When the supermarket becomes a classroom: Building learning communities beyond the school walls

Only 20 percent of a child’s waking time is spent in school. That means that even with the best schools, the best teachers and the best educational policy, schools cannot close the achievement gap. To be sure, mountains of research demonstrate the significance of early schooling in changing learning trajectories for young children. With 25 percent of the population having 10 or fewer age appropriate books in their home, high-quality preschools offer exposure to reading and to the rich language conversations that support literacy. For children rarely exposed to puzzles and blocks, high-quality preschools grow the spatial ability that will promote strong STEM skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.   For children who are not read to or talked to or encouraged to control and channel their feelings constructively, preschool helps them to develop the self-control they need to profit from further schooling. High-quality preschool prepares children for entrance into formal schooling. But preschools cannot do it alone and preschool failures cannot be blamed for the persistent gaps that have plagued American education since 1975. Perhaps it is time to augment debate about universal preschool with discussions of how to build learning communities that enrich children’s experiences at home, in school and beyond.

Enter The Supermarket Study, a way to change the paradigm in early learning as we re-imagine ordinary spaces as opportunities to build smart communities. Everyone has to buy food. And families—be they rich or poor, working one job or three—frequent supermarkets and grocery stores—places where they roll their children in carts through the aisles and meet basic needs in a familiar and unthreatening space. That’s why this unassuming place proved a perfect staging ground for a proof of concept on how we can enrich children’s everyday environments. Temple University’s honor’s student Katie Ridge (now graduate student at the University of Minnesota) wanted to address what has become known as the “30-million word gap”—the persistent difference between rich and poor families in the number of words parents address to their children. Could the supermarket provide the fodder for reversing this trend?  Could we spark conversation between parents and their children in the dairy and frozen vegetable aisles by placing signage around the store?


The supermarket aisle becomes a classroom


The idea was hatched. We would go into both a low- and middle-income neighborhood and place simple and attractive signs that morphed supermarkets into children’s museums. In front of the milk section for example, you might see, “I come from a cow. Can you find something else that comes from a cow?” Some days the signs would be up. Some days they would be down. And our team observed carefully from the sidelines, where we inconspicuously noted whether parents responded by talking more when the signs were present than when they were not. The results were stunning—appearing in the latest issue of Mind, Brain & Education.  In low-income neighborhoods, the number of conversations grew by 33 percent when the signs were up, equaling the amount of talk that happened naturally in the supermarkets frequented by middle-income consumers.

We don’t yet know about the sustainability of the finding or whether our finding merely represents a product of the novelty of the signage. But we can say that the same advances did not happen when these equally novel signs were placed in the middle-income stores. And for a $60 intervention, it might be worth pursuing how far we can push this result. Indeed, communities in Tulsa, Oklahoma are thinking of doing just that. With more markets involved and with a plan to look for sustainability of results, we will find out if we can turn ordinary everyday experiences into extraordinary learning environments. We will also be expanding the set of potential outcomes to ask how supermarkets can be petri dishes for STEM learning. After all, there are stacked cans, labels to read and cash registers that trade on mathematical skills.

Too Small to Fail, one of the Clinton Foundation Initiatives focused on early childhood, is also chiming in—working with playgrounds and laundromats to create prompts in the places people naturally go.

It’s been over 40 years since we first recognized that we have an education problem. Since that time, the achievement gap has remained stable and the international rankings of American students have barely budged. Our focus has been squarely on school reform. And school reform is important. But schools exist within the context of a wider community and if the community does not reinforce the learning opportunities that are outside the school walls, they cannot succeed. Perhaps changing the paradigm will help. The supermarket study offers a proof of concept demonstrating the ways in which we can create smart communities that have learning at their core.