Chef as metaphor

Last year, as part of the huge Connectivism course, we were asked to consider various metaphors for the role of the instructor in this new internet-influenced world of learning by association (and with ones associates).

The metaphor of curator, which George Siemens used, seemed to me the best at portraying the new paradigm. At the time, I suggested the role of Organic Gardener or Wizard to be apt also.

But this week, after preparing Prezis and recordings and providing worksheets for translating lecture material into a handy chart of political shifts during the French Revolution, many students did very poorly on the quiz. The brighter students easily saw that I had prepared them thoroughly for the exam. Others wandered around the essay question, not realizing it reflected what we had done together in class. We had spent an hour with me putting the events of the French Revolution within a framework of conservative/liberal/radical politics, and many essays didn’t use any of these words.

I was not using open, connectivist learning, but rather classic lecture and a classic essay question. Nothing should have been in the least surprising. It occurred to me that I had cooked the meal, laid the table, and some had simply refused to eat. It should have been comfort food, what they were used to, but seemed somehow exotic.

So my new analogy is that of chef. I am a master of the ingredients of history. I can combine them into multiple complex formulas to please the most discriminating palate. I do not like being treated like a mere cook, whose role it is to simply serve up the quick info and then expect quick consumption. Our current model of student as customer has, of course, encouraged the White Castle burger (or In ‘n’ Out if you prefer) approach. The items on the menu are assumed to be limited, and to cater to pedestrian tastes, familiar to all.

I served up a wholesome meal, a chronology of the French Revolution with a pleasing side dish of political philosophy. They picked at it, and would probably have preferred macaroni and cheese.

I suppose if I taught at a university, it would be like being a gourmet chef, the kind that gets his name in the newspapers. People come to that chef’s restaurant to eat what he cooks, because he is an expert. Only those who can afford it, those who at least think they have discriminating taste even if they don’t, would visit. At an open access community college, however, I get a much broader spectrum of clientele. I do not mean this in a socio-economic sense, but rather in an intellectual sense. I have students who are there to get into a good university and already come to me with intellectual skills, ready to hone them into historical skills during my class. They ask what’s fresh today, order on my recommendation, use their napkin, and tip properly. But I also have those who casually made it through high school, and who think this is “high school with ashtrays”, and who are very much enjoying the fact that unlike in the cafeteria of secondary education, where they had to sit at a certain table for 45 minutes, they can now refuse to eat at all. A number are there only to stay on daddy’s health insurance, and will happily take a D. They clean their nails at the table, order too many drinks, and make fun of the French names on the menu. They expect a TV chef, that I’ll juggle knives or get all choked up if the judges don’t like me.

How do I serve them, as society assumes I am supposed to do? Open education means opportunity for all, and everyone deserves a chance to succeed, so all must understand the menu, and be able to digest what I’m offering. At our Adventures in Online Pedagogy session in January, my colleague Jim asked the attendees to move to the corner of the room representing their pedagogical comfort zone: instructivist, constructivist, or connectivist. It was assumed that I would be the only one in the connectivist corner. I really couldn’t go there yet. I’m still part instructivist and part constructivist, as my forum design demonstrates. I still think I need to serve them something, and that I’m the best person to decide what the something is. But the fact is, I was trained as a chef, not a short order cook. I can’t do Adam and Eve on a Raft, wreck ’em. My understanding is that I was hired to make the decisions in the kitchen, yet the pressure seems instead to make sure that everyone eats. If I have a high drop rate, I must be doing something wrong. If too many students get below a C, it’s seen as my fault. They don’t like the food, I must be cooking the wrong things.

What I would like to do is serve a connectivist buffet, and let them make their own plate. But I worry that they will not make good food choices. Some will go for the sugar, having been given their own choice for the first time since high school, selecting sensationalist tidbits from the History Channel. The only ones who will create a nutritious plate will be those in the habit of doing so, or who are bright enough to understand the digestive consequences of an unbalanced meal. These are the A students, the ones who could have cooked a decent meal for themselves anyway.

I just wonder whether the buffet, or connectivist approach, would make this better or worse. Would providing a huge selection of choices lead to real learning? or would they just get too many carbs?

3 thoughts to “Chef as metaphor”

  1. Lisa:

    First of all, let me say- I LOVED YOUR ANALOGY! Oh, you had me rolling in laughter! But you are right- when you teach you are a “master of mixing” those ingredients you serve up to your students.

    You pose an interesting question: “Would providing a huge selection of choices lead to real learning? or would they just get too many carbs?” it is my humble opinion that, if you provide too much to decide, you will indeed be handing out “too many carbs.” As one who has taught using the Multiple Intelligences by Dr. Howard Gardner, I have learned through trial and error that you need to keep it simple. Provide two or three choices at a time and rotate them. Maybe one day you might want to offer up hamburger and hot dog, another day it can be spaghetti and mac and cheese, and so on. At the end of the week (or the unit!), you might want to serve up a three- course meal to wrap up the lesson.

    Great analogy! I enjoyed it very much- thank you! I look forward to reading more entries from you!


  2. Perhaps you have to be the Maitre d’ as well as chef – performing the role of recommender, filter, guiding the less experienced diners to make sensible choices from the menu or buffet, allowing the ‘A’ diners to graze at will?

  3. I really liked this post and agree maitre d is a good analogy for your role. I did an exercise with students many years ago where they used metaphors to think about the application of technology in different situations. When it came to teaching and learning, the metaphors tended to have the teacher in the more active role and the students in the reactive more passive role. This was a good starting point for a discussion about what learning was and how technology support impacted on that. In your analogy, perhaps the students could take it in turns to be diners and trainee chefs in the kitchen.

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