Is teaching a lesson the same as cooking a meal on Masterchef: The Professionals? Whether it is or it isn’t, Adam Boxer has a few useful takeaways…

I’ve always liked eating, and when I first moved out I had to cook by necessity. It was a means to an end. At the start, I didn’t particularly enjoy it, but in the pursuit of ever-nicer food I’ve tried to learn more and get better at food preparation, and now find I quite enjoy the process of putting together a handsome meal.

Part of learning more” has been watching Masterchef: The Professionals. It’s pretty intense, and unlike other cooking and baking shows it isn’t light-hearted fun. It’s serious, but excellent TV. Top-chefs Marcus Wareing and Monica Galetti put professional chefs through their paces via a series of gruelling challenges, assessing their culinary skills, knowledge and creativity all the while.

At times, it feels a lot like teaching. There are explanations, guided practice and formative and summative assessments. Being an enormous edu-nerd, I can’t help but try and figure out, while watching it, if there’s anything I can translate into my practice. Of course, the settings aren’t quite the same, so perhaps take my findings with a pinch of salt (cough).

Wood -> trees -> wood

The first challenge the chefs undergo is the technical test, where they are given ingredients and told to prepare an unfamiliar dish (ever heard of andaluz soup or sauce maltaise?). Before this, one of the presenters makes the dish so viewers can see what it is supposed to look like. A small nuance in the show’s production is that before the presenters start preparing, they show you a picture of the finished version. So it goes finished version -> presenter prepares -> finished version.

This nuance is an extremely important detail: when we are watching an explanation or demonstration of something unfamiliar, we can often feel lost and unsure of exactly what is going on, because we don’t understand the bigger picture. In the classroom, we often delve into the details of an explanation, forgetting that our students aren’t as conversant with the big picture as we are, and they can easily lose the thread and get lost in the details.

I refer to this as losing the woods for the trees, where the woods is the big picture, and the trees are the details that make it up. The woods are important because they help give a sense of purpose and overall structure, so when explaining something I like to briefly talk about the big idea or concept, followed by a drill down into the details, after which I pull out again to revisit the bigger picture: wood -> trees -> wood.

The panic and the calm-down

The participants are in an extremely high-stress environment, with chefs given exacting time limits and plenty of complex variables to keep them in a prolonged state of heightened anxiety. In one episode, an otherwise very competent chef was basically freaking out, chucking the food on the plate, completely losing his train of thought, and just doing weird things. At this point, one of the presenters stopped him, calmed him down, helped him refocus and the chef got his head back in the game and got back to preparing his food purposefully and systematically.

Often in school we see students doing stuff that just looks plain weird, and with 30 other students to worry about we can often get frustrated and annoyed. What we might not realise is that the brain is a funny thing and that students, like professional chefs, can get stuck in a cognitive and emotional rut.

A calm reset can often help: “Hey, hey, look at me. Good. Ok. Let’s sort this out. We haven’t done the right thing, but that’s fine. Let’s bring it back a few steps. You still with me? Yeah, good. Cool, now let’s have a look at the task I’ve set you…”

Brutal feedback

The way we give feedback to people depends on many things: the type of person they are, the type of person you are, the relationship you share, the nature of the feedback itself and the recipient’s relative expertise.

The feedback the judges on Masterchef give can be brutal – this doesn’t taste nice; I would send this back; this dish is full of errors – and of course in a school context feedback of that kind doesn’t always serve to motivate or push learning forward. But one thing I can transfer from it is a willingness to be honest with students’ answers and say this isn’t correct.”

Time after time I find myself saying things like not quite” or almost” when it actually is just flat wrong. Desperate to not dishearten my students, I accidentally send them mixed messages. I need to be clear with them about what “right” looks like, otherwise I do them a disservice and only end up confusing them.

Over the long term, I’m also not sure that I do them any favours in insulating them from blunt feedback. It’s the kind of feedback they will be exposed to as soon as they leave school, and it’s also the kind of feedback we should welcome: honest, to the point and unambiguous. That’s the kind of feedback I seek on my own practice, and it’s the kind of feedback I think is most useful.

Silly mistakes”

The chefs’ responses to the feedback can also be telling. The best chefs take it on board, and say things like I got it wrong, and need to do x, y or z better next time.”

Chefs who rarely make it past the first round tend to say things like I made a silly mistake” or I let my nerves get the best of me.” In my opinion, these are not useful reflections. What people mean when they say things like this is out of the things that are in my control, I did everything I could. Any error was due to random chance (silly mistakes) or external pressures (nerves).”

To me, this is a way of abdicating responsibility and preventing the feedback from making meaningful changes to you as a person.   

I hear teachers say things like this too when talking to students, but we should be very careful. Most of the time, if students fail to perform to a standard of which they are capable it’s because they didn’t study hard enough or use effective strategies. Allowing them an escape” through deflection to externalities does not help them move forward and improve.

The simplest yet most effective things teachers can learn from Masterchef: The Professionals? Never stop learning, and steal insights from everywhere you look.


Adam is Head of Science at a North London Academy. He is a co-founder of Carousel Learning, a holistic online quizzing platform aimed at improving student retention in all school subjects.

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