It’s been a long time since I first started thinking about writing this blog post. In fact, it was the final week of Masterchef the Professionals, which was mid-December, but you know what it’s like. Things get in the way, namely 11 for Christmas and all the cooking, drinking and eating that involves. So it’s new year, but this post is really important to me so I didn’t want to rush into it.
Zoe Elder and Alex Quigley among a hatful of others, including my outgoing head teacher have spent a lot of the academic year analysing the extraordinary success of our British Cycling Team and more importantly, the thinking of Dave Brailsford and his Marginal Gains work. The way that the very best thinking has been utilised has been incredibly inspiring and I recommend you soak up their ideas here and here.
I have often looked at Masterchef and felt a real affinity with the approach to learning the young chefs and amateurs always demonstrate. At the start of the programme, they always have quotes from the contestants saying such things as; “I’ve learnt so much, this has been an incredible experience, I don’t want to leave now, I just feel I’m beginning to find myself on this incredible journey.” You know the sort of thing. I have long felt that this is the exact response I want students to have in the school I work in. This is MY holy grail. Gulp.
Anyway, back to the episode in question. It was the semi-final of Masterchef. The three remaining contestants were about to get their first taste of working in one of the best restaurants in the world, the restaurant which has changed the face of gastronomy; The Fat Duck in Bray.
What grabbed me straight away, was how extraordinary, exciting, creative and beautiful each of the dishes shown at the start of the programme as the narrator introduced the new challenge.
As James “Jocky” Petrie explains, “ We want to try and take our guests away from an average, run of the mill experience meal. We’re taking them out of their comfort zone, places that they’ve never been before or places that they want to revisit and these dishes hopefully conjure up that experience.”
The chefs created some of the dishes in front of the budding Masterchef finalists and were taken around the different parts of the restaurant. It was just so inspiring. I kept thinking. This is what I want my school to be like. Creating work of quite exceptional brilliance, through many levels of exploration, analysis, critique and always searching for absolute perfection in an environment which encourages everyone working there to stretch what they think is possible. I was completely immersed in my holy grail. Except this was a three Michelin star restaurant, not a local comprehensive. So readers, you may ask where this is going…
Well just like Zoe and Alex have with marginal gains, I wanted to see what schools can learn from the best.
Heston’s Cooking Statement (available on the Fat Duck Website) gave me all I needed to begin to put my own manifesto together.
Three basic principles guide our cooking:
excellence, openness, and integrity.
“We are motivated above all by an aspiration to excellence. We wish to work with ingredients of the finest quality, and to realize the full potential of the food we choose to prepare, whether it is a single shot of espresso or a multicourse tasting menu.”
Now as soon as I read this, my affinity bell rang loud and clear. This is how I would take this for my school:
We are motivated above all by an aspiration to excellence. YES! We wish to work with a curriculum of the finest quality and realise the full potential of each child we work with, whether a high flying polymath or a child who needs all the help and encouragement needed to flourish. And, with more than a nod to marginal gains, from the ground up, we need to analyse the potential impact on learning that every experience gives the children in our care. From the subjects we teach, to use of lesson starters, to the canteen experience.
“We believe that today and in the future, a commitment to excellence requires openness to all resources that can help us give pleasure and meaning to people through the medium of food. In the past, cooks and their dishes were constrained by many factors: the limited availability of ingredients and ways of transforming them, limited understanding of cooking processes, and the necessarily narrow definitions and expectations embodied in local tradition. Today there are many fewer constraints, and tremendous potential for the progress of our craft. We can choose from the entire planet’s ingredients, cooking methods, and traditions, and draw on all of human knowledge, to explore what it is possible to do with food and the experience of eating. This is not a new idea, but a new opportunity. Nearly two centuries ago, Brillat-Savarin wrote that ‘the discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star.”
Paramount in everything we do is integrity. Our beliefs and commitments are sincere and do not follow the latest trend.”
