Lessons for PBL Educators from the Food Truck Phenomenon

Before the pandemic, food trucks were all the rage. Now, with restricted indoor dining options, food trucks are gaining even more popularity. Just as food trucks are revolutionizing the dining experience, project-based learning (PBL) is revolutionizing the learning experience.

So what do food trucks and PBL have in common? Here are five similarities:

1. Authenticity

Food trucks are often owned by local food aficionados who live and work in the same community. Customers see food trucks as authentic because they appear to be owned, operated and created by hardworking people. These folks are real food entrepreneurs who have a passion and connection to their food and their customers. PBL is authentic in a very similar way, and that’s why students often respond differently to project-based experiences than they might to a textbook. PBL is aimed at real-world issues in real communities. Learners see that their work is valuable and will be seen and experienced by real people in their school and community. Some excellent PBL is being facilitated by schools of choice, such as charter schools.

2. Differentiation / Specialization

No two food trucks are alike; each is naturally unique. Each has a unique name, menu offerings and recipes. PBL also offers differentiated, specialized experiences for learners. Through learner voice and choice, learners 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 and focus on different skills that need to be improved.

3. Mobility / Flexibility

The big advantage food trucks have over brick-and-mortar restaurants is their mobility. They can move to the customers. This allows the customer to enjoy dining in many different and unique environments. Similarly, high-quality project-based Learning allows learning to take place in a variety of places and with many types of teams, resources and partners. Facilitators can create flexible and individual environments, assessments and projects. Project-based learning is real-world work that is continually adapting and being 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, learners can access and engage at home at different times and in many ways.

4. Specialization: Building a Brand

Since food trucks are not large, they tend to specialize their menus. They can’t 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, focused menus lead to quality brand recognition. Schools, as well as educators, have often suffered from trying to offer too many things, 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 more appealing and successful. Neither food vendors nor schools can be good at everything. Our best work happens when we find what we do best and then learn to optimize that. PBL allows learners to take advantage of their strengths and interest areas.

5. Make It An Experience (Social & Fun)

Patrons who visit food trucks have other dining options. However, many opt for the food truck experience not just for convenience but for an opportunity to socialize and have fun. Similarly, PBL is naturally collaborative (learner-to-learner, learner-to-facilitator/coach, learner-to-community-partner/expert). And collaboration is both more engaging and one of the most important 21st-century employability skills. Food trucks engage the consumer. Education can do the same through PBL. Food tastes better when we’re having fun. We also learn at higher levels when we’re having fun. All of us, and especially learners, are looking for meaningful and relevant experiences. Almost everything we enjoy is about place, people and a unique moment. Because food trucks tend to be simple, specialized, social, fun, flexible and mobile, they create a unique experience each time. Learning should do just that, too. 

Note: This post by Michael Niehoff was previously published and has been updated and revised.

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