Cooking Unplugged (or: the roaring in the oven)

Recipes for Tired Teachers by Chris Sion

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about food recently. Granted, this soon after the festive excesses of the Christmas/New Year period, the last thing you may want to read about is food, but please bear with me for a while.

Recent debate over in Chia Suan Chong’s Devil’s Advocate blog series drew my attention back once more to an analogy which links teaching and food: the idea of lesson recipes.

“First, pre-heat the oven to 220°c”

The metaphor of a recipe pervades discussion of lesson structure both at pre-service level and beyond.  There was even a highly popular book based on this analogy.

Beneath this metaphor is of course the notion of required ingredients and workflow. A dish is successful to the extent that the recipe is followed, and this is generally taken to mean doing what the recipe instructions tell you in the manner and order in which they tell you. Success is only guaranteed if the recipe is followed, Substitutions are possible, but if unlicenced are at one’s own risk, and this is a strong incentive to stick to the recipe.

This leads to many otherwise competent people feeling they can only cook from recipes – they become recipe bound. In industrial settings, the extreme logical consequence of this recipe reliance is short-order cookery or – more intentional and disturbing – MacDonaldisation of meal production.

But ask any Michelin star chef what makes a great dish and they will say that it is essentially a question of the ingredients – without fresh, high quality ingredients, no quality cooking is possible, leaving only the misdirection of presentation to obscure the inadequacy of the dish in nutritional terms.

“I followed the instructions to the letter – why does it taste so bad?”

In teaching, and in teacher training, there is also a lot of talk about recipes. There are commonly accepted recipes for a receptive skills lesson or for a grammar focus lesson; PPP, ARC or ESA are recipes of a type. While there is nothing wrong with this in principle, perhaps there are some issues, as there are in cookery of the cookery book-bound type, which we should consider.

For a start, is it wise as teacher trainers to focus our trainee’s attention more on the shape of a lesson – the recipe – than on the content of the lesson – the raw ingredients? You may say that you do this already, but still, it’s worth asking the question.

I know that in my work I fear I spend more time before observed teaching practice talking to trainees about the steps they are going to take with whatever resources they have to hand – in other words, focusing them on the recipe worksteps – than on asking them to consider more fully the quality of the texts and tasks – the raw material – themselves.

The interesting point is that, when lessons turn out problematically, it is often the case that the issue lay not in what the trainee tried to do, but the quality of the material. Perhaps taking a Michelin star attitude to selecting raw materials for lessons would help?

“Delia Smith says do it that way, and who am I to argue?”

Going further, how can we avoid inculcating the belief that these recipes which we present are somehow better than all other possible ways of doing the same kind of thing?

Cookery books
Which one can you trust to deliver the goods?

How can we avoid establishing the belief that for a receptive skills lesson to be acceptable as such, the Holy trinity of Contextualise – Gist task – Detail Task must be present? (Please see Scott Thornbury’s blogpost Z is for Zero Uncertainty for a critique of such recipes)

And even if we do succeed in doing this within the scope of our own courses, might we just be setting our trainees up for hardship when they enter the ELT mainstream, where observers of their teaching may see variation as deviation, and interpret this as “inadequate grasp of the underlying principles of learning and teaching”?

“Quality is the elimination of variation” – W. Edwards Deming

And while we’re at it, how comfortable are we with the fact that a consequence of training by recipe rather than raw material is an inevitable slow shift towards the homogenisation of education? The dream of a fast food executive is that, wherever you go in the word, their burger looks the same, is prepared in the same way, and could be built (a better verb for the process than prepared or cooked) by even the least skilled worker.

Do we, as teachers, teacher trainers, language organisation managers, politicians, want the same thing for our classrooms? Do we want lessons worldwide to display the minimum of variation – not in the surface features, but really down to the basics of their composition?  We may not intend this to happen, and we may not have considered our approach to teacher education as contributing to this process, but nonetheless, we need to address the question.

