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. [footnote] 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. [/footnote]

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?

Chefs or Cooks?

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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Join the discussion 22 Comments

  • Charlene Doland says:

    Astute post, AJ. The (generalized) trajectory is that three-year-olds’ favorite question is “why?” I remember when my own kids were that age. Some of their whys I had no answer to, so was honest with them and said that we needed to find out. I also homeschooled them, and encouraged them to question, and joined them in exploring the questions I couldn’t answer. My older son took some classes at the local high school, and was quite astonished that so many of the students didn’t ask questions. As a PBL coach, I work to get teachers to let go of “control” and challenge them to ask their students to explore answers to their own questions. It’s a difficult, scary mind shift, but so worth it!

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Ahh I love this comment! The mind shift is so hard to facilitate but I believe you are on to something that we have to model it ourselves as well as teach it.

  • Patricia says:

    I teach adult ESL students (mostly refugees from a variety of countries). When given a task to be creative, they are stuck. They want me to tell them what to do, how to do it, when to do it, etc. It has taken me a lot of time to get them to think out of the box, be more child-like and learn to “play” again, in order to get this creativity and enthusiasm for investigating and learning back. Although many have never been in a school environment. Thank you for your great perspective

    • AJ Juliani says:

      I love your perspective Patricia! Thanks for sharing that this takes place in all content areas across all disciplines and ages!

  • Arnie says:

    Your perspective is both interesting and correct. We have to allow children to be in charge of their own learning. With guidance allow them to explore and find creative answers. There are always objectives all students need to know to further their explorations and our job is to give them the tools and expect only the correct answer or method, but allow for different views. Thanks for sharing this blog.

  • Barb says:

    I couldn’t agree more, and the chef analogy is so perfect. I mentor over 25 new teachers in my district, and this topic comes up frequently. And you’re absolutely right – today’s teachers are looking for ways to add choice and differentiate for students; they are asking more open-ended, high-level questions and creating project-based units. And they almost feel guilty when they teach a low-level skill lesson. But in terms of becoming a chef, a great chef has to sample a lot of food, learn about specific ingredients and how they work together, practice presentation styles, and so on. There is a place for those specific skill lessons in schools to help scaffold the cook into a chef. And there is a misconception that if you provide a hands-on activity that provides some choice you will create a chef. It is truly a challenge for teachers to find ways to engage the cooks so they are inspired to become chefs! Thank you for sharing this timely topic.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Yes! Any great chef has to have a tree-trunk of knowledge around skills and types of foods in order to create something truly great and genuine. Teaching skills is a part that we cannot forget!

  • John Bennett says:

    As I read this thought-encouraging (as yours always are) post, I remembered back when our grandson was not yet two years old. My wife and I were at his and his parents’ townhouse on a winter day. Our grandson want to go out onto the deck – but didn’t want put his coat on. My reaction would have been “No coat, no going outside – it’s too cold.” His parents first tried reasoning about the cold. When that didn’t work, they said “OK” as they watched closely at the door. In a few minutes (before they would have insisted he come in for health reasons, he came in on his own, exclaiming “It’s too cold outside…” and asked for his coat. The ‘chef’ was in control. To this day (he’s now a teenager), he’s making good ‘cooking’ decisions about what to wear outside!

    In my thinking and writing about learning, I refer to the phrase, ‘Effective Learning,’ as my most important goal for education – in two contexts. First, the teachers and administrators have the responsibility / duty to facilitate student efforts that enable Effective Learning: Student control, real-world, emphasis on the learning and not grades (no grades???), emphasis on information gathering and not textbooks (no textbooks???), routine self-assessment, documentation of evidence of learning, reflection on status, demonstration of learning publicly, …

    And second, the teachers have the responsibility / duty to facilitate student development of the skills associated with Effective Learning, the ones that enable the student control of the Effective Learning activities outlines just above. Sure, the students will ‘pick up’ some of these skills in those efforts. But I believe it must be consciously facilitated; it’s too important! Lifelong learning will never be an option… During formal education, these skills must be optimized by each student via teacher facilitation, becoming habitual!!!

    Do parental approaches play a role? Most certainly!!! Example: My grandson’s anecdote above. Do sports participation play a role? Most certainly!!! Successful coaching staffs help their players learn to make good decisions ‘on the fly’ rather than memorize all those specific plays.

    A personal experience: I was a Math minor all through my schooling; math was my ‘easy, change of pace’ subject. So a college faculty, students and advisees learned I could often help with math. Math educators will identify with this. The most common request for help was with differential equation solving. The textbook was laid out and the lectures were given with ‘solution procedure A’, examples in class for A, homework for A, same three steps for ‘B’, then ‘C’, …. Then there would be a review section in the book with uses of procedures mixed up / not identified – as would be the case on exams! Students never were expected to know how to figure out the procedure to try first… That’s where I facilitated their development!!! They might have been good ‘cooks’ but were lousy ‘chefs’. [Aside: In 40+ years doing engineering research, I remember only solving ONE differential equation…]

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Thanks as always for your insights John! Love the story of your grandchild and I see that with my own kids many times. One of the issues you point out is that we often reward students for cook-like actions instead of a chef mindset.

