Making to Learn

Winter break has been well, just that, a change from an otherwise intense semester. The first week of my break was full of cooking, baking, gift wrapping and, attending and coordinating family events. I went from frantic proofreading, revisions and EBSCO searches to rapidly making dough, rolling out cookies, and packaging sweet treats. For nearly a week I woke up feeling more like a catering manager than a graduate student. Truth be told – I loved it! Albeit frenetic, making and baking was an excellent break from an intense semester. It required a completely different set of modalities. I had to be focused on technique and timing but also artistry and of course taste.

Baking is all about precision: you need to be precise about timing, quantities and the order things happen. Baking new things can be challenging, even with a recipe. Getting mentally attuned to what the recipe requires and knowing what type of result to expect is an important part of the process. For example, on my last major day of baking, I attempted to make cream scones. I had made scones using buttermilk, but since I was making these for a high tea, cream scones were more appropriate. The recipe I selected made roughly a dozen scones, so I could have doubled it to meet my needs. However, I went through the motions once to see if I understood the technique. When I saw the cream scones had risen and more importantly tasted yummy – I was ecstatic. I made the second batch with confidence.

My baking journey has been interesting, in that it started with a kid’s curiosity. I have fond memories of my mom making cakes, tea cakes, and magic layer bars to name a few. At Christmas, my aunt started me on the tradition of baking cookies and showing me techniques like painting icing. While I grew up in a household where cooking was the norm, baking was not as common. However, it intrigued me, perhaps because I had sweet tooth. So, when I was about nine while grocery shopping, I convinced my dad to purchase a box of chocolate chip cookie mix. I burned that first batch by leaving them in the oven too long, but it didn’t matter because I was hooked. From then on, and supported by my family (who generously gifted me pans, mixers, spatulas and other tools to support me over the years) I was given the space to make. Over time, I gained confidence in following recipes and incorporating new techniques into my repertoire eventually ridding the need for boxed mixes. I filled my cabinets with the ingredients I needed to always be able to make cookies or cake. It’s been more than twenty years since that first box of cookie mix, but because I had a willing audience (my family) and the resources my learning has never stopped.

Without appropriate tools or access to an oven or the ingredients, I wouldn’t have been able to make the many baked goods I have over the years. Having an audience was also integral to my learning and growth. Along the way, I’ve had people who could appreciate my performance (baking) and give me feedback. At times, my interest and confidence waned, the lack of practice often got me feeling like I couldn’t do things and the longer I stayed away, the longer it took me to get back into the zone. However, the holidays are always a time for me to reinvigorate my passion because of family and friends. In addition to the physical tools, and an audience, I also have found online videos, recipe sites and, of course in-person advice to be invaluable in guiding my learning.

As I reflected back over my frenetic week of baking, it occurred to me how my own theories of learning have been very active in my development as a baker. Over the years I had time, space, support (including people and tools) that led to learning and growth. As I’ve mentioned often on this blog and via my tweets, schools don’t seem to have this luxury. But – why not? What would school be like if learners the time to master a skill or sit with a concept or idea? What would it be like if teachers and students were not affected by standards or bureaucratic rules about time spent with kids, or time on task? Even the performances suggested by existing and new standards like the Common Core are limiting, the performances and results are pre-determined. A good performance or product is not validated or evaluated by the learner but by a teacher, and with the Common Core, these are often dictated via sample scoring sheets. These standards suggest that learning is about mastery of content and particular processes, for example, a method to solving a particular math problem. So even with all the talk of “multiple solution paths” there are still a set of right and wrong that are evaluated externally.

Could we turn this on its head? Research on teaching and learning suggests that unless learning experiences are personally meaningful and connected to youth’s interests, passions and curiosities that they can be mis-educative or wasted (Dewey, 1938; Papert, 1993). Being engaged in the production or creation of something that takes time and iteration gives learners opportunities to refine their technique, devise solutions and navigate challenges, while also becoming more critical about the product but also the process. Kids also need space to make mistakes – a safe space where getting the wrong answer is not failure but rather a learning moment. I would not have gotten nearly as far if my burnt cookies were thrown in the trash. Instead, I was lucky that my parents encouraged me to scrape the bottoms off with a butter knife and salvage the rest of the cookies. That moment has stuck with me. I believe we can change classrooms to be about these moments- to focus on the journey or the process and to allow learners passions and interests to be valued and remain central to the trajectory of the classroom. Content mastery means nothing in a world of wikipedia and google, what does matter is giving kids ways to solve problems, to develop resilience and criticality, to be thoughtful and to define their own version of success. The more they practice, make, produce, the more this will become possible.

 

References

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience in Education. New York: Kappa Delta Pi.

Papert, S. (1993). Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas.  New York: Basic Books.

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