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Learning at its Best

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…Or Perhaps We Should!

It’s been way too long since I’ve posted here, but I thought that I would wade back into the provocative (and supportive) waters of the Cooperative Catalyst with this piece that I wrote over at Teaching Out Loud this morning. Happy Holidays and here’s to renewed cross-border connections in 2013!

I saved up all of my Chapters/Indigo gift cards and recently purchased On Cooking: A Textbook of Culinary Fundamentals. Over the years, I’ve developed a passion for cooking and, although I’ve become quite adept at following recipes, I’ve also developed a strong desire to understand why what other experienced cooks and chefs have advised me to do actually works. This has led me away from simple recipe collections to books and cable programs that delve into the science and art of food and cooking. A relative who teaches budding young chefs (I love that it’s an art) at a Toronto-area college told me that the required text that he uses for his course could very well be the last resource that I buy in a very long time.

It arrived two weeks ago and, needless to say, I’ve spent a great deal of time in the kitchen: chopping, slicing, puréeing, clarifying, simmering and poaching. And discovering why each method works the way it does. According to my guests (and my family), the meals have been some of the best that I’ve prepared and I’m gaining more confidence in my understanding of what I’m doing.

Besides the calories that I’ve gained in the process, the experience has also increased the metaphorical connections that I’ve been able to make with the other passion in my life: the world of schooling.

Here’s one that has held my attention for the past couple of days.

For most of us, except in the most obvious contexts, sweating is something that we tend to avoid. Slogans and catchphrases like, “Never Let Them See You Sweat” and “Don’t Sweat It!” or, at least, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” help to weave the story that we’re at our best when we’re calm, cool and collected—or when we appear to be!

But there is a culinary technique called sweating that, I’m learning, is most desirable. A definition from my new textbook:

sweat—to cook a food in a pan (usually covered) without browning, over low heat until the item softens and releases moisture; seating allows the food to release its flovor more quickly when cooked with other foods.

Hmmm…interesting. The process stands in direct contrast to, say, sautéeing or even searing, techniques where flavorful juices tend to be locked in through the application of high (and quick) heat. In a sense, sweating allows the unique character of each item to be added to the whole, instead of being held inside for later enjoyment.

Many of you have already jumped ahead and are thinking about how the sweating metaphor might be applied to the modern (and not-so-modern) schoolhouse, and there are likely many rich connections to be made. The one that began to emerge in my own mind, however, has to do with our conversations about differentiation.

Although I believe that there are instances when we’ve attempted to fit our recognition of difference into a rather locked-down view of classroom life, I’m wondering how thinking more about sweating might help us towards a deeper appreciation of the importance of individuality.

First, sweating is based on the belief that culinary ingredients possess unique and special properties and, when allowed to make themselves known, can add to the overall quality of the what is being created. Do I really believe that about our children? Does my vision of the classroom allow for this belief to take flight?

Second, for sweating to successfully reveal the goodness of the individual ingredients, a low, patient heat is required. Not only does this allow the juices of separate items to be released, but it also permits these individual qualities to combine into a community of flavor! Is this what happens in my school, or is my environment more like a hot grill or even a pressure cooker?

Finally (for now), once the flavors of individual ingredients are released, things are never the same. When added to a soup, a stew or a stock, what was once a pot of individually constituted ingredients are now a rich new creation with a character and set of qualities that didn’t exist before (and may never exist in the same way again). (This actually puts me in mind of a recent CEA post by B.C.’s Bryan Jackson.) Does my vision of teaching and learning recognize and allow for the social nature of knowledge building or, in the end, am I still focused on individual progress and success?

So, a toast to the art of cooking and, in particular, to the technique of sweating. A new approach to add to my culinary repertoire. I wonder how it might affect the way I look at my teaching practice!

About Stephen Hurley

After working for over 30 years in Ontario's public education system, I continue to work passionately throughout Canada, still very committed to the idea of effective, powerful learning experiences for all participants. A musician, technology-watcher, father, husband, I find life in the world of education, even when the conversations get a little contentious. If I were to be doing anything else right now, it would be hosting my own syndicated radio program on--you guessed it--education. I blog in a few spots. My personal blog can be found at I can also be found hanging around and, most recently, I can be found on twitter as @stephen_hurley


2 thoughts on “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…Or Perhaps We Should!

  1. Stephen, I find this the perfect accompaniment to the work I am doing this morning, writing an Introduction to the work of the great educator, John Holt, who believed more than anything: trust children, trust the human mechanism, as it “unfolds” (SWEATS) into learning. I am a great fan of your cooking/education metaphors, and the kind of inspiration you get when you are at work in the kitchen–and drinking wine as I recall from one of your former posts. I love the notion of sweating as a metaphor for “natural” learning and wonder: is there ever a reason to “sear” in learning? (Mark Bittman did a great piece on searing yesterday in the New York Times…)

    And why do we have such nuanced a differentiated ways of describing the preparation of food–ancient and reverential and modern and experimental–and such antiquated and hidebound and unimaginative ways of thinking about the way human beings learn?

    The underestimation of the pleasure of learning–as opposed to the consumption of food?

    Enjoy Stephen. Thanks for this!


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | December 24, 2012, 12:07 pm
    • Hey Kirsten, thanks for the for very poignant comment. I looked up the Mark Bittman piece, and have actually printed it out for future reference! In my cooking life, I’m learning about several different cooking techniques and how and when each can and should be combined. In thinking about searing, I’m remembering times in my student experience when teachers said that we should “burn” the facts into our minds. Effective in certain circumstances, for sure, but not in all!

      I’m also learning that part of the art of teaching (and cooking) is knowing when to use which technique…and why!

      I’m looking forward to reading your John Holt piece! Any chance of getting an advance copy?


      Posted by Stephen Hurley | December 25, 2012, 10:42 am

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