  • What a timely article for so many reasons –
    I was just talking to a colleague yesterday about some of these topics and about the fact that this our new teachers are one of the first wave of teachers that are the product of the high stakes testing era
    How can tasks them with the job of creating chefs when many of them have only experienced cooking in their own education and possibly in teacher training.

    We need to create PD opportunities where they EXPERIENCE the practice of being a CHEF – instead of merely pointing to the “tasks’ at hand, “Create the next generation of Chefs”. Barb – I wish that I encountered more teachers who are “asking more open-ended, high-level questions and creating project-based units. And… feel guilty when they teach a low-level skill lesson.” Thankfully there are many.. but still not enough. Many are still looking for a cookbook to give to their teachers at the next inservice and buy into programs that are almost ‘scripts’ for teachers to read. Teachers who want to be creative are looking for ways to ‘fit in’ their creative ideas that deviate from the script. COMMON LOCAL ASSESSMENT drive the sequence and a chef-like teacher is often encouraged to start an afterschool program with their new designs or add it to the “end of the semester”.

    I’m not trying to be negative.. I want more chefs in our schools. Perhaps one of the answers is to HIGHLIGHT the chefs and their products — but then are we creating a cookbook ….

    No easy answers!

    and Thanks for introducing me to “WaitButWhy.Com” I could have spent all day there this morning.

    P.S. After I wrote this I started to think about the fact that my grandson is addicted to Junior Master Chef Series – and started wondering where the equivalent might be for teachers?

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Great points Lucie! And yes Wait But Why is an amazing blog 🙂 — it brings up and interesting point that are current system is both ineffective for students and teachers much of the time (in terms of fostering chef like attitudes and actions). PD is one avenue but I believe mindset is what we are really after…

  • Meredith says:

    There was a wonderful TV program in Australia called “The Cook and the Chef”. The interactions between both the cook (a mature country woman who’d always used produce that was available and often had to adapt) and the chef (young, male, innovative), with good communication, respect, listening and sharing of ideas made for even better outcomes. I would like to think that in education we can use the same ideas to still showcase new ideas, blend old and new to create something better or totally different from our perceived ideas of what is best. Thank you for tantalising my thoughts and thinking how to do this in a classroom.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Thanks for sharing that show with us Meredith! I’m going to have to check it out. There is both a place for building on old ideas in new ways and also implementing new ideas in new ways!

  • Ashok B says:

    IMHO, becoming a skilled cook is the first step to becoming a great chef. The aspiring chef needs to demonstrate hunger, focus and discipline. When that happens, the expert chef is motivated to mentor him on how to practice deliberately to build skills the right way.

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Along those same lines chefs are always creating new recipes and concoctions, they are often taking the best from other chefs 🙂

  • Joan says:

    I always enjoy your posts, AJ, but this one has stayed on my mind constantly since I read it yesterday. This analogy is so right on! You mention that it is easier to teach cooks than chefs. As a teacher, it is so much easier to BE a cook than a chef. I’ve observed many classes where the students are doing/learning/writing/ incredible work and in those classes, the teacher is indeed a chef. Each day they develop new recipes that provide students with the the skill set needed, as Barb refers to above, through authentic problem based scenarios that engage students to search for creative solutions. I’ve seen teacher-chefs go beyond written common core assessments while still meeting the common core. We need to find better ways for teacher-cooks to intern/partner/collaborate with the teacher-chefs! Thanks for posting ideas and asking the questions that keep us talking!

    • AJ Juliani says:

      Hi Joan, yes the chef analogy sure works with all of us in education as well. I remember having a conversation this summer with a colleague about the need to remove the word “cover” from our vocabulary when talking about curriculum, standards, and skills!

  • Morten says:

    I wrote a blog about a similar topic a few months back:
    Growth mindset in kitchens and schools
    I have always been impressed by great chefs. Why? Simply because they always strive for improvement. When they’ve done their best, they always seem to ask: how can I make my best better? A very clear example of this was seen when René Redzepi, headchef at Noma, commented on the decision to close down Noma and open a brand new restaurant:
    “We have spent the last twelve years trying to figure out what it means to be a chef in the Nordic region, and now we are ready to start that restaurant we have been practicing for.”
    Wow. And I mean: wow! They have been “practicing”, and at the same time maintained a position as best or near-best restaurant in the world.

  • Jennifer says:

    It is such an interesting way of looking at how we teach. After 25 years in the classroom, I believe I challenged my students to think outside the box, to be creative like a chef. However, I think I have forgotten that same spirit at times with my own children. Thank you for sharing this analogy.

  • I like the cooks vs. chefs metaphor. In our STEM education programs we are always seeking ways to move toward the chef end of the spectrum and often think about this way:

    Early in a program/unit we want successful PBL engagements so teachers are driving more and the STEM projects are a bit cookbooky. That said, we get good results building content knowledge and confidence.

    Midway through a program/unit we reflect and look forward. The goal here is to celebrate all the learning that has happened and see what the students are most interested in doing next. The shift toward increasingly “authentic” student work is where we start seeing more and more chef behaviors.

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