Recipe cooking

By disposition I’m not a follower of instructions, and so as a teacher I began by offering very few instructions. I gave students big general assignments, threw lots of materials and models at them, and let them figure something out, kind of on the Inuit model:

“I remember an essay by Jean Briggs, an ethnographer who studied child-rearing among the Inuit. One of the things that disturbed her was the practice of setting problems for children, not providing the materials they needed, and teasing them when they failed to solve them. She initially thought it was cruel. She then came to realize that if, for example, an adult Inuit was out seal-hunting on the ice and some of his equipment broke down, the inability to improvise a solution would kill him.” (Comment here by John McCreery)

Bonus: consistent with open-ended, inclusive, non-prescriptive feminist and post-colonial epistemologies! Because I lived through the 90s and paid attention. And I got back plenty of good work this way. But I also got a lot of really terrible work, stuff that made my eyes cross and my brain melt, stuff that was dreadful by any conceivable standard but ‘turn something in’. Stuff that would get ya killed if there were polar bears and sub-zero temperatures about. And that made me sad.

So in the spirit of figuring something out, I read the research and followed the discussions and listened to the students who were telling me that these assignments were too vague and confusing, and that some people just don’t know how to work this way, and some of those need more explicit instruction about what’s expected and what to do. A recipe. And I thought yeah, it’s probably not reasonable to expect students to do things we haven’t shown them how to do. And so after piecemealing more explicit instruction for quite awhile, a couple years back I completely redid my syllabuses, which no one was reading anyway, into dedicated instructional primers, dividing them into sections on requirements, guidance, and assessments, where anyone reading the syllabus and doing what it says would inevitably do pretty well in the class. And then I turned my classes into workshops, where what we did was work through the steps of good research, analysis, and writing described in the syllabus in a recursive developmental process, so everything had a chance to become familiar and settle into practices.

I still get back plenty of good work, and I get a lot less really terrible work. That’s a win. I’m less sad.

What I came here to write is that as far as I can see, there’s no particular correlation between wanting a recipe and actually reading and following a recipe. The ones who read and follow along get what they need. The students who previously would have come to me asking for more explicit instruction on ‘what I’m looking for’ still do, only now they have to systematically ignore all the places and ways I’ve already told, shown, and worked them through ‘what I’m looking for’. The students who would have struggled because they just couldn’t make sense of what was expected now do that in the presence of a dedicated and encompassing instructional framework of explicit expectations.

There’s a very sad scene in “The Joy Luck Club” where Rose, having at length and systematically demolished any expectation that she might be a competent or interesting person capable of making responsible decisions, begs Ted to just tell her what he wants. And what he wants is the Rose who was a competent, interesting person capable of making responsible decisions. But there’s not a recipe for that, or really any way of saying it that would get through the debris they’ve made of their relationship. That’s obviously a bit pat, and a bit sideways of the instructional situation I’m talking about here. But as to the students who want a recipe, as far as I can tell it’s not really a recipe they want or that would help. They want the task to be made familiar in a way that doesn’t take them out of their comfort zones or put pressure on them to be competent, interesting, or responsible.

There’s a whole lot more to say about this, but I’m not sure how much is at stake. Over the years I have also learned to be less confident that anything about my teaching in particular or the massive education apparatus in general was creating massive swings of achievement, for better or worse. As educational research keeps showing, for a whole lot of pretty interesting (and sometimes heartbreaking) reasons the distribution of performance is basically homeostatic in roughly a bell curve shape. In any given school or program or classroom your n=small enough to enable lumpy statistical anomalies, and there are also threshold effects where someone tips from one attractor to another, which can be really striking and feel like the whole transformative promise of education fulfilled. But those moments are striking because they’re not the norm, and so they just don’t work as the standard. For the most part there’s only so much education can do to overcome some pretty sticky priors, and it’s not much. The systems are complex, and they’re resilient.

It’s hard to maintain strong opinions about better and worse teaching in the face of these inconvenient facts. Not much difference with and without recipes; a bit higher floor, a bit more general competence overall. A more modest goal of calibrating and provisioning the homeostasis for its better expressions is cautiously supported. Unburdened of crushing infinity standards about changing the world, it is observably possible to set people up for more success in the general zones and trajectories of their aptitudes. Bad can become less bad. Good can become more good. Meh can become more robustly and effectively meh. The instruction and workshop format seems to do a better job of distributing the increments of progress in this way.

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