Monday, April 15, 2019

The Great British Teach-Off

The best teachers on TV (and a goth)
The Great British Bake-Off is the best show about teaching and learning on television, and has been for its entire run. (Yes, I'm about to rave about a baking show for an entire blog post, but stay with me and put on your teaching caps, because it's about baking, but it's really about teaching and learning.)

For those of you who have not yet become addicted to this baking show from across the pond, let me give you the five pound tour. The show starts with a group of twelve amateur bakers, one of whom leaves at the end of every episode until it's down to the final three. They must be amateurs, no pros allowed. Inside The Tent these bakers are given challenges by expert bakers and judges Paul Hollywood and Prue Leith (Prue replaced the always complimentary Mary Berry a few seasons ago). Each episode takes place over the course of a weekend and it's always themed- Bread Week, Pastry Week, Fancy French Whatever Week. Each weekend is divided into three bakes-

First- The Signature Bake, in which bakers are given a set of parameters to work within and allowed to do whatever the want within those parameters. Bakers have the previous week to prepare their bake.

Second- The Technical Bake, in which bakers are given a pared down recipe and identical ingredients. The Technical is always a surprise and bakers are given no warning or preparation.

Third- The Showstopper Bake, which is similar to the Signature Bake, but blown up to 11. Expectations are higher, decor and appearance matter greatly, and a ton of time is given.

The Signature and Showstopper Bakes are judged in front of the baker, with feedback given immediately to them in front of everyone else. The Technical Bake is judged blind, with Paul and Prue unaware of who's bakes they're tasting, giving feedback on, and putting into a last-to-first order until it's all said and done.

All of these bakes take place under a time limit that allows for them to be completed, but only just. Especially if the baker is ambitious.

This is the best show about teaching and learning on television.

Let us think about these bakes in teaching terms. Both the Signature and Technical Bakes require the baker to do lots of work at home. They demand careful planning, research, and practice. Bakers who waste the week fail. Bakers who come to the tent practiced and prepared normally do well, except for when Mr Murphy (of Murphy's Law fame) injects himself into the proceedings in the form of weather or accidents. This is giving your students detailed expectations of a project, but leaving it open ended. "You will use this, this, and this. It will be in this general shape. Everything else is up to you." This is perfect project planning- huge range within narrow bandwidth. They have to check a lot of boxes while still making their bakes unique. And also while fulfilling the basic needs of a good bake- it tastes good and it's fully cooked.

The Technical Bake is always the one that says the most about the bakers. Often the recipe will involve some specific skill that the baker, as "one of the best amateur bakers in Britain", is expected to know how to do. So the recipe will say, "Make a sweetbread pastry", "Slice into four pieces", or something equally vague and the bakers will need to use a combination of prior knowledge and guesswork to puzzle out exactly what they're supposed to do. It's not uncommon for the Technical Bake to being with a bunch of the bakers looking at each other whispering, "I've never heard of this. Do you know what this is? What does this look like?" This is a project involving following directions that are just good enough that truly assesses what you can do and what you know. It's all about thinking on your feet and showing what you know. Educated guesses are still educated, and they can still pan out.

And here's where all that gets really teachery- Even when there are twelve bakers in the tent the two judges give deeply detailed, specific feedback that shows their expertise while also taking issues and ambition into account. Paul Hollywood never ever says, "This is good" or "This is terrible" without following it up with, "Because you can really taste the blah blah blah in it, which is impressive because with that mix of flavors it can be difficult for it to not get overwhelmed" or "It's underbaked, you needed another ten minutes in the oven at least, look here at this piece you can see how it's still doughy because it does this and this." They aren't cruel, but they aren't patronizing. They understand ambition without giving too much ground for it. Did the baker try to build the Leaning Tower of Piza out of chocolate cake and it ended up being the Laying On The Platter Mush Of Piza? If they went big and the taste and texture is still there, then they don't get hammered. Oh, the criticism will still be there, but along with "But the taste is delicious. I wish it had worked." I love how the bakers will often go Big and take the risk because they want to show what they are able to do. And while it's about winning, it's not really about winning anything. I'll explain that last bit later.

Paul and Prue and Mary give the kind of feedback I wish I could give to every one of my kids all the time. You can tell they know everything about everything they're asking the bakers to do, you can tell they've made all these mistakes and know why they mistakes were mistakes, and you can tell they aren't flaunting it, they're just using it.

On top of all the planning the bakers (remember, every time you read "the bakers" you can substitute "our students" or even "we as teachers") have to do, there are still plenty of times when something doesn't go right. It's hotter in the tent than it was at home so the chocolate is melting too quickly. The caramel isn't coming together. And then we get to see the bakers scramble and adjust on the fly. It shows just how good they really are when nothing is working and everything seems dire and yet they manage to pull out a good-to-excellent bake anyway. Staying calm and working the problem saves the day. Even if one bake goes horribly sideways, you get three chances over the course of the weekend. Multiple opportunities to be successful and show what you know. One bad bake doesn't get you sent home (unless you, like, poison Paul. Then I assume you'd be sent home right away).

Now here's the really really bestest part- The winner of the entire show, the person who makes it through all 30 bakes and ends up on top at the very end, the person who spent the last ten weeks using their own money and time to practice and prepare culinary delights wins...basically nothing. They get a bouquet and a glass platter. No prize money. No endorsements. No job in a bakery. They get to hear their names announced at a big picnic, cry a little, hug their family, be filled with an deep sense of pride and accomplishment, and that's all. This creates a wonderful sense of camaraderie inside the tent. Bakers become friends, they comfort each other, they cheer each other on. When someone's bake is stuck in the mold two other bakers will stop what they're doing and help. When someone wins Star Baker and everyone claps you get the impression that everyone is actually happy for that person. When someone gets sent home, even if they totally deserve to go home, you get the feeling that everyone is sad to see them go. It's a competition without cut-throat competitors. I've watched enough of this show that if there was a real animosity between bakers I assume the show would play that up because it's good TV, and its never happened.

The real point of the show isn't to win because there's no physical prize, only an internal one. The real point of The Great British Bake-Off is to become a better baker. To learn new skills and push yourself to be better than you ever thought you could. It's like the ideal classroom. I don't want my kids to learn because they'll get great grades or great jobs. I want them to learn to love learning, to love the feeling of accomplishment that comes with being your best. I want them to learn very specific skills, but then be able to apply those skills to a wide variety of things (this is me climbing on my The Content And Standards Matter, People, Stop Saying It's Only How They Feel soapbox, in case it was too subtle).

Watch The Great British Bake-Off. It's on Netflix. After a long day of teaching it's perfect for decompressing, at the very least. But at the very most, it's a great lesson in project-based learning and specific feedback.

Also, I'm team Noel and Sandi. Nothing against Sue and Mel, but Noel and Sandi are funnier, plus I love them from The IT Crowd and the original Who's Line respectively.




If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird Teacher, THE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher.

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