Mark Nichols and Marco Torres
The basket opens, revealing the ingredients. Skate wings, dill pickles, funnel cakes, and haggis in a can (1). The chefs now have thirty minutes to take the basket components and create a gourmet main course to impress the famous restauranteurs and chefs acting as judges. The clock starts and the chefs, looking for a big payday and even more importantly the title of Chopped champion, spring into action. To do so, they need to not only use all of the items, but, augment, modify, and ideally redefine each one to add value to the overall dish’s taste and presentation. They rush to the pantry and collect various seasonings and complimentary ingredients, grab pots and pans, pull out their knives and begin to bring their vision to life. Hold on, vision, what vision? How did they look at this disparate set of ingredients and quickly develop an idea without referencing a cookbook or recipe?
Chopped is arguably one of the most popular in a substantial number of cooking shows that put Chefs to the test using timed head to head challenges and secret ingredients. The origin of this genre of television shows is debatable, but in most likelihood, it is Iron Chef, a Japanese cooking show first televised in the United States in Japanese with English Subtitles. Besides the general excitement of a challenge and a timed competition the element making these shows popular is the ability to watch chefs take ingredients that should never be on the same menu and magically merging them into something that is more often than not both edible and beautiful.
Of course, this is television, the show is set up to succeed through careful preparation, and everything is not quite as magical as we see during the 30 minutes. But, the ability of chefs to look at different ingredients, identify patterns, make connections and develop menus is real and demonstrates the power of frameworks. As the ingredients are revealed the chefs begin to classify them into flavor categories, these categories suggest relationships with other ingredients, seasonings and cooking times. The chefs personalize the frameworks with their experience and cooking specialties. All of this is filtered through their knowledge of the judges and the feedback received from prior rounds. This complex framework based thinking is what we should be striving for as the primary deliverable for formal schooling.
The reality is that in most formal education the focus is on learning recipes rather than frameworks. We are taught the recipes for the different subject areas, how to solve math problems, how to write, how to speak and even how to master school itself. The students who learn the recipes and follow them effectively often become successful, the ones that cannot struggle. But, even following recipes eventually is not enough to excel in specific content areas as the concepts become more abstract and complicated. Math is a great example. In math, you hit a certain point where the students that “understand” math separate themselves from the students that “do” math. The latter students have become masters at memorizing the recipes of math and the ability to use them to succeed with homework and on tests. But, when the recipes begin to break down or become too complicated this group of students struggles because they do not have a framework to fall back on — they do not understand enough about the necessary ingredients and the patterns that make everything work even when it seems random and complex. The students that know math have acquired a framework for learning math and see difficulties and complexities as a challenge to be solved rather than a brick wall.
Now, this is not to say that recipes are unimportant. The ability to follow directions carefully and correctly to produce the desired outcome is a valuable skill. Experience with a lot of different recipes and processes will make you better at whatever you do. The best chefs, mathematicians, scientists, engineers, authors, etc. have all learned and mastered the pertinent recipes and formulas in their fields. But, they do not stop there, they use them to expand their knowledge, to transform their domains and in some cases the world. The difference is what they do when the recipe ingredients are not available, the conditions change, an emergency occurs, and a creative rule-breaking idea pops into their heads.
As the great philosopher, Mike Tyson stated: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” When we get literally and figuratively “punched in the face” we revert to frameworks. We all have frameworks even though most of us never spend a lot of time thinking about and improving them. For the chefs who get punched with a basket of seemingly unrelated ingredients or a math problem that no longer follows the formulas, the fallback framework is to claim the task is impossible, or that they do not have the natural ability to complete the assignment and quit.
In Jr High math classes we have had students who walk in the first day and said they could not learn math, their parents, and grandparents could not learn math. In essence, the entire family was missing the math gene. In reality, they had been punched in the face with math so many times that they developed a fallback framework to explain why they were not good at it. On the other hand, we have students who have built frameworks that when things go wrong, they break down the problem, ask lots of questions, make connections and find a way to succeed.
And back to our chefs frantically chopping, sautéing, boiling, and frying away as they glance at the relentlessly ticking clock. What did they see when they looked at the ingredients in the basket? They saw the five flavor profiles: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami and the relationships between them, or how each can enhance the flavor of the other. They then connected this with a knowledge of cooking genres and spices (from experience and recipes) and filter this information through the time constraints of the ever-ticking clock. This connected set of frameworks allow them to put the initial plan together and enough knowledge to head to the pantry to grab the missing ingredients. As they begin to prep and cook, the plans are impacted by accidents, unexpected results and the diminishing time. The successful chefs continue to click through their frameworks as events happen and deliver dishes on time. The chefs that get stuck in one direction and cannot adjust struggle and often forget ingredients or run out of time.
We believe in Challenge Based Learning (challengebasedlearning.org) because it helps learners develop the personal frameworks needed to be successful in all situations. The Challenge Framework provides a starting point to help learners take control of the process and own they’re learning experience. It works across disciplines as diverse as academic content areas, software development, entrepreneurship, medicine, and counseling. The basic premise is helping learners to personally connect with big ideas, develop and understand challenges, ask questions, make connections, adjust, develop thoughtful and sustainable solutions, efficiently implement them and learn from the outcomes. The framework connects with other contexts and domain-specific recipes and formulas. For example, in software development Challenge Based Learning has evolved into Challenge Based Development, a mobile software development that includes elements of design thinking, Scrum and entrepreneurial methodologies. In traditional classrooms, it can work with all frameworks and actively works to connect best practices rather than pitting them against each other. The goal is for each learner (adults and children) to develop a personal framework that will allow them to be successful in their context.
In a rapidly changing world full of complex challenges the best tools we can provide learners are a passion for learning and a framework to help them solve challenges small and large. This way when they are punched in the face they don’t quit or react without thinking. Instead, they step back, ask questions and let their framework help them make sense of the situation. The result will be at the minimum informed decision making that takes into account multiple perspectives and at best thinkers who can innovate themselves and humankind past the vast challenges that the next century will bring. This is the goal of Challenge Based Learning.
(1) Ingredients from Season 36 Episode #2 of Chopped aired January 2, 2018