The pasta lab is the first opportunity for the students to reveal their cooking personality. When they engage with the lab, they transform, the room transforms, and the lesson transforms into a thing greater than the sum of its parts. Often, the students remark that in this lab they felt like they were running a restaurant. A few students even start to self-identify as a ‘foodie’ at some point in the process.

The recipes to date have not really allowed for a creative license or full ownership. The ingredients and method were intentionally locked down so that the students could develop the necessary basic cooking skills, before their inner chef took over…before recipes entailed risk. The byproduct of controlling the lab so clearly is that when given the chance to adjust their rules and act on instinct, the students need help.

Despite the fact that many of my students have some culinary knowledge- some have part time jobs, some cook for their family, others go out for dinner frequently- being in charge of a dish that is so familiar presents an interesting challenge. A common tenet of the course is that you can know how to do something, but you can’t make your hands do it… the simplicity of the reduced tomato sauce beguiles a student and challenges them to recreate a dish that they are simultaneously remembering and forgetting. Regardless of their pre-knowledge for this course, the addition of layers of student agency to this lab added just the right challenge and spice to the class.

We started from a common understanding of the 5 tastes. Since we all accepted that the flavours would need to be developed the flavour enhancement options were varied. I observed that each student would start from their own set of food experiences to create the sauce.

The food biases of the students initially kept the risk of trying something new, ie mistake making, kept some from remaining open minded. Since I did not provide a recipe, just a method, the opportunity to explore became the heart of the lesson. For those who only trusted my method, then the recipe did not stray from the demo. But, if only one person rocked the boat. Or if there was only one risk taker in the group then there was another view planted.

What I listened for was the conversation that started with ‘what if we..?’ There was little chatter around the method for making the pasta, but the vision for the sauce, now that became a massive debatable point.

Dan Finkel’s suggestions when it comes to learning are pretty profound. His five step frame became more and more powerful as I avoided answering any questions that were not based in direct experiential experimentation. Students that dared to demonstrate a sense of ownership of their learning were by far a more interactive group. For better or worse, the debate around the shape that the dish would take was thrilling to watch. The haggling and counter haggling was on par with any political science discussion. Every student was transformed into a stakeholder.

When a student sits and receives learning from someone else without challenge, the student becomes quite docile. A vacuum or absence of engagement is clearly observable in the relations between students and the connection with the curriculum. Student learning that is driven by student agency looks quite different. It feels a little messy, out of control, and exciting. Deep learning began the moment that the students realized that the sauce recipe was theirs to manipulate and the negotiating started. The recipe was not complex, but the creative process is.

Starting out simply and getting out of the way will be my goal from now on.


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.

food is ..?

I start this course in a similar fashion every semester. I poke and prod the students with survey questions designed to explore their rules and beliefs that surround food.

A large portion of the first week is spent in discussions surrounding favourite flavours, and shapes, and the ‘whys’ behind systems of thought that support the fact that ketchup is better than fresh tomatoes and that muffins are actually cupcakes without icing.

All the while I am slowly cataloging the pre-knowledge of my students.

All the while I am engaging them in some pretty lofty debates- ‘Be it resolved that nobody should buy bread from a gas station..’

All the while I am assessing Learning Skills and the critical analysis tools that each of my new, young chefs employ.

And all the while I am nurturing the open opportunity to build rapport and lure the students into an open mindset or growth mindset. By challenging their assumptions, discussing their beliefs, and sharing their experiences the class slowly gels around a common pursuit- deeper appreciation of the course material and of each other’s contributions.

This mindset ultimately serves more useful than the handouts, the slide-decks, and the summative tasks. Students that give themselves permission to explore the ‘why’ behind their food rules and food knowledge, usually experience a deeper satisfaction in their learning. And, more concretely, are able to demonstrate their skills clearly and articulate their qualifications without leaning on any marking scheme.

The open minded student leaves this course being able to explain what they could not do when they walked in, what they can do by the end of the course, and confidently replicate the effort it took to arrive at success.

This kitchen/classroom space is an amazingly, deep learning zone for me. Every semester that I am able to continue teaching this course I try to add more depth and density. By adding flipped videos, blogging, and maintaining a virtual classroom I hope that the students will appreciate a Modern Learning approach to a ‘cooking course’ In the least, by openly documenting my learning process and including the class community in the development of class resources, the students will see the reasonable risks that I am taking. And maybe, in turn, the students will be willing to do the same.