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Great Teachers are Like Great Chefs

My father was a hotel chef. Along with visits to the Chase Park Plaza to witness big-time acts like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr, Dad would sometimes invite me to his kitchen. There I watched a master chef using techniques we all want in a master teacher.

What I took away from these occasions (along with a fondness for lobster bisque!) was the importance of constant feedback. While he was an Escoffier- trained French chef from Paris, Dad never paid too much attention to recipes. He knew them backward and forward but, as he was always fond of saying, “le beurre américain se distingue complètement de beurre français,” (American butter is completely different than French butter). Recipes were made to be altered depending on the ingredients, the skills of the kitchen staff, locale, and clientele.

He rarely stayed in his office for more than ten minutes at a time, choosing instead to be in the kitchen working with everyone from the pastry chef to the dishwasher. And every step of the way, he made sure that the components of the meals tasted good enough to make it to the final plate… which he rarely tasted. He knew that if he stayed on top of the culinary process step by step, the final product would be “fantastique!” He also knew that the meals would get even better if he provided constant feedback to his employees.

I didn’t know it at the time, but he was a firm proponent of formative assessment, a proven way to improve student learning.

Think back to when you learned to drive. You read a book to prepare for the written test, but you really learned to drive by being in a car with someone who gave you constant feedback in real time, first on a big parking lot, then eventually, on the road. The same goes for sports. A baseball coach would show you the fine points of pitching by standing right next to you, correcting stance, delivery and release point–skills you can’t learn from a book.

The best teachers are really master chefs and seasoned coaches. In a school setting, formative assessment moves teachers away from their desks, as they roam around the classroom to provide immediate feedback on comprehension, neatness, attention to detail, etc. The formative approach is a research- (and kitchen-) driven method to improve performance.  

Achievement tests are a form of what we call summative assessment, sort of a “proof is in the pudding” test. This is where we find out whether the daily formative assessment and feedback make a difference over the long term. Research has shown that there is a statistically significant improvement in student achievement in classrooms that focus on the formative approach.

As assessment educator Paul Black once wrote, “When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative assessment. When the customer tastes the soup, that’s summative assessment.”

Bon appetit!


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