You can see where this is heading can’t you. A commitment to excellence requires us all to continually scour the world, for what we can discover to improve our practise to ensure that what we are doing is giving the very best experience to every child who enters our school everyday. In the past, lessons were constrained by the limited understanding of how we learn best, the facilities we had to deliver our lessons and a profession that was isolated from sharing the very best of what we do. Today, there is tremendous potential for the progress of our craft. We can develop our pedagogical thinking from every corner of the world. We can draw upon all the expert knowledge needed to develop teaching and learning to create a curriculum which gives every child an extraordinary experience of what learning can be.
Our cooking values tradition, builds on it, and along with tradition is part of the ongoing evolution of our craft.
“The world’s culinary traditions are collective, cumulative inventions, a heritage created by hundreds of generations of cooks. Tradition is the base which all cooks who aspire to excellence must know and master. Our open approach builds on the best that tradition has to offer.
As with everything in life, our craft evolves, and has done so from the moment when man first realized the powers of fire. We embrace this natural process of evolution and aspire to influence it. We respect our rich history and at the same time attempt to play a small part in the history of tomorrow.”
Hello? Sound good or what? Yes we must endorse the very best from the past and use the techniques and models of knowledge which have served us very well. But, as the world continually evolves, so must we. We must all attempt to play a part in developing what we value as exceptional learning experiences. We all have a stake in becoming the history of tomorrow so it’s up to us to help write the future in our own classrooms.
We embrace innovation – new ingredients, techniques, appliances, information, and ideas – whenever it can make a real contribution to our cooking.
“We do not pursue novelty for its own sake. We may use modern thickeners, sugar substitutes, enzymes, liquid nitrogen, sous-vide, dehydration, and other non-traditional means, but these do not define our cooking. They are a few of the many tools that we are fortunate to have available as we strive to make delicious and stimulating dishes.
Similarly, the disciplines of food chemistry and food technology are valuable sources of information and ideas for all cooks. Even the most straightforward traditional preparation can be strengthened by an understanding of its ingredients and methods, and chemists have been helping cooks for hundreds of years. The fashionable term “molecular gastronomy” was introduced relatively recently, in 1992, to name a particular academic workshop for scientists and chefs on the basic food chemistry of traditional dishes. That workshop did not influence our approach, and the term “molecular gastronomy” does not describe our cooking, or indeed any style of cooking.”
Uh huh. You are getting on board now aren’t you? We won’t pursue every ‘Learning Bicycle’ that gets thrown our way, but anything which can make a real contribution to improving the learning experiences of the children we teach, we must, if we are striving for perfection, investigate, learn from, adopt and reflect upon. A continual cycle of improvement. The(once) fashionable term, personalising learning was coined in the mid 90’s to describe an approach away from mass education to a more bespoke curriculum and pedagogy. This should not define our approach. Like Heston, I prefer a curriculum in search of perfection.
We believe that cooking can affect people in profound ways, and that a spirit of collaboration and sharing is essential to true progress in developing this potential.
“The act of eating engages all the senses as well as the mind. Preparing and serving food could therefore be the most complex and comprehensive of the performing arts. To explore the full expressive potential of food and cooking, we collaborate with scientists, from food chemists to psychologists, with artisans and artists (from all walks of the performing arts), architects, designers, industrial engineers. We also believe in the importance of collaboration and generosity among cooks: a readiness to share ideas and information, together with full acknowledgment of those who invent new techniques and dishes.”
Need I say anything? If I was to write a manifesto for what I want learning to look like in my school or any school, I think the very best, most successful organisations and institutions in the world would be a very sensible place to start. So that, instead of a dog’s dinner of a curriculum we seem to be heading towards with Gove levels, we head toward unforgettable learning experiences which challenge, excite and leave the children in our care desperate for more. So just like those Masterchef finalists, I want the experience of learning to feel like a journey that you never want to stop being part of.
So what is it that we want our children to be digesting every day?
The future is always ours to shape. It doesn’t matter wether Gove gives us the 50’s or not. Our classrooms can be our own 3 star Michelin restaurant if we so desire. It would certainly help if we are given the best ingredients and conditions to work with, but amazing things can be created from the most humble of ingredients.
So next up… Skills development at Barcelona FC? Or Teamwork at PIXAR? A Manifesto for excellence in schools is beginning taking shape. In my head anyway.