I’m not one for cooking, nor for reality TV. Both come with way too many messes – many of them too hot to handle, even with an oven mit. However, my one guilty pleasure that involves both is the Food Network’s reality competition, Chopped. The participants themselves are often hot messes; but at the end of each episode, my kitchen is still clean. And I do love a clean kitchen.
The premise of Chopped involves four chefs competing in up to three cooking challenges: appetizer, entrée, dessert; one participant is “chopped” each round until a winner is crowned. Preparation for each course must be completed in 15 to 30 minutes so each episode is fast-paced and action-packed. Then there is my favorite part of the challenge: the mystery ingredient basket. Each round, the competitors are given four food items, all of which they must incorporate into their dish in order to advance. Each time there are at least two very obscure ingredients thrown in to challenge the chefs. Cooks are given free access to all other ingredients and tools in the kitchen to creatively dress and transform the four anchor ingredients. At the end of each round the contestants receive feedback from judges – professional or celebrity chefs – and either advance or are chopped.
The boundaries of the show are minimal: use the required ingredients, accomplish the task within the given time, create something delicious and beautiful that the judges will love to eat.
Creating 21st century learning experiences for students should look like this. Give the students a problem to solve, a few required parameters, and a deadline to which they should adhere. From there they must use the tools in their mental toolbox and all other resources they have available to construct a desirable solution. Like Chopped, throw a few quirky curveballs in there to keep students on their toes.
(You should see some of the weirdo ingredients Chopped chefs have taken on. Rattlesnake meat? Grasshoppers? And what the heck is brown bread in a can? It certainly isn’t on the Pillsbury product line…)
Out in the workforce, solutions to problems are not yet defined and many of the best ones haven’t even been thought up yet. So, when creating lesson plans, keep this open-endedness and open-mindedness at the forefront. Trust your students’ abilities to innovate, and in so doing you will acknowledge and honor their innate desire to do so – the desire that, for many, has been buried through years of traditional seat time and standardized testing. Just as in an appetizer round on Chopped, one chef may use his 100 year old egg (see weirdo ingredients above) to create a artisanal salad, his competition may use her egg to make something en croute. Neither is wrong; both solve the “problem” of the 100-year-old egg; the solutions looked completely different.
I’m in awe of the Chopped kitchen. It’s got flash freezers, deep fryers, and more knives than a butcher shop, not to mentioned every staple ingredient imaginable. Contestants are given free reign with all the tools in that kitchen. They must take it upon themselves to use the wealth of resources at their disposal. Outside the kitchen, right at our fingertips, our world is a dynamic labyrinth of ideas, information and subject matter experts. So why, when we give our students assignments, should we take all of their resources away. Why should we lock them down in a static, internet-less, zero-collaboration classroom box? That is not their future. For that matter, it is not even their present. Once they walk out of school, cellphones in hand, their reality becomes limitless once again. It’s time to make their school reality the home of extensive tools, endless possibilities, endless right answers, and endless creative solutions. We must teach them how to use the whole internet safely and smartly so they know the best ways to find the most reliable, relevant information. Then someday they’ll be as deft at information gathering as the Chopped champs are at wielding knives.
That is not to say students should be given no boundaries. On Chopped, contestants only have 30 minutes to create an entrée totally from scratch. And remember, they have to use every obscure, repulsive ingredient in their basket. And so in every job, across every industry, we must all adhere to deadlines and meet requirements that may seem a little absurd, or even downright impossible. Even when designing open-ended project for students it is important to pose some sort of deadline and to weave in a challenge that requires students to get creative with their solutions.
At the end of each round of Chopped, not every dish turns out the way the chef intended it. And not every creation is a smashing success with the judges’ panel. In business, not every ad campaign yields the return a company hopes for, and not every piece of software works flawlessly every time. And when students are challenged to solve an open-ended problem, not every outcome will be pure brilliance and perfection – that’s a guarantee. But here is another guarantee far more important: when forced to forge a new path for themselves, students will engage in journeys packed with self-discovery, teachable moments, and opportunities to develop grit and determination. Those are the learning experiences that become engrained in them, and the ones that will equip them best for the post-academic futures – whether that’s competing on an episode of Chopped or creating the next big series on the Food Network.
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