Students Are Not Chefs

Sliced veggies on a cutting board. What shall we cook up?

In a discussion prompt for the course, Jesse Stommel related creative, participation-driven learning with the time-limited, arbitrary challenges of reality cooking shows. According to Stommel, the shows are a microcosm of what effective assignments and assessment could be if we relaxed the institutionalization of education. He makes excellent points, most relating to the authenticity of the problem, solution, and evaluation employed by these shows. In most scenarios, the participating chefs are given a time limit, a specific set of ingredients, and some kind of generic goal. Stommel’s example is, “In 20 minutes, you will make _____ using _____ without doing _____,” which he emphasizes as being “simple as that.” He’s absolutely right: much of the beauty of these scenarios is there deceptive simplicity that allows for artistic creativity in the solution created by each chef. I see much the same happening in this week’s MOOC MOOC; our best discussions are the result of very simple, open, nonspecific questions that allow freedom flexibility in the way people respond.

Stommel’s description of cooking shows then continued in a way that really got my attention, especially with the sentence I highlight below:

“The tasks are not mapped for contestants. There are no examples, rubrics, or assessment criteria. The chefs are given a space, ingredients, and tools, but they are not given elaborate instructions. They are not told which tools to use or how to use them. After a 20-minute flurry of chopping and fire, the chefs are not evaluated objectively, nor are they scored on some predetermined scale. The judges pick the winner by taste, noting their impressions—their subjective experience—of the food.”

If you regularly read my blog, you know that I am quite a fan of well-designed rubrics and encourage their use for expectations, feedback, and evaluation. In the paragraph above, Stommel hacked away at my soapbox much like the chefs in his examples chop up their arugula and salmon meat. For a moment, I looked back at my screen with angry eyes and furrowed brow. But then I realized he has a point, and a good one at that. When, other than in institutionalized education, are we ever assessed by a rubric? When are we ever told to solve a problem using a predefined solution?

Many of the scenarios we face in an information-based society are not very well-defined. Part of the challenge of navigating these scenarios is first figuring out what our role within them should be. On Monday, participants in the MOOC MOOC were told to collaboratively create a 1000-word essay. No specifics were given; no criteria were announced; no cooperative roles were assigned. We figured it out as we went, and for the most part, we got the job done by drawing on the specific skills and expertise of each member of the group. The assignment worked well because the people involved are comfortable with their writing and the strengths they can bring to the revision process. In reality cooking shows, the chefs know their strengths and understand their creative approaches. They, like we, were able to navigate the constraints and improvise on the procