Cooking Is The Best Metaphor For Understanding What Actually Happens In Teaching


Cooking is the best metaphor for understanding what actually happens in teaching.

This is a nod to the arguments in Anti-Fragile by Nicholas Taleb.

Teaching is like cooking because…

  • There are recipe books. Some are better than others. These recipe books are nice to look at. People are impressed when they see them on your shelf. Mostly, they stay on the shelf.
  • There are recipes. Again, some are better than others. And while you might experiment, you tend to stick with what you know works most of the time.
  • If you’re not so confident, it pays to stick to the recipe. Why change something that you know works well? Also, changing the recipe is risky.
  • But you can also tinker with recipes. Once you start tinkering you expose yourself to flops. A flop is a recipe that didn’t work. The upside is that sometimes you get unexpected results that taste delicious. Some recipes lend themselves more to tinkering. Especially if you don’t really know what you’re doing. Other recipes don’t. Like baking.
  • Recipes scale. You can cook for one, for six, or for 60. Even baking, which doesn’t lend itself to much tinkering, scales. Actually, I’m not sure this one works… Teaching is hard to scale. Or at least, good teachers are.
  • One kind of experience is just remembering lots of different recipes that you can use whenever you need to. Other people will think this is pretty cool when they see you do it.
  • Another kind of experience is understanding the relationships between the ingredients and what happens when you mix them or apply heat. This kind of experience lends itself to improvisation and innovation. This is hard to explain to other people if you know how to do it. Usually, they just “don’t get it”.
  • Making something new that doesn’t flop doesn’t mean you got to do whatever you wanted with all the right ingredients (and tools). It usually means that you made the best of what you had in front of you.

What else…?

Four Things I Learned About Education Working With The Army

General Education

A few years ago I had the privilege of working with members of the NZ Army and NZ Defence Forces education team. It was lots of fun being on base and I learned a bunch of things that have really stuck with me over time.

I’m generalising here, so you’ll have to allow me a bit of poetic licence…

1. Working in education is a bit like being in the Army

These days, there’s really only troops and generals. The troops on the ground are the educators on the front lines of foundation education. The generals are the owners, managers, bureaucrats, policy wonks and others involved in the business of education.


2. You’re probably in the troops

Most of us aren’t generals. And the generals know who they are. In fact, if you’re not one of the generals then you have to be in the troops by default.

There are reasons for that. One is that the middle is being sliced out. This is happening in every big bureaucracy. Middle means middle management. Whether it also means middle class is something we’ll find out over the next 10 years. There are implications for this, both good and bad.

Whatever the reason, being in the troops helps explain why it feels (at least sometimes) that you’re on the front lines of a battle.

Middle Management

3. Deadwood gets cut

One implication of all this is that because the middle is being (has been) carved out there aren’t very many options left for you. This means that you can’t afford to be deadwood. If you are, you’ll be cut out. Actually, even if you aren’t they might still cut you out. Which brings me to the last thing…


4. If you want to be employable, you must be deployable

Nothing is guaranteed, but this one should be self explanatory by now. If they (the generals) can deploy you… then you’ve got a job. But the landscape will be different. You might be sent to new places. And you’ll need new strategies AND new tools to fight the good fight.

Self driving car as a metaphor for the future of education

I’m a bit slow. I only just made this connection. The guy who invented the self driving car is now trying to create the self driving car for education.

His name is Sebastian Thrun and he’s CEO of a kind of online university offering free and subscription-based via their online platform. I need to unpack their business model a bit more, but that will have to wait for another post.

Back to the self-driving car though… This is possibly the metaphor for education at the moment.

There’s a fantastic article here on what it’s likely to do to the transport industry. Innovation and unemployment in other words. Read the article is a brilliant piece of analysis and I wish I’d written it.

This is now my mission: create a self driving car for my education niche… How do I start?




“Weaving” versus “tools for your toolbox” as metaphors for embedding literacy and numeracy

embedding = weaving

I’ve talked about metaphors before here. But I just wanted to add a few thoughts. My thinking behind this is that when I working with tutors, I often want to describe what we do in terms of something else that I think they already understand.

Since starting this work in 2007 the main metaphor that I’ve used is the “tools for your toolbox” approach. This metaphor works for trades because trades people use physical tools and they get it when I talk about teaching approaches, strategies, and activities as literacy and numeracy “tools” that go in their bigger “toolbox” of education and training tools.

But we also talk about embedding literacy and numeracy in terms of weaving. This metaphor comes from the world of Maori education. I wish it was original to me but it’s totally not. I’ve heard it used by many different Maori educators in different contexts and I’ve started using it myself.

It works really well. For one thing, it feels kind of organic. This is important, especially for educators who are looking for meaning outside of the more academically focused western intellectual model of mainstream education.

Another thing about the weaving metaphor is that it allows people to think of their teaching and training as a kind of real object with these mixed threads woven through it. On the one hand there are the the threads relating to content and context. And on the other, there are another set of threads relating to literacy and numeracy.

This thinking also underlies the Maori early childhood curriculum, Te Whariki which takes the woven flax mat as a metaphor.

Finally, by thinking of the embedding process, educators can see how they are also weaving other things through their training – often in addition to the literacy and numeracy which should now be business as usual. And here I’m thinking specifically of the Kaupapa Maori value system that really drives Maori and other educators working in this space.

For those new to this kind of thinking, if you see these values (wellbeing, contribution, belonging, language, exploration, for e.g.) as a further thread running though your training and interactions, you can do what we do with the literacy and numeracy. This is to make it explicit to your learners, have great conversations with them about it, and explicitly embed the value system.

I’m not saying that learners can’t learn these values or thrive in this kind of environment when they are more implicit, but our foundations-focused learners really need these values and given the chance can learn them explicitly. Just like with literacy and numeracy.

So there you go. Get the value system out of stealth mode as well and onto the radar.

Image 18-06-13 at 8.43 AM