What Masterchef can tell us about Project-based Learning

April 28, 2011 at 7:30 am 2 comments

by Alec Patton

My partner and I don’t own a television, so we tend to watch programmes in iplayer-enabled week-long marathons. This week we’re catching up on Masterchef. As it happens, I’m also hard at work on the guide to enquiry- and project-based learning Learning Futures is creating with High Tech High. This means I bring a very particular perspective to the much-loved competitive cooking show, and within it, I’ve found four lessons for project-based learning:

1. Bring in experts to teach the students and critique their work

We just watched the episode in which Yotam Ottolenghi (who, incidentally, is revered within the Innovation Unit) advises the contestants on cooking vegetarian food, and critiques their dishes. His presence is especially valuable in this episode because it validates a practice (vegetarian cooking) that most of the contestants are inclined to dismiss as (at best) unfathomable, or (at worst) laughable. The critique element of this is particularly important. As Ron Berger writes in An Ethic of Excellence (which I will be quoting A LOT in the coming weeks because it’s amazing) ‘Having professionals come into the classroom to critique student work is an exciting experience, quite different from the traditional model of inviting an expert simply to be a guest speaker’ (p. 96).

2. The teacher’s manner will set the tone for interactions throughout the class

One of the most striking things about Masterchef  is how kind and humble the contestants are. They routinely talk about how skilled their competitors are (whether or not they’re in the room) and express their desire to stay on in terms of how much they are learning, rather than simply reiterating their urge to win. It’s a far cry from the bluster and braggadocio of Apprentice contestants.

In part, this is probably because Masterchef contestants are driven by a fundamentally generous impulse (make beautiful food for other people), while Apprentice contestants are driven by a selfish one (make lots of money). But I think the programmes’ respective taskmasters have a lot to do with it: Greg Wallace and John Torode treat the contestants warmly and respectfully. Alan Sugar, as anyone who’s seen his programme knows, takes a different approach. And the hosts’ personalities permeate the entire culture of their shows – just as teachers’ personalities permeate their classes.

3. There is no pressure more powerful than a hungry crowd

Whether they’re cooking for circus riggers or nobility in Scotland, when contestants are in the kitchen you can see they’re driven not by their desire to keep from being eliminated or to win the approbation of Greg and John, but by the requirement that the crowd outside be fed well, and on time. In fact, the scenes of cooking for ‘the public’ always have an urgency that’s lacking when contestants are only cooking for the hosts – despite the fact that the ‘public’ will almost certainly be less discerning about the quality of the food. The analogy with school is pretty clear: presenting work to the public is a much stronger motivator than either marks or teacher praise.

4. Acknowledge effort, and critique output

When contestants deliver their freshly-prepared food to Greg and John, the hosts usually say ‘good work’. Then, they may go on to tell the contestant their dish was inedible – but that doesn’t change the fact that the contestant worked really hard on it, and by saying ‘good work’ they pay attention to that, while recognising that the quality of the output is an entirely separate issue. Acknowledging effort should not dilute critique of output – both are important, and each can be kept separate from the other.

I haven’t watched all the extant episodes, and there are probably scenes that completely contradict what I’ve written here (plus, I’m watching a heavily-edited TV programme that should in no way be mistaken for a good-faith effort to document real events accurately), but I think these are valuable points anyway.


Entry filed under: Education & Children's Services.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mark Moorhouse  |  April 28, 2011 at 9:31 am

    Great stuff! Carol Dweck would applaud the affirmation of effort also: smart or skilled are not something you are, but things you get through hard work.

  • 2. alecpatton  |  April 28, 2011 at 10:00 am

    True enough, Mark!


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