Learning about Teaching from “Good Bakes”
I recently spent a lot of time resting, icing, and elevating in my “granny chair,” recovering from hip-replacement surgery. My brain was foggy; reading, and even my beloved knitting projects were more than I could tackle. Watching TV was about all I could handle. In my search to find interesting programs, I came across The Great British Baking Show featuring Mary Berry (the British “Queen” of Baking) and Paul Hollywood (professional bread baking expert). Their styles mesh well and the show’s 10-week competition is engaging. It’s perfect binge-watching fodder.
Beyond enjoying the show’s format and personalities, I hoped to learn how to be a better baker. An added bonus are the insights and timely reminders about teaching and learning I gleaned.
Vocabulary The show was filmed for a British audience. There are words and phrases in British baking vernacular that baffled me. Some examples: 180 fan; sultanas; Muscovado sugar; and strong flour. I routinely paused and Googled. I wondered: How often have I used vocabulary, which is second nature to me, that leaves students scratching their heads? While it was easy for me to pause, search the word or phrase and continue watching, students in a lecture would have to raise their hands and ask for clarification. Very few are willing to appear ignorant in front of their peers. Teaching Lesson: It’s important to periodically review our notes and lesson materials with an eye on vocabulary. Better to be clear than mistakenly assume students are familiar with jargon.
Varied Assignments Each week the show presents different and more challenging themes, just like our lessons and assignments grow in complexity. What I found particularly compelling is the show’s mix of assignments. Each episode is a combination of specific and open-ended challenges. The “technical bakes” require a very specific outcome. The outputs should all look identical. The “show stoppers” specify a category like “Victoria Sponge” but otherwise allow complete freedom to demonstrate skills in flavors, textures, and presentation. Teaching Lesson: Students benefit from both kinds of experiences. Initially, structured and specific formative practice and assignments allow students to develop skills and understanding as timely feedback is provided. Ultimately, allowing students some flexibility or choice of how to demonstrate mastery can produce “show stopping” learning.
Baking is Messy It might be more accurate to put it this way: You can’t learn to bake if you don’t get your hands messy. Mixing by hand. Feeling the consistency of the dough. Stirring the chocolate or whipping the egg whites to the desired consistency can’t be learned by watching. I’m not a better baker because I watched hours of baking shows. Learning Lesson: Our students often think they’ve learned from taking notes during lecture. Some teachers may agree. But watching the teacher diagram chemical compounds, solve math problems, produce flowcharts, or draw graphs shows that the teacher understands the material. Watching isn’t enough. Learning is not a spectator sport. Let’s make sure we remind our students of this, and more importantly, provide plenty of opportunities to get their hands messy with low-stakes practice to develop skills in- and out-of-class.
New Methods Because I enjoyed the program so much, I looked into buying a related cookbook on Amazon. Some reviewers lamented the need to convert from metric units. Others complained about weighing ingredients instead of using measuring cups. My initial thought was, “Ugh! I don’t want to deal with all that change and complexity.” But as I read more, I became convinced that weighing ingredients and measuring in grams is more precise and that produces better and more consistent results. Learning Lesson: Our students may be comfortable with learning strategies that sometimes work (like flash cards for memorization), but produce poor results in more complex situations. They may need evidence about why we’re asking them to try different learning methods. These new strategies may feel awkward, uncomfortable and unfamiliar at first. We need to keep pushing, coaching and providing opportunities for effective, long-term learning methods to take hold.
If you subscribe to Netflix I encourage you to check out the program and watch it through the lens of teaching and learning. Berry & Hollywood give candid feedback without crushing the novice bakers’ spirits. They encourage and inspire. While participants are competing, friendships are formed and “competitors” frequently help each other. This engaging program models a classroom where high expectations, effective coaching, gentle humor, and collaboration are the recipe for learning and “good bakes.”
P.S. In case you’re wondering about the British baking terms:
180 fan= 180 degrees Celsius in a convection (fan) oven
Sultanas= golden (white seedless) raisins
Muscovado sugar= loosely, dark brown sugar, but with more nutrients
Strong flour= bread flour, higher in gluten for bread baking
After I drafted this post, I found an article about the new season which will be quite different. See this NYTimes article for details.