No, this is not about Starbucks, Caribou, or McCafe coffee houses. But it is about coffee houses, and how coffee might have contributed to the field of science and science education, and indeed the Age of Enlightenment.
In his book The Invention of Air, Steven Johnson introduces us to The London Coffee House, and a group of “free thinkers” who met there, and were known as the Club of Honest Wigs. Walter Issacson, in his book Benjamin Franklin, describes the Honest Whigs as a discussion club of pro-American liberal intellectuals, although Johnson describes the group as holding libertarian views, and comprised of individuals from a variety of fields who met to discuss political, religious, and scientific ideas.
The coffee house became the nucleus for the networking of ideas in 17th & 18th Century England. Coffee had just recently been introduced into England after first being cultivated in Ethiopia, and was becoming an important beverage. Prior to this, alcohol–beer and wine (because water was simply not safe to drink) was the drink of necessity. Johnson points out that coffee in the context of the coffee house might have indeed contributed to the Age of Enlightenment, and in the case of Joseph Priestly, led to the writing and publication of his first and famous book on the History and Present State of Electricity (1767). Here is what Johnson had to say about coffee, the Age of Enlightenment, and Priestley:
The coffee house was crucial to Priestley in the writing, editing, and reading of his manuscript by the “electricians” who met at the London Coffee House. Since he was writing a book about these men, meeting with them, and have them read his manuscript was essential for the development of his ideas. Of course today, we have email and the web, but in the days of Priestley and Franklin, it was the post, or meeting in London that provided the vehicle for the discussion and progression of ideas.
Olympia Academy. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Albert Einstein founded a group, much like the London Coffee House, known as the Olympia Academy, which met regularly to discuss books, mathematics and physics. Although a small group, it provided the same kind of experience as the London Coffee House did for the 18th natural philosophers.
The Common Cup & Experiences in Atlanta. Years ago, I formed a discussion group that met every Thursday at a coffee house in Atlanta called the Common Cup. Although no longer in business, the Common Cup became the meeting house of a group of teachers, professors, and researchers interested in humanistic education and science. The group met over coffee for many years, and explored new ideas, and how these could be applied to the classroom. At about the same time as the Common Cup coffee house experience, I met Professor David Finkelstein, professor of physics at Georgia Institute of Technology. I had interviewed him for a book I was working on about science education, and attended some of his community forums on physics at Georgia Tech. He invited me on several occasions to join a group he had formed that now reminds me of the London Coffee House group. Professor Finkelstein had organized a group of people from different disciples (science, art, music, philosophy, psychology, education) that met over coffee and food to discuss ideas relevant to the group. The few times that I attended were thrilling, and provocative.
Application to Science Teaching. Discussion of ideas is one of the most important pedagogical strategies that we as science teachers can use to enliven our classrooms, and help students understand and apply science to their own lives. Many of you that read this blog know this, and incorporate small group learning as a pedagogical staple.
Cooperative learning was the core of my own approach to teaching, and for more than fifteen years I presented seminars around the country that focused on ways of helping teachers implement cooperative learning strategies in their classrooms. Conducted through the Bureau of Education & Research (BER), The seminars created a “coffee house” atmosphere by arranging the classroom into small hubs of learners, and engaging them in cooperative learning pedagogies that had a very practical flair. And of course, there was plenty of coffee (and a great lunch served at noon!).
How do you get students to “network” and explore their ideas? Does the London Coffee House have any relevance to the way we teach today? How is the technology that we have today and extension of the “coffee house syndrome?”Tags: Albert Einstein, Club of Honest Whigs, Common Cup, David Finlelstein, Georgia Tech, History of Electricity, London Coffee House, Olympia Academy, Steven Johnson, The Invention of Air