For most of my friends, it’s the high-energy music that gets them through their regular gym workouts. For me, its the podcasts and, specifically, the podcasts about education. Lately, I’ve been filling my iPod with the recordings that having been coming out Stanford University over the past couple of years. I find them to be engaging, relevant and even entertaining.
Today, I was listening to a talk given by Lee Shulman to teachers gathered at the 2011 Stanford Summer Teaching Institute (SSTI). As part of his introduction, Schulman referenced the popular reality-style cooking show, Chopped, which provides competing chefs with a basket full of ingredients and challenges them to create something fantastic. Here’s the program description from the Chopped website:
Chopped is a cooking competition show that is all about skill, speed and ingenuity. Each week, four chefs compete before a panel of expert judges and turn baskets of mystery ingredients into an extraordinary three-course meal. The challenge? They have seconds to plan and 30 minutes to cook an amazing course with the basket of mystery ingredients given to them moments before the clock starts ticking! And the pressure doesn’t stop there. Once they’ve completed their dish, they’ve got to survive the Chopping Block where our three judges are waiting to be wowed and not shy about voicing their culinary criticisms!
Shulman goes on to make the delightfully amusing connection between the challenges faced by the show’s competing chefs and the challenge of teaching. The accuracy of the connection is sure to draw a smile of recognition from anyone who has spent even a few years in a classroom:
Teachers begin each year with a collection of students, many of whom are unknown to them in those first days of the semester (never mind that some remain a mystery even after several months of interaction) and from the moment the bell rings on the first day of school, the expectation is that they will create something wonderful!
In a sense, this has always been true about classroom practice but Shulman’s analogy gains some traction when you consider the increased scrutiny with which individual teachers are being viewed in today’s climate of critical accountability. The pressure to create something that is both palatable and extraordinary has definitely increased to the point where many educators may feel that they are in danger of being chopped.
But there is something about the analogy that points to one of the emerging fault lines (I’ve begun to explore this metaphor a little more!) in the way we look at large-scale schooling. Despite the fact that this place we call school is an inherently social experience, in the final reel it’s always the individual progress and individual achievements that seem to matter. This is evident in the way we assess, evaluate, report and award educational success.
Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamaglia (and others) have been exploring knowledge construction as a type of social enterprise for many years and, although their Knowledge Forum approach and application is still in existence, I suspect that we still have trouble getting our collective heads around the fact that knowledge (as opposed to information collection) is a socially-constructed phenomenon. In fact, everything about traditional schooling mitigates against a recognition of the degree to which this is so!
But when you admit the social dimension of knowledge acquisition, development and expression, Lee Shulman’s Chopped analogy begins to limp a little. In the art of cooking, the ingredients are only separate and distinct at the beginning of the process. For as soon as the creativity begins, the individual spices, herbs, meats and vegetables become intermingled, each contributing its own unique set of properties to the pot, each becoming part of the quality of the new creation. And once the creativity begins, it is virtually impossible to ever separate the dish into its original component parts.
To be sure, each new school year begins with a teacher being presented with a basket of separate and distinct ingredients. But, if we’re going to compare teaching to the art of cooking, perhaps its important to begin with the exuberant admission that what is, in fact, extraordinary is what happens when individual qualities, strengths, gifts and characteristics are creatively and expertly combined in the kitchen we know as the classroom.
Lots for me to continue to think about here. I love a good analogy!