Are we preparing our students to be chefs or cooks?

Be more chef.

It is a mantra I’ve adopted and taken to heart these past few months as my brother lay in a hospital, seemingly impacting the world more from that bed, then many of could do with bodies that were not full of tumors and cancer.

My brother was a chef in every sense of the word. He took the circumstances that life gave him and turned them into something wonderful and new and beautiful.

When my brother passed away a few weeks ago, my thoughts turned to my own four children. How could I help raise them to be chefs? How could I raise them to not follow the recipes of life, but instead make their own recipes for their life? But, it is not just my kids, it is all of our kids.

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 (seriously, you should read his whole post):

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.

A cook is 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.

A chef is doing new things in new ways.

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

Chefs question the world around them.

Chefs question answers as often as the answer questions.

Yet, we often reward students for “cook-like” behaviors, while discouraging them from digging deep like a chef might do.

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 14 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…

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.

My brother’s legacy is one that I hold very close to my heart. He made the world a better place. He was a chef. And, so I leave you with this…

Be more chef.

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  • Margaret Rose says:

    What a beautiful tribute to your brother (my condolences). And, this piece of writing and vision – a special gift to us all. Thank you, AJ Juliani, what great “food for thought” and action!

  • Irene Pinheiro says:

    Dear Mr.Juliani,
    I was deeply touched by your
    brother’s story.As you wrote he is a real hero(heroes never die and they stay in our minds forever and set an example to us all) the way he lived his life an inspiration to all of us.
    Your article made me reflect on the way we teach the students and on what needs ro be changed.
    I have recently retired after 41 years of teaching but I will pass this article on to my colleagues and friends who are still teaching so that they can read it and reflect upon it too.
    You always thank us for what we are doing but now it is my turn to thank you for what you have written.
    All the best to you and your family and keep on the work you are doing.I and I think many teachers around the world appreciate it!

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