food cart that specializes in street tacos and only offers three or four choices in meat. Or you might have a food truck that offers barbecued brisket and hamburgers along with fries and drinks. These limited menus mean customers have fewer options than they might have in a brick-and-mortar restaurant. However, the simplicity of a smaller menu often means food truck chefs can focus on doing a few things well rather than offering a massive menu of options. It’s no surprise, then, when you visit a food truck that only sells Honduran-styled tamales and you find that they are the best tamales you’ve ever tasted.
However, this simplicity goes beyond the menu. The food truck experience itself is all about narrowing down on one key component: the food. There are no servers, hosts, or bartenders. No one is thinking about table clothes or ambience. While those components are certainly important and I love a quality restaurant experience, we are all in food truck context right now. We are stuck with limitations in our physical environment. We no longer have the ability to create the same face-to-face experiences as we did in previous years. However, this is why we might need to simplify the menu in our classrooms.
In doing virtual lessons, I have found that it helps to focus on fewer objectives and focus on the key power standards. I am constantly thinking about how to simplify the learning to get to the core skills and concepts that I need to teach. I often plan out a lesson and then go through the agenda and cross out activities that might seem interesting but aren’t absolutely vital to the learning. Taking a food truck approach, I am constantly thinking about the few things that matter the most: student engagement, self-direction, soft skills, and specific standards I want students to master. I’m considering ways to make this a reality without a brick-and-mortar option. In some cases, it’s actually raising the quality of the learning. For example, I might film a seven-minute direct instruction video with more clarity and intentionality than I would in a traditional face-to-face direct instruction activity. I am creating fewer classroom materials but focusing on improving the clarity in the design.
3. Don’t be afraid to pivot.
Food trucks often allow a chef to continue to improve on their 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.
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. In other words, food trucks have to be adaptable.
When shifting toward remote learning, you might feel like a brand-new teacher all over again. Suddenly, that amazing engineering project isn’t possible without the high-tech makerspace you’ve been using. That thriving band program can no longer meet together to perform in the same room. You’re amazing drama units don’t work the same way without a stage or a theater. A class like physical education is no longer tied to a physical location. Those amazing Socratic Seminars that you’ve refined over the years now might fall flat without the same body language and space proximity. This is why it helps to have an adaptive approach to hybrid and remote learning.
An adaptive approach involves starting small and being willing to move quickly when things don’t work. While there is definitely intentional planning ahead of time, you are constantly asking, “How do I improve this?” This keeps you nimble as you iterate and improve. An adaptive approach begins with an openness to new ideas. You’re actively seeking out advice and looking for different approaches. As you shift toward virtual and hybrid teaching, you are re-imagining what the classroom will look like. You’re asking big “What if?” questions that lead you to new strategies and approaches. But this doesn’t mean you abandon what already works. Instead, you are looking for the vintage innovation overlap between best practices and next practices.
An adaptive approach treats each lesson as an experiment. Sometimes the lessons work and sometimes they fail. But even the failed experiments are opportunities to reflect and grow. This doesn’t always feel good. It’s frustrating when things aren’t working – especially when you are already a master in the craft of teaching. However, as you adapt, you are able to recognize that you are gaining new skills as an educator
4. 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:
Embracing creative constraint does not mean we deny injustice or pretend that the challenges aren’t real. Teachers are facing highly stressful situations and they need the freedom to share their struggles and to be vulnerable. However, in the midst of this, we can also ask ourselves, “What are some things that students can do at home that they can’t do in a physical classroom?” They might be able to do more scavenger hunts or hands-on maker projects. Freed from the bell schedule, students might have an easier time working at their own pace or even engaging in competency-based learning. You might have an easier time implementing certain cross-curricular projects. Again, this doesn’t mean that we deny injustice or shift into toxic positivity. What it does mean, though, is that we find some of the hidden advantages of distance learning and design lessons to build on those advantages.
5. Redefine success to focus on creative risk-taking.
The food truck approach is all about experimenting and pivoting. It’s about recognizing the role of the local community and meeting people where they are at. It’s a humble approach that says, “We will meet you right here and come to you instead of expecting you to come to us.”
We can have this same iterative approach to distance learning. We can recognize that there’s no single right way to do distance learning. Every school and every student is different.
However, this food truck approach requires a new definition of support. Teachers need to feel the permission to make mistakes without being shamed or punished. They need to experience the freedom to experiment without being micromanaged. If we want educators to develop grit, their leaders need to give them slack.
The permission to experiment cannot be a quiet permission, either. It’s not enough for leaders to de-emphasize high stakes accountability measures. Instead, they need to state clearly that they expect mistakes and failed experiments. These words must be backed by actions. When parents complain about a teacher’s approach to virtual learning, principals need to defend teachers while also gathering feedback for improvement. It is critical that all stakeholders understand that the shift toward new modes of learning will include mistakes and missteps. Similarly, we, as educators, need to be humble about our own growth and remain open to feedback.
If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I have a virtual learning hub with resources, articles, and webinars. I’m also working on the finishing touches on a book about empowering students in distance and hybrid learning. I can’t wait to share it with you!
If you’re a district or school leader and you’re interested in student-centered learning in virtual, hybrid, and blended environments, please check out my speaking and workshops page.
If you want to take a deeper dive into empowering students in distance learning, please check out my course. It’s fully self-paced and on-demand, which means you can work on it at your own pace. It’s packed with videos and practical resources. The course is designed to take 15 hours and I offer district and school bulk license discounts.