From education to employment

A tale of summer holiday learning

The concept of teachers as learners features regularly in debates about professional development, and I am always interested to hear about teachers’ and trainers’ voluntary learning activities, especially those outside their specialist subject or vocational area and away from their workplace. I was particularly intrigued when two colleagues separately told me of their participation in different cookery school courses during the summer holiday.

Let me share with you their first-hand accounts of their learning experiences.

“It was with eager anticipation that I set off for a one-day course at a cookery school owned by a well-known and widely respected chef. I was keen to learn from expert chefs how prepare to a range of signature savoury dishes, using professional equipment in a fabulous kitchen.

“The first session was meant to start at 9, and those of us who had arrived on time were left to sit waiting. As the minutes ticked by, I felt a rising sense of anxiety. Would I be hopeless on the course? Should I talk to the others, or would I be intruding – did some of them already know each other? It would have been nice if a tutor had turned up to welcome us all and put at our ease, so that we felt comfortable in the social context and were ready to learn.

“When the chefs did arrive, it turned out that they were excellent demonstrators and communicators who offered us a wealth of hints and tips. Their 35-minute presentation was illuminating and very interesting.

“Then we repaired to our work benches to have our turn at preparing the signature dishes that had been demonstrated. I was not alone in realising very quickly that there had been too much to take in and remember. It would have helped if the chefs had been circulating, ready to spot if some of us were struggling, but they did not, and so, feeling somewhat inadequate, we gamely persevered.”

The second account is from someone who went on a different course at another cookery school.

“I was keen to have the chance to learn to make sauces with an internationally acclaimed chef. ’Whether you are a beginner or an experienced cook, this course is for you,’ the glossy blurb proclaimed. The reality was somewhat different: an hour-long PowerPoint presentation, after which we returned to kitchen work areas, where all the ingredients had already been prepared by staff, and we were left on our own to fly or fail.

“The lack of explanation about some key principles – for example, why one should add egg yolks to the sauce and heat gently until it thickens, stirring all the time and not allowing it to boil – led to some poor results, especially for real beginners. Many individuals made sauces that were grey, lumpy or burned. Some proper support, supervision and guidance during the practical session would have been helpful.”

In both cases, what could have been an outstanding course was let down by the quality of the teaching. Being an outstanding and inspirational chef who can communicate well is not enough: one should be able to teach in a way that leads to learning and reinforcing new skills that can be applied afterwards. Gauging levels of expertise and confidence; pitching support for individuals and groups accordingly; giving learners a chance to assimilate information and put it into practice; and offering feedback and guidance – these are all basic components of effective teaching.

Both colleagues said that they would love to eat in the restaurants to which the cookery schools were attached and that the chefs deserved top marks for their enthusiasm. The kitchens were fabulous, and they definitely learned a few things. Thanks to the poor teaching though, neither would award more than 2 or 3 out of 10 for the overall quality of the learning.

For me, this tale of two summer holiday courses highlights the importance of teachers being dual professionals. In culinary terms, that means being an expert teacher as well as an expert chef.

Dr Jean Kelly is head of professional development at the Institute for Learning (IfL), the independent professional body for teachers, trainers, tutors and student teachers across the further education and skills sector, with over 70,000 members

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