What do you think: am I right in being concerned about the issues and consequences which accumulate around the metaphor A LESSON IS A RECIPE?  Or am I just grumpy because my classes never turn out looking like they do in the book? 😉


Acknowledgement: The title of this post is inspired by comment on Twitter by Scott Thornbury.


  • Interesting question, indeed. Well, I’d start with a “Cut yourself some slack as a teacher trainer”. Given the length of the courses and the prior knowledge of didactics and of how language acquisition works in the brain most of your teacher-to-be will need to be given some kind of a recipe (and if it’s only 3 basic steps). This will give them something to cling to when trying to get through their first lessons. With experience they will probably realize that sometimes it is more useful to customize and adapt at the spur of the moment. But it needs some experience for a cook to stray from a recipe and some knowledge of what things mix well with others to create a certain effect.
    So, I presume that teachers and cooks all start out with a recipe on their way to being good at what their doing. And the more they strive to do things in order to cater to the special tastes of their guests the more daring they will become – sometimes successfully and sometimes not … but these will be valuable lessons for them, too.
    And I believe, as a teacher trainer, their is only little you can do to help them with it.
    About the grumpiness: Maybe you’re just past the recipe stage by now… and I presume that if excellent chefs tried to go by the book they’ll probably not achieve the high-quality results that they are used to achieving 😉

    • Ah, I could read comments like this all day – thank you! As you have been so clear and have said so much so well, I’ll lay off for a bit t see what some other commenters may say.

  • I second Claudia’s words!
    And its not just the new teacher who needs a few recipes to start off with. These recipes ensure the new teacher’s students won’t be constantly burned in the oven, only some of the time! The lessons won’t be as good as they could be but neither will they be as bad as they could be!
    Thanks for another great read!

    • The last thing we want is burnt students, Naomi – quite right! Also agreed that well-designed materials, appropriately implemented, will probably result in a useful learning experience; I suppose, though, what I really wanted to get at with this post is: how much time do we as trainers spend on helping our trainee teachers meaningfully appraise the learning potential in any given piece of material that they get their hands on? What might be the most effective ways of doing this within a framework that assumes that generalised justifications like “the students have been placed at CEF B1 and this coursebook says CEF B1 on the cover so what’s in it must be OK…” are not adequate? I’m still mulling over this – any tips?

  • Great post, Anthony.

    Just a few quick thoughts on this in passing.

    Its worth thinking back to the original meaning of the word recipe. According to the OED, the word first appears around 1400 and was used by doctors to list the ingredients that a patient would need for a particular remedy. Its not until 1716 that the idea of a recipe as a combination of ingredients *and* procedure comes into use.

    I think there are a couple of analogies here worth making. The first is with course syllabi, which are essentially ingredients lists without procedures (or recipes in the original sense). Were told to cover the prescribed items in a particular lesson/week/term/year, but were not necessarily told exactly *how* we should go about it. Thats where coursebooks become useful for many teachers: they combine the ingredients with the procedure, creating recipes in the modern sense.

    The other analogy is with teaching unplugged. That approach would seem to avoid the ingredients list altogether and focus on a series of procedures (techniques, perhaps?) designed to create opportunities for learning. In that sense, its a new kind of recipe: no pre-bought ingredients, all procedure.

    • Thanks Nick – I loved your two off the cuff analogies. The first one is familiar to me as in German the same word – Rezept – still does double service as recipe and prescription.

      The second one was a brilliant reverse, but I see Chia has already beaten me to it with a cunning counter of her own – the idea of Dogme being like Ready, Steady Cook! is hysterical!

      Seriously though, I was most interested in this post in getting at how to encourage more focus and consideration of the quality/qualities of any given chosen material, rather than making a case for no materials, so for me the question is: how can we as teachers training or mentoring beginning teachers help them develop a more critical mind when appraising materials, to help them identify if they are holding something that has the potential to become a michelin star dish for their learners, or if it is only fit to become a takeaway burger?

