Lessons in Teaching from “The Great British Baking Show”

I’m a fan of cooking competition tv shows. I don’t know why, but I love them. Perhaps it’s the fact that no one really gets injured, it isn’t typically painful to watch, and the episodes don’t exactly hinge upon one another for continuity, so if I watch them out of order, or only watch the ones that look the most interesting, I don’t feel as though I’m missing the plot (other than the arc of who gets eliminated each week if that show has the same contestants for the whole season). Some of my favorites have been “Cupcake Wars” and “Cutthroat Kitchen,” but tonight I watched “The Great British Baking Show” for the first time, and was struck by how completely different it is from the others I’ve seen.

At first, I was simply shocked by the fact that contestants willingly shared kitchen tools, such as a strainer. Then I was flabbergasted when contestants looked genuinely happy for one another when others did well. During the first episode I watched, when a second person in a single round was told that their cake was perfect, the first person who had been told that very same thing minutes before looked on with pride and happiness for their competitor. I wondered for a minute whether I had missed the fact that this was a team competition and that was his partner.

It was when I noticed the difference in how the judges spoke to the contestants that I realized that while this show is a competition, it’s also structured like a differentiated classroom, and the judges are teaching and coaching¬†the assessments, using each task as opportunities for feedback. When assigning a task, it’s often given as “bake your best fruit-flavored cake,” or “bake your signature dish.”¬†The judges’ comments were largely positive, and they at times gently joked with the contestants about the obvious failures to lighten the mood, nearly always giving specific constructive feedback. When they don’t give specific feedback for improvement on a dish, that’s because that dish has been declared perfect, and the ways in which it is perfect have been spelled out for them. This cake is perfect! It has the color, flavors, texture, density, and cake-to-frosting ratio that are all just right. This sounds a lot like when you overhear a student making amazing connections and you repeat their insights for the class to benefit from. (Or lie through your teeth that you heard some people saying the connections that you were hoping they would make when they turned and talked with their partners…not that I’ve ever done that.)

Overall, my takeaways on how “The Great British Baking Show” models great teaching are:

  • Differentiate; it’s possible to give a topic and let everyone show their abilities on it in different ways, at least some of the time.
  • Be positive and build relationships, especially before giving constructive feedback.
  • Giving critical feedback is important if you want your students to improve, but it can be given gently and maintaining the student’s dignity.
  • Celebrate others’ victories; it means you get to celebrate far more often than if you only enjoy your own success.
  • A competition does not need to be cutthroat; it can be low-key and fun, primarily motivating students to do their personal best, and for celebrating the biggest successes of the day.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have new episodes to watch…