The commercial and cultural success of the “Harry Potter series” of books is well know. Less well-known is that the books were written in a coffee shop.

J.K. Rowling, then a single mother on income support, would set out pushing her child through the streets of Edinburgh. When the infant fell asleep, she’d dash to a coffee shop and start writing.

Rowling remains a fan of creating in coffee shops. “The idea of just wandering off to a cafe with a notebook and writing and seeing where that takes me for a while is just bliss,” she said.

But Rowling wasn’t the only one creating in Edinburgh coffee shops. The Elephant House served as a creative space for Rowling and crime writers Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith. It might seem like a coincidence to find three best-selling authors writing in a small coffee shop in Edinburgh, but coffee shops have a long tradition as havens for creative thought.

The first coffee shops were established in Mecca in the 12th century, but “coffee house culture” formed in Vienna, Austria in 1683. Vienna coffee houses became meeting places for writers dubbed “Jung Wien” (Young Vienna), and they quickly became the centre of cultural life in the city.

Since then, coffee houses in Paris have been creative spaces for Hemingway, Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and T.S. Eliot. Coffee shops in St Petersburg hosted great Russian writers like Chernyshevsky, Dostoevsky, and Pushkin. The Antico Caffe Greco, close to The Spanish Steps in Rome, had Byron, Keats, Ibsen and Hans Christian Andersen as patrons. And so on. Coffee shops have a remarkable history of providing spaces that support and encourage creative thinking.

It’s curious, given that history, that the model for the modern classroom wasn’t a coffee shop. Rather than modelling classrooms on historically developed creative spaces, classrooms were designed as a cross between a hospital operating theatre and a Viking longboat. Perhaps teaching creative thinking wasn’t what they had in mind?

The goals of schools have changed since then however. Classrooms are no longer (hopefully) spaces that teach obedience and conformity. Modern educators are helping students learn how to think creatively and solve problems innovatively.

By borrowing ideas from coffee shops, classrooms can be somewhat transformed. In doing so, they can better support students as they think creatively, just as coffee shops have helped generations of coffee drinkers, to create.

Here are some ways coffee shops are better than classrooms:

  1. Connected: Coffee shops are places where people go to connect. They go learn, to listen and to exchange ideas. The might connect with other thinkers, or read and connect with new ideas. People go to modern coffee shops to connect to the ideas and people through WiFi. (The irony that the free WiFi at a coffee shop is often better than the WiFi in a school isn’t lost here). Let’s make classrooms places that encourage students to connect with each other and new ideas.
  2. Comfortable: Coffee shops are comfortable. You must be at ease to sit and engage with a problem. Seating should be comfortable, providing support while allowing you to relax. There aren’t any plastic stacking chairs in coffee shops. The temperature is ambient and there is sufficient light without feeling like you’re being interrogated. If we want students to develop higher order thinking skills we must provide them with comfortable spaces.
  3. Agency: The patrons of a coffee shop have agency. They choose to sit where they want. They are not assigned seats or forced to sit and work with people they don’t know or don’t like. Rowling said one of the great things about writing in coffee shops was that when she got stuck she could leave and walk to another. It would give her a break and clear her mind. Why don’t we try giving students more control over where they sit and who with?
  4. Flexible Spaces: Coffee shops are often provide large and small tables. If you need privacy or solitude, you can find a private table, often in a quiet back corner where you can focus. If you’re there with a few people, you can sit a larger table and share ideas. People move chairs to create arrangements the owners had never envisioned. We should provide several different options in our classrooms so that students can choose the learning situation that works best for them.
  5. Music: Good coffee shops use music to create a warm inviting atmosphere. The music is relaxing without becoming intrusive. There is considerable evidence that music helps to reduce stress and so help improve creativity. Many educators use music in the classroom to inspire creativity

The spaces we create in our schools say a lot about what we want and how we want students to learn. I’m not sure which comes first, a new approach to learning or the space to support it. But I believe that if we make our classrooms more like coffee shops, together, with our students, we could figure it out.