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.


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