Lessons for PBL Educators from the Food Truck Phenomenon

Unless you have been hiding out exclusively in a school cafeteria or have been avoiding dining out altogether, you have probably noticed the onslaught and popularity of food trucks over the last several years. Food Trucks and Mobile Food are some of the hottest things in dining. Although street food is anything but new, almost every suburban and metropolitan area now has a plethora of food trucks serving everything from fusion to comfort food – and everything in between.

In my own urban area, we have several special events based on food trucks, as well as several new bars or pubs that allow food trucks to serve as their primary kitchen. And even though they are using a familiar idea, why have food trucks become so popular?

I’m reminded of the recent uptick in the popularity of project-based learning. PBL is not new either, but is getting more interest than ever before. Just like food trucks, PBL has evolved and is not the same as it used to be. It has a distinct pedagogy with concrete outcomes. And just as food trucks are revolutionizing eating out, PBL is revolutionizing the student experience.

So, what do food trucks and PBL have in common? Here are five ways that educators and schools could benefit from paying closer attention to both:

1) Authenticity: In general, food trucks are authentic–by which I mean they are typically not corporate owned, but rather operated by local food aficionados who live and work in their community where their truck, and they themselves, are known. Customers see food trucks as authentic because they appear to be owned, operated and envisioned by real people. These are real food entrepreneurs who have a real passion and connection to their food and their customers–we can see the food being prepared and have a real conversation with the preparer. PBL is authentic in a very similar way, and that’s why students often respond differently to project-based experiences. High-quality PBL is aimed at real-world issues in real-world communities, so students they see that their work is valuable and will be seen and experienced by real people both in school and beyond school in their community.

2) Differentiation / Specialization: I have probably eaten at hundreds of food trucks by now and I can honestly say that no two are the same. They are naturally unique. I might have patronized several Korean-Mexican fusion food trucks as an example, but each one of those has had unique names, menu offerings and recipes. PBL also offers differentiated, specialized experiences for students. Through student voice & choice, as well as teacher coaching/facilitation, students can focus on various aspects of a particular question or problem, choose a product that will demonstrate and articulate their learning, assume various project management roles, as well as focus on different skills that need to be improved. Just like food trucks have a unique brand and identity, students can develop confidence in their own approach to problem-solving through high-quality project-based learning.

3) Mobility / Flexibility: The obvious big advantage that food trucks have over brick and mortar restaurants is their mobility. They can come to the customers. Whether it’s a concert, a pub, a special event, a game, etc. – they can bring their unique food offerings to your activity. This allows the customer to enjoy their food in many different and unique environments. Schools and educators could learn a great deal from this when implementing PBL. High-quality Project-Based Learning allows for the learning to take place using a variety of places, teams, resources and partners. We can create flexible and individual environments, assessments and projects. Project-Based Learning is real-world work that is continually changing, adapting, evolving and being customized or personalized. Whether it’s connecting to the community, partnering with an industry or nonprofit organization, or getting involved in work-based or service learning, there is always room for flexibility. And with technology, we now have the ability to have our students access our curriculum and programs at home, with video, at different times and more.

4) A Focus, Building A Brand: Since Food Trucks are not large, they tend to focus their menus. They can’t be one of those food vendors (like too many restaurants) that try to prepare, sell and offer an unending list of seemingly unrelated foods. They have a handful of menu items and people flock to them for those. Their simple or focused menu leads to quality and brand recognition. Schools have long suffered from trying to do – or offer – too many things. Most schools have dozens and dozens of programs, initiatives and plans all trying to address hundreds of standards, needs and goals. If schools could focus on a universal, but very personal and customizable pedagogy such as PBL, then they might find their schools tastier (and maybe more successful). Food vendors (and similarly, schools) cannot be good at everything. All of us need to figure out what we do best and then learn to maximize, optimize that. PBL allows students to take advantage of their strengths and interest areas.

5) Make It An Experience (Social & Fun): Most of us that visit food trucks could also visit a restaurant just as easily. However, we are opting for the food truck experience – not just because it’s potentially convenient, but also because it seems fun, and somehow more social. Similarly, PBL is naturally collaborative (student-student, student-to-teacher/coach, student to community partner/expert, etc.) when compared to standard classroom practices. And collaboration is not just more engaging, but rather one of the most important 21st-century employability skills. Food trucks engage the consumer, and schools can do the same through PBL. Food tastes better when we’re having fun, and we also learn at higher levels when we’re having fun. All of us, and especially students, are looking for meaningful and relevant experiences.

Almost everything we enjoy is about the place, the people and the unique moment. Because food trucks tend to be simple, specialized, social, fun, flexible and mobile, they create a unique experience each time. Far too many students are not having unique or special experiences. Learning should be just that – an experience. If we don’t shoot for that each and every day, then our education risks become fleeting, meaningless and disconnected.

So next time you’re eating at your favorite food truck, and/or witnessing a great project at a school, ask yourself what could they have in common? Through more high-quality PBL implementation, maybe we’ll see our school menus improve and match the exciting world of the food truck phenomenon.

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Michael Niehoff

Michael Niehoff is a Getting Smart Columnist. He is a teacher, leader, blogger, and student advocate.

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