Team building is difficult. So many factors, so little time. Where do you start…really?

Groupwork at the best of times can elicit moans and groans from even the most balanced student. Despite a teacher’s best efforts to engage the students in developing their Learning Skills, encouraging random individuals to work together does not always make for the deepest learning.

My approach to creating groups is to have several large and small group discussions that explore the components of group work. The major pieces usually fall into four major categories:

  1. Supportive and equitable behaviour,
  2. Clear understanding of common goals,
  3. Synthesis of skill sets, and
  4. Shared workload.

As the discussion and debates fly, I gather post-it notes, record sound bites, and post the gathered data to our Google classroom. Bit by bit the students generate a canon of qualities that they feel are essential to working with each other and we post our postered  ‘Code’ in the classroom. As a  group, we commit to holding our code as a central set of behaviour norms for our cooking labs. As our cooking labs increase in difficulty and evolve in skill sets, the students find ample opportunity to try different configurations of brigades, or cooking groups.

The brigade system in the kitchen is akin to a military approach for group making. This ladder system puts the most senior and experienced cooks at the top of the pile with many below. It also penalizes and prevents natural growth into leadership moments, you only move up when the person ahead of you permits it.

Though the classroom lab easily supports such a system, I have always thought that the traditional brigade system makes leadership opportunities scarce and in some cases inhibits curious but tentative leaders from emerging. By rotating the group configurations, the newness will provide a valuable restart button for those students who miss their leadership opportunities the first time around. The students that are self-aware of their leadership path, will inevitably interact with a grouping that challenges their set methods and in doing so build their toolkits. The brigade system works well in the industry, but, in truth, if we are supporting a 4C’s  ecology in our classroom, then the hierarchical nature of the classic kitchen is detrimental by design.

Students will bring any number of biases to a new class. Who they want to be with, talk to, sit beside, and look at all become the instantaneous data points that form their unavoidable biases. The trick in building groupings is interfering with the process of prejudgement to judgment. Modeling positive and equitable language can teach a student ‘how’ to behave and it may reassure a timid student that you are present and aware. But this approach does little to develop ‘why’ students should behave in this manner. Open dialogue after the lab, where both successes and fails are deconstructed and new understandings are built, is the method I use to help my students along this path.

Additionally, to avoid my own fixed idea of lab design, I include my performance in the students’ assessments. I ask my students:

  1. What can I change?
  2. How can I change?
  3. Why should I change?
  4. If I do not change, what will I miss?

Students often question the validity of group-work. Many would complain that there is little worth in it. Ultimately, it is my responsibility to create structured, dynamic, responsive scenarios, where not only group-work is experienced as necessary and valuable, but it is the singular path to complete the course of action at hand.


This bread lab is, hands-down, one of my favourite cooking labs.

To be able to make bread from scratch is a skill that everyone should master. And the excitement that explodes from the students as they inspect their custom loaves is a joy to share.

In making a simple loaf of bread, we commune with history and connect with thousands of years of culinary evolution.

The relationship between flour, water, and yeast in our modern-day classroom is like a conversation with the past. The method of fermentation and baking that we use in the classroom looks very similar to the very earliest methods of bread making. And in following this path of food preparation we acknowledge the connection between us and every other cook who dared this same pursuit.

Michael Pollan in his book Cooked espouses the importance of basic ingredients, essential skills, and appreciation of the community or social element of cooking. I highly recommend this book and its partner Netflix series as essential media to consume. Pollan’s POV of ‘eat what you like, as long as you make it’ resonates with me and I pursue this foodie philosophy in life and in teaching.  I guess you could say it is my primary food rule.

Each and every student in my class, I hope, is starting to glimpse the power within these three tenets of the culinary arts – ingredients, skills, and community. In truth, I would include the fourth rule of sustainability. ‘What’ we eat on a daily basis has become as important as ‘how’ and ‘why’. As each student attempts to synthesize what they learn in our class with their daily decision making, they will quickly find out that despite their informed intentions it is exponentially more difficult to make clear choices. What is ethical? What is clean? What is healthy? All good, basic questions and all create opposing views or food rules. This dissonant process is an underlying part of learning where both flights and fails can provide learning opportunities. I often reassure students that it is okay if their brain cannot make their hands do as they wish. Many kids, very quickly, get what it takes to make a loaf of bread. And a few even enjoy what they have made…some do not.

The final products that my students produce often bare little resemblance to the demo dish that I produce or to the dishes of their colleagues or to the foods they have at home. Nor should they. I encourage the students to embrace the process and to track both their successes and failures. The differentiated outcomes are essential to deep learning in our cooking lab and connect to all aspects of learning. Not only does this process illuminate the importance of personalization of learning approaches, but it also vividly highlights the fundamental potential of process work.

The method and the set up for the method are everything in cooking. It is often referred to as ‘Mise En Place’ or ‘put in place’. No matter the fact that each brigade [cooking group] is provided with a common demo, ingredients, and equipment- how the group interprets the instructions ultimately drives outcomes. Each group through collaboration and negotiation must create a way through their understanding of their goal – in this case making a loaf of bread- and each small decision brings another opportunity for learning.

For me, the process of making bread is ultimately the end goal. I have had both great successes with some loaves and in other moments I have stumbled miserably. Regardless, I remain focused on creating opportunities for my students to make enjoyable, edible mistakes. And if the loaf in front of them is not as awesome as hoped, then maybe the next one will be…or the next one…or…