  • Hi Anthony,
    Some great analogies here! Real food for thought!
    Although I can see the rationale behind the comments that trainees and NQTs need basic structures and procedures (i.e. recipes) to help them along, it is really curious that we are not guiding them towards exploiting the raw ingredients and working with it. Wouldn’t that be what is truly beneficial to the learners? Wouldn’t that be closer to what we do in real life teaching?

    Do you remember the TV show Ready Steady Cook?
    Instead set recipes, contestants are given a set of ingredients and on the spot, they had to decided how to treat the ingredients and how to use it to create the best dish.

    Shouldn’t our trainees be given more opportunities to work with ingredients the way these contestants of Ready Steady Cook do?
    It is certainly improvised and unplugged, and trainees would be given practice of how to make best use of the ingredients…

    (And no, Nick…I’m afraid I don’t agree that teaching unplugged avoids ingredients and focuses on a series of procedures/techniques. If anything, it is the opposite. Ingredients does not have to be course books or materials. The learners and the emergent language they produce are the ingredients in themselves. They are the resource.)

    As I have mentioned elsewhere, I try to offer my trainees as many opportunities as possible to practise dealing with language (both generated by the students and thought up by myself). Through such practice, I hope they can find the best way to exploit and work with those ‘ingredients’. Next time i do that, I shall call the session,

    ‘Ready, Steady, Teach!’

    • Chia, I think there is a conference talk or a YouTube viral video idea there…

      what I love about your analogy is its appositeness and coherence but it does beg the question: in the world of Dogme ELT, who is Ainsley and who is Fern? 😉

  • I still like the old Keith Floyd attitude to cooking in that he kept drinking wine and adding the wine to his food whenever he fancied and than drank some more wine with the meal. He loved cooking and probably drank more whilst doing it than whilst eating it. He also probably enjoyed drinking more than eating and it was all just an excuse to get drunk.

    This is how some of my teaching used to feel in that I was doing exercises and activities just to ‘do the book’ ‘kill time’. I rarely enjoyed teaching because I was so worried about procedure, the plan and reaching my objectives. I tried adding moments of fun or pleasure but they weren’t enough to change the courses.

    I did try TBL for a long time but students just raced through and they realised that I was just doing it to get material for criticism/focus.

    It took me a long long time to create the right environment for a good lesson to emerge and now I would say that I set up the room and the lesson like a cooker, the students are the ingredients and I never know what lesson will emerge.Yes, I may add some condiments or a splash of something but I enjoy this style of cooking and the end result.

    In some jobs my students FB has said “not enough time on each exercise” and “we don’t get to finish everything” but I was just trying to do everything I was told to do. Now I think one fully cooked, expanded and enjoyed meal is worth far more than 3 quick snacks.

    • Thanks Phil (this landed in spam – probably because of the frequent references to drinking 😉 but luckily I could reclaim it!)

      I think considering your students as ingredients is interesting – they do, after all, bring more flavour to a class than simply the language they produce, don’t they? They have all kinds of complementary textures which are products of their character and personal history: attending to this is quite a subtle job, and one which I am certainly guilty of not attending to as much as I might.

      I sympathise with the pressure you felt to “get through” whatever you had planned to do; I feel a similar stress when preparing a meal and notice that something is going awry that I need to manage on the fly. I get stressed and annoyed, because it isn’t going to plan – in future, I’ll try to laugh at the irony!

      Any yes, the idea of one meal, well prepared and satisfying, does appeal to me more than the 3-4 hastily grabbed and barely digested snacks. This might relate to Jeremy Harmer’s recent questions about focus and single-tasking. There’s no need to take this to its furthest conclusions, but it probably does pay off to do a few things deeply and well in a language classroom – maybe I want lessons to be more like a rich casserole than a cling-film wrapped sarnie? 😉

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