The ‘lone’ chef!
I like to cook. Simple dishes or complex menus, I enjoy the preparation, the cooking and the presentation. However, I like to cook alone. I don’t like someone else being in the kitchen, especially if they are trying to engage me in unrelated conversation. It spoils my personal enjoyment of the act of cooking.
(Or looking at it from a consumer’s point of view…you begin eating a favourite dessert…someone engages you in conversation…suddenly, you’ve finished…but you didn’t savour a single mouthful because your attention was elsewhere…and there’s no more!
I know at this point some ‘food fans’ will need to recover. Take your time, take your time…)
Good cooking is about paying attention and being aware of what is happening to the individual elements within the meal. It is about skilfully using tools and utensils for their intended purposes but also exploring new uses. And, yes, I like cooking because it allows for creativity. Experience and experimentation.
Cooking is not just about following a recipe. For a long time I could never understand when people would say, ‘I can’t cook. I follow the recipe to the letter but it’s always a disaster.’ I couldn’t understand this until I watched a friend of mine ‘performing’ in her kitchen.
Many years ago, just at the beginning of my teaching career, I received a dinner invitation. I arrived on time but cooking had not commenced so I was led into the kitchen where I offered some assistance. My friend put some oil in a saucepan and turned the gas on a high flame. However, the pan was then left as she began to prepare the ingredients. I anxiously watched as the oil began to ‘smoke’ and then I had to intervene with a warning. My friend laughed and with good humour, said ‘I’m always doing that. The smoke alarm lets everyone know that dinner will be ready in 20 minutes.’ Hearty guffaw from her, nervous laughter from me!
For my friend, cooking was a necessary evil. She didn’t enjoy it and was resigned to the fact that she would never improve. There was also an attitude that cooking was about doing ‘stuff’ to food using unfriendly technology…and somehow the food always fought back and the technology would always sabotage your best intentions!
(OK educators, I guess you can see where this going but bear with me.)
Perfecting the pastry.
For me, cooking is an art and a science. Last Christmas, I discovered the science behind the need to keep ingredients cold whilst making pastry for mince pies. (Honestly, I was fascinated.) The texture of my pastry has become more consistent because I have a better understanding of what is going on in the mixture.
Cooking can also be a kind of meditation. Engagement and attention. Three saucepans, a frying pan and an oven. All with different timings. That requires attention. It requires engagement of all the senses. It requires the right intervention at the right time – small adjustments of heat, timely stirring, tasting, add more of this and a little of that. It also means frequently dealing with the unexpected…hmm…I don’t think there are supposed to be lumps in this…! You need to be focused and responsive.
To really enjoy cooking requires a willingness to learn. To learn new preparation skills and techniques; to learn about new ingredients; to learn about the theory or ‘chemistry’ of cooking; to learn to wield new tools and utensils; to develop resilience following the inevitable disappointments.
And, as we all know, not only does learning require reflection but also an attitude of self-efficacy.
It seems incongruous that my friend, who was also a teacher, was resigned to her status as a ‘bad cook’. There was an acceptance that small fires and smoke alarms were the norm. I haven’t seen that particular friend for many years and we didn’t teach in the same school. But as I was musing about how I might develop this blog, I wondered if she applied the same resignation to her classroom. Had metaphorical ‘small fires and smoke alarms’ become the norm?
This is not a blog ‘knocking’ teachers. It is about how attitude and self-perception are key ingredients in professional development. Please read on…
My own kitchen disasters happen when my attention is pulled away from what I’m doing. A thirty second lapse, as I answer the phone, can be all it takes. Something gets burnt, boils over or I miss an important step in the process.
How many well-prepared, well-intentioned, highly-skilled practitioners have their attention pulled away by unnecessary interruptions. A thirty-second lapse is all it takes. Someone gets ‘burnt’, something ‘boils’ over or you miss an important step in a process.
Hmm. I can hear some murmurings, some whispers…‘Aren’t you about collaboration? Isn’t that a bit hypocritical saying that you want to work alone?’
Collaboration isn’t about doing everything together all the time. Collaboration means that we work together to solve problems that are difficult or impossible to solve by ourselves. We use our individual and collective skills when it is appropriate. Collaboration could occur at various stages of problem-solving. It could mean collaborating at the point of generating ideas and then implementing agreed solutions individually. Or, it could be a collective task of implementing one person’s idea which they could not achieve alone – architects, generally, do not physically build the house they have designed.
With reference to my own cooking. I don’t need another person – I’m usually cooking for no more than three. This is not challenging. I can manage it alone – if I’m not interrupted! However, if I was cooking for a large number, then I’m going to need some help. As a collaborative entity we would need a whole different set of skills and attitudes, from how we would organise ourselves to how we would communicate without going into Gordon Ramsay parlance! We would have different roles, and we would have to be aware of the dynamics between us. Collaboration does not mean that we chop the same onion at the same time…otherwise the likelihood is we will both be shedding a few tears…not because of the onion but because we could be shedding some fingers! Collaboration means that we may be engaged in different tasks, which require different expertise but contribute to a towards a single outcome. (To witness entertaining (but not perfect) kitchen collaboration see ‘Cake Boss’! Leadership or Facilitation? Discuss.)
A watchful eye…
In a successful collaborative classroom, learners develop the skills to organise and communicate effectively, managing their own learning and also behaviours. This means that if the practitioner is distracted by external forces…
(Knock. Knock. ‘Excuse me, Mrs Can’t-Wait-Till-Break-Time wants to know what YOU have done with the school’s ONLY stapler. SHE said YOU had it last!!!’),
…then, instead of the ‘pots and pans’ boiling over, they would self-regulate for a while.
Some thoughts. Whether you are cooking or teaching, attitude is everything. The desire to learn, to go beyond what you already know, the belief that there is more to explore and you are capable of effecting change. The anticipatory excitement before trying something new and the wisdom to see setbacks as a natural and essential part of the learning process.
Staying safe, with your limited but tried and trusted repertoire (whether you are a fast food or a top-end restaurant) may please a certain target clientele, make life easier and massage your ego. However, in terms of education it does not model the learning process and certainly does not value the variety of learners and their needs.
Engagement and attention are key dispositions. Do you listen and observe carefully and intervene at the right time? Do you follow ‘recipes’ to the letter or do you respond to what is happening in front of you? How do you ensure that you and your learners are not distracted unnecessarily? Is this an issue in your setting that needs to be addressed by everyone? (Keep a tally of the number of interruptions – you may be surprised.)
Collaboration. If you have too many ‘pots’ to watch, how do you effectively engage the skills of others (classroom assistants and the learners themselves) in moving towards developing a self-regulating collaborative learning community? What tools and strategies do you use which specifically promote and enable learning about collaboration?
And, if you work with someone who burns toast at least 30% of the time, don’t try peer assessment, effective questioning or mentoring…especially while they are holding the bread knife! ;o)
The skill or myth of multi-tasking. Cooking is a multi-tasking activity. It requires shifting focus between different elements whilst having an awareness of what is going on elsewhere. If that is something you genuinely find difficult because you are not wired that way, that’s OK. If you like to focus on the start and completion of a task before moving on to something new, that’s OK. It is OK but cooking is probably not for you…microwave ready-meals don’t count!
When some people talk about multi-tasking they boast of how many things they can do, which is fine, but does quality suffer? Do they merely practice crisis management? I think that the skill of multi-tasking lies in understanding WHEN to switch focus between activities that compete for your attention and also understanding the economy of action that needs to be taken. This is the skill of an outstanding practitioner in the kitchen or the classroom.
The finished mince pies…