What teaching through lockdown teaches us about teaching!

These are surreal times. Three months ago, I had no idea that Cookery School at Little Portland Street would have been closed and in lockdown for three months with no knowledge of when, in the foreseeable future, we will open, with all of our staff furloughed and very few bookings being made.

Our classes are all hands on which necessitates students standing alongside one another with no chance of correct social distancing because of the space issue …  This started a new thought process of how best we could work in this interim period before the pandemic is under control.

Cookery School needed to do what it is best at doing in this limbo period, and I started exploring the idea of online classes but with a difference!  To date most of the public’s culinary online learning has been by watching demonstrations, taking away the learning and then trying to replicate what they have seen on their own with greater or lesser success.   Sometimes the lack of success turns out to be dismal failure and, apart from the very tenacious, a potential cook could have been lost forever as they tell themselves that this failure has reinforced their perception that they are a poor cooks.

It became evident to me that interactive online learning had to be the order of the day and I needed to set about learning how best to do this… Little did I realise how much input would be required to make these sessions work….

As a teacher with more than 55 years of teaching experience, I do not believe that pure demonstration is the way that most people would choose to learn a new skill. There is nothing like being properly taught, having the chance to experience cooking alongside an experienced teacher where mistakes can be made knowing that these can be remedied. Most importantly, prospective cooks have the opportunity to ask as many questions as necessary knowing that understanding the topic is the key to being able to master it.

With all of this in mind, a few weeks ago I set about offering classes to those that were showing interest in interactive online learning irrespective of age.  At Cookery School we teach good home cooking and encourage parents to bring their children in with them and do not charge for accompanied kids.  My students ranged from two twelve year olds; a couple of men from the City who learned how to make puff pastry using a wine bottle to do the necessary rolling right through to a couple of old friends one of whom was in London and the other Singapore and we all cooked a meal together – lunch in London and dinner in Singapore!  All of my techno guinea pigs learnt a few new skills but what I learnt was invaluable…

Obviously “technical” rules needed to be put in place.  A stable internet connection so that Zoom could work properly.  Camera lens should pointing at the work surface to allow me to monitor what they were doing.  Measured out ingredients needed to be to hand before the class began, along with all the necessary kitchen equipment.

However, the BIGGEST difference was between teaching and demonstrating. Teaching involves interacting with one’s audience, no matter how large or small, and making them feel that one is genuinely engaging with them and involved in their cooking efforts.  Teaching is a far slower activity than demonstrating. What is paramount is that the learner feels central in the process.

One has to captivate one’s audience to hold them.  I learnt this from many years of teaching unmotivated adolescents.  Once you have their attention, the rest is plain sailing.  If one’s approach is too dry, the audience can be lost, if too lengthy likewise.  Judging the right level requires a skill that comes with experience.  Teaching cannot be rushed and the audience reaction needs to gauged throughout.  One need to cater for both the quickest and tardiest in the group. The means moving ahead a little faster with some yet ensuring that the stragglers do not feel that they are failing.

Success is achieved when students feel that they have mastered a skill that they have always felt was beyond their grasp and are confident in feeling that they can replicate it when on their own.  That feeling of achievement is of ultimate importance for them.  Demonstration alone certainly does not allow for that.  What is missing is the human element of sharing & reaction. That is what makes interactive online cooking a realistic possibility for Cookery School at Little Portland teachers going forward.

Ros Rants