schooled in coffee

Note: A few months ago now I was traveling, bouncing from one experience to another and all the while trying to stuff them into my head. This is extracted from my notes and attempts to create quick entries about specific visits, though this one hasn’t been so “quick.” It’s the third in a series of five very distinct settings I got to experience on that trip.


Of all the interviews and experiences I’ve had so far this year, none was a more surprising parallel to my own teaching than talking with Tom from the American Barista and Coffee School. I’m saying this up front because it caught me off guard. I went to a coffee school because I was looking specifically for something different from my own experience.

Tom and others will prepare you for your ambition or midlife crisis that leads to the opening of a coffee shop. Or, you could be someone who’s developing a business model for a chain of coffee stands stretching across the midwest, or you could be a barista who’s come along with multiple others from your roasting company to learn better technique for combining coffee and milk. In any case, Tom can help you. As he talked with me, shiny, industrial espresso machines stood at attention in the background, patiently awaiting the throw of a switch and the buildup of pressure and steam. They framed the large classroom — a lab space, really — wrapping the room with stainless steel and the imposing stances of a dozen different sizes and shapes of apparati sitting solidly on counters. They called to me in the same way that I’m drawn to front-end loaders and backhoes, but with more refinement and focus on the 40-year-old than the 4-year-old in me. These, along with coffee and other supplies, are supplied by the vendors themselves so that new coffee entrepreneurs could become acquainted with all possibilities.

Yet, Tom was adamant that the machines don’t make the coffee; people do.

The parallel to my teaching is in how people come in with expectations about what they’re doing, a naïveté and overconfidence (and maybe some romantic notion of it all), and most importantly a sense of knowing things because they are looking at numbers — the answers in the back of the book. A prospective coffee shop owner pays thousands of dollars to work with Tom, and often has perused the blogosphere and has pored over (though perhaps baristas have “poured over”) the finer points about how many grams and how many seconds — the quantitative and exact.

Similarly, my physics students have paid thousands of dollars to enroll at a university that they often see as a gate. It is a doorway to medical school, a job, the responsibilities and benefits of a life beyond childhood. More than this, so much of what they’ve been taught to value, implicitly and explicitly, lies within exacting answers. They’re looking for ways to reconcile with the numbers in the back of the book or in the exam’s answer key.

As Tom at the Coffee School was explaining the ins and outs of this educational milieu, I was especially relating to how our students of coffee and physics shared attitudes and goals. Students come in with preconceptions not only about physics and espresso, but about how to learn such disciplines and what exactly is important to learn. It’s easy to see a class as a step towards something else, and they look past the educational experience. Gazing beyond, their present attention often preoccupies in the numerical — those “right answers” in physics and the refractometer measurement in espresso shots.

In both of these teaching gigs we face a similar challenge. We’re trying not only to teach about procedures, but a whole way of conceptualizing and prioritizing knowledge. You have to understand why we’re doing peculiar disciplinary specific things — sketching a diagram of forces on a mass or the relation between espresso’s conditions of time, pressure, grind, etc. on the coffee extraction. You ought to understand what the goals of the discipline are. In coffee making, you’re trying to produce a really good cup of coffee, not a measurement on a scale. In physics, we’d really love it if you could identify how the forces are interacting, not just solving for a number. Perhaps in both fields (and in many others), we’ve used the numbers as a metric for how well a student is doing and what they are learning, often obscuring rather than clarifying the deeper issue.

A favorite article of mine is entitled, “Students do not overcome conceptual difficulties after solving 1000 traditional problems.” It just struck me now that the article is about physics problems and physics concepts, but the title leaves this out. (To be fair, it’s found within the American Journal of Physics.) I think that the title encapsulates not only the essence of this article but the broader idea for learning. If students are focusing on one task, they may not actually be learning what we want them to. Students can fool themselves in this way, something I think that they do as they enter Tom’s classroom armed with a little book knowledge and not enough real understanding of what they’re getting into. In cases I’m familiar with, I think it’s the teachers who can do a particularly good job of inadvertently distracting the student. It is, after all, the professors who assign all those problems and then grimace when students don’t understand some basic concept. Students are smart and adaptive, and they will learn exactly what we require of them.

At the same time I’m recapping my afternoon at the coffee school, I’m cooking another essay about “best practices” in education. I’ll save that discussion for another chapter, but this feeds into my strong opinion that there is no such thing as a “best” teaching practice. Tom was quite clear that there was no single espresso machine or single teaching moment that would make the difference in his students’ experiences. Instead, they really needed time and experience making the coffee. It sounds simple, but there’s a difference between knowing about the buttons and levers and really understanding how to use them, and you can’t really find a substitute for the doing. A classic line from The Muppet Movie is inherently funny because we know this too well:

Kermit: Where did you learn to drive?

Fozzie: I took a correspondence course.


I like to go back to my notes and even the audio of my conversation with Tom at the coffee school. The second time I listened — on a long roadtrip and wanting to revisit some of these ideas — I still thought about the similarities between physics class and barista class. But, I had the chance to recall something else as well. Tom is enthusiastic about both the coffee and the teaching. He geeks out on this stuff, both the material and the mental, and there’s a caffeinated vibe emanating from his presence. I appreciated how he was able to reflect on the process of the class and his own attentiveness to what the students need. He could have been making it all up on the fly, but clearly he had a clear sense of purpose and what his coffee-making prospects needed to be able to know and do. But what struck me most is that his description of many aspects of the educational process could apply to how we prepare and work with school teachers.

A lot of this came through at the end, but it was also striking to me how the issue of measuring things with numbers (mass on a scale) versus the real goal (taste of coffee) were relevant to our practices of reporting and being held accountable to test scores versus our more practical and purposeful goals for education. At another point he talks about getting the students to have enough experience to make all the mistakes, to find out where the boundaries are. He talks about how it would be great if we could collaborate more and compare our methods to others (e.g., the engineer relating the density distribution of cement to the packing of coffee grinds), as well as the importance of just getting experience. And, maybe most of all, there was the point that he had to get these potential coffee shop owners to a place where they could work on these things on their own. He was especially clear about how when he first started teaching there was a tendency to want to just show them his own methods; but he had to make sure they were able to develop their own techniques — they had different workflows that work for each of them, maybe stemming from something as simple as being left-handed.

We (or at least I) should aspire to get teachers to the same point, where they have a potential set of tools and the instructions for putting them to use, but still the more prominent, developing sense of who they are, why they’re teaching in the first place, and, only after that, how they’re going to use any given one of numerous educational tools. This, to me, marks the difference between an educator and a technician. I prefer educators working with my children, as well as with my baristas.


After re-thinking about where coffee school has the closest parallel to my own work and experience, I’ve wondered if I would see a different connection each time I listened to this exchange. It could be that we take whatever we want to see in any of these educational experiences. There’s something valuable to relate to the coffee instructor. Or, it could be that when we talk about our own teaching craft, we’re each making things up as we go along. It could be that Tom was just shooting from the hip, and my own methods happen to relate to his simply because I’ve been making it all up myself for the last 20 years.


At the end of my visit, I asked Tom if there was anything else he wanted to tell me. “I am curious about what you’re up to,” he said. I had a hard time answering at the time. But now, after a few months, here’s my first draft of an explanation.