Are we preparing students to be chefs or cooks?

By AJ Juliani, 21 comments

Usually, when I write a blog post it is because I want to dig deeper into a topic and explore its merit. The post then becomes my way of explaining to myself, and to anyone who reads it, the underlying ideas and what my thoughts, experiences, and takeaways are on the topic.

This post is different. Today I want to talk about one of the most important topics to me: the future of our children.

But I’m not going to dive into this topic by myself. I’m not going to cover it in a huge four-part series like I recently wrote. Instead, I want to share excerpts and thoughts from one of the most thought-provoking articles I’ve ever read on the subject. 1

Maybe you are like me with four kids all young, all with a wide open possibility of what life is going to be like. Maybe you don’t have any kids, or maybe your kids are all grown, or maybe you have grandkids. In any case, if you are a teacher, leader, or learner it always comes back to our kids (at least it should always come back to what is best for kids).

You can read the full article yourself (but it is extremely long at over 10,000 words) and I wanted to paraphrase and highlight some key takeaways from the article, mainly to make sure that we are thinking about and discussing this idea in our homes and in our schools.

The question is, “Are we raising/preparing/teaching our students/children to be chefs or cooks?”

Tim Urban explains the difference between a chef and a cook in his post for the blog Wait But Why:

The words “cook” and “chef” seem kind of like synonyms. And in the real world, they’re often used interchangeably. But in this post, when I say chef, I don’t mean any ordinary chef. I mean the trailblazing chef—the kind of chef who invents recipes. And for our purposes, everyone else who enters a kitchen—all those who follow recipes—is a cook.

Everything you eat—every part of every cuisine we know so well—was at some point in the past created for the first time. Wheat, tomatoes, salt, and milk go back a long time, but at some point, someone said, “What if I take those ingredients and do this…and this…..and this……” and ended up with the world’s first pizza. That’s the work of a chef.

Since then, god knows how many people have made a pizza. That’s the work of a cook.

The chef reasons from first principles, and for the chef, the first principles are raw edible ingredients. Those are her puzzle pieces, her building blocks, and she works her way upwards from there, using her experience, her instincts, and her taste buds.

The cook works off of some version of what’s already out there—a recipe of some kind, a meal she tried and liked, a dish she watched someone else make.

What all of these cooks have in common is their starting point is something that already exists. Even the innovative cook is still making an iteration of a burger, a pizza, and a cake.

At the very end of the spectrum, you have the chef. A chef might make good food or terrible food, but whatever she makes, it’s a result of her own reasoning process, from the selection of raw ingredients at the bottom to the finished dish at the top.

A cook is then considered a follower. They can even be a creative follower, but they’ll never create from their own understanding, but instead always build on what others have done. They are often doing old things in new ways.

Chefs, on the other hand, are experimenting and doing new things in new ways. They are building and experimenting and often failing.

Are we encouraging students to experiment like a chef? Are we supporting them when their efforts turn into “terrible” food? Do we only praise students for cook-like efforts?

Urban explains how, from a very young age, many of us have been rewarded for cook-like behaviors, while discouraged from digging deep like a chef might do:

Everyone’s raised differently, but for most people I know, it went something like this:

We were taught all kinds of things by our parents and teachers—what’s right and wrong, what’s safe and dangerous, the kind of person you should and shouldn’t be. But the idea was: I’m an adult so I know much more about this than you, it’s not up for debate, don’t argue, just obey. That’s when the cliché “Why?” game comes in (what ElonSpeak calls “the chained why”).

A child’s instinct isn’t just to know what to do and not to do, she wants to understand the rules of her environment. And to understand something, you have to have a sense of how that thing was built. When parents and teachers tell a kid to do XYZ and to simply obey, it’s like installing a piece of already-designed software in the kid’s head. When kids ask Why? and then Why? and then Why?, they’re trying to deconstruct that software to see how it was built—to get down to the first principles underneath so they can weigh how much they should actually care about what the adults seem so insistent upon.

The first few times a kid plays the Why game, parents think it’s cute. But many parents, and most teachers, soon come up with a way to cut the game off:

Because I said so.

“Because I said so” inserts a concrete floor into the child’s deconstruction effort below which no further Why’s may pass. It says, “You want first principles? There. There’s your floor. No more Why’s necessary.

The problem with the “because I said so” game is that eventually our beliefs and interactions with the world are not rooted in what our parents say is true, but in what many other influencing people, institutions, and dogmas say is true. Urban illustrates this point masterfully (he’s also great at sketching):

Because I said so
Picture via

And this consistent game of “because I said so” leads many students to lose the creative chef side they once had. In fact, it’s been documented that this not only happens to some children, but to a huge population of kids as they grow up and become teenagers and adults.

Couple that concept with what another favorite writer of mine, James Clear, explained recently on his blog:

In the 1960s, a creative performance researcher named George Land conducted a study of 1,600 five-year-olds and 98 percent of the children scored in the “highly creative” range. Dr. Land re-tested each subject during five year increments. When the same children were 10-years-old, only 30 percent scored in the highly creative range. This number dropped to 12 percent by age 15 and just 2 percent by age 25. As the children grew into adults they effectively had the creativity trained out of them. In the words of Dr. Land, “non-creative behavior is learned.”

It makes sense, right? Creative thinking is a close cousin of first principles reasoning. In both cases, the thinker needs to invent his own thought pathways. People think of creativity as a natural born talent, but it’s actually much more of a way of thinking—it’s the thinking version of painting onto a blank canvas. But to do that requires brain software that’s skilled and practiced at coming up with new things, and school trains us on the exact opposite concept—to follow the leader, single-file, and to get really good at taking tests. Instead of a blank canvas, school hands kids a coloring book and tells them to stay within the lines.

Take a moment and think of your own life. Think of your own learning path. When did the term “learning” become synonymous with “school”? Why do students feel more stress centered around “learning” as the grow older? Why will students spend hours and hours of their own time learning how to create a virtual world in Minecraft, but feel discouraged when given time to learn in school?

It’s been quite apparent to me over the past 10 years in public education as a teacher, administrator, and now parent—that most of us are saying the right things.

We want students to be creative. We want students to do innovative work. We want authentic learning tasks and assessments. We want to challenge our students to be problem solvers.

But, when most of us look at the practices in our own schools and our own homes, it looks much different than what we want.

So, how do we get from here (wanting school and learning to look a certain way) to there (school and learning actually looking the way we want it to look)?

I know I personally have to admit that I’ve often taken the easy route. It’s much easier to teach a class of cooks than it is a class of chefs. It’s much easier to raise cooks than it is to raise chefs. It’s much easier to tell my students and my own children that if they follow this magic formula (below) all will be ok:

Listen. Do what you are told at all times. Get good grades. Get into a good college. Get a good job. Have a good life.

The problem is that the magic formula doesn’t work anymore, and I’m not sure it ever did. I know many adults who have followed that exact path and can’t stand their job, and complain about their life.

But, ultimately we have to ask ourselves the question as parents, teachers, and leaders–what is the purpose of all this schooling?  What is the purpose for almost 15,000 hours of instruction and learning time in a school setting from K-12?

Do we want to continue producing students who believe their life will be set as a cook? Or who want to live life like as a chef…

History is full of the stories of chefs creating revolutions of apparent ingenuity through simple first principles reasoning. Genghis Khan organizing a smattering of tribes that had been fragmented for centuries using a powers of ten system in order to build one grand tribe that could sweep the world. Henry Ford creating cars with the out-of-the-box manufacturing technique of assembly-line production in order to bring cars to the masses for the first time. Marie Curie using unconventional methods to pioneer the theory of radioactivity and topple the “atoms are indivisible” assumption on its head (she won a Nobel Prize in both physics and chemistry—two prizes reserved exclusively for chefs). Martin Luther King taking a nonviolent Thoreau approach to a situation normally addressed by riots. Larry Page and Sergey Brin ignoring the commonly-used methods of searching the internet in favor of what they saw as a more logical system that based page importance on the number of important sites that linked to it. The 1966 Beatles deciding to stop being the world’s best cooks, ditching the typical songwriting styles of early-60s bands, including their own, and become music chefs, creating a bunch of new types of songs from scratch that no one had heard before.

Whatever the time, place, or industry, anytime something really big happens, there’s almost always an experimenting chef at the center of it—not being anything magical, just trusting their brain and working from scratch. Our world, like our cuisines, was created by these people—the rest of us are just along for the ride.

That’s where I leave you today. I don’t have all the answers. Heck, I don’t even have a few of the answers. But I want us to start asking the right questions.

I also want us to challenge ourselves, our colleagues, and our staff to discuss what type of students and what types of children we are trying to raise and teach.

Thanks to Tim Urban and for making me question whether or not my own children are heading towards the cook-life or the chef-life.

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  1. I’ve mentioned this blog before, and I want to continue pushing you to go over and check it out. It’s and the author is Tim Urban. Here’s the full article link. Fantastic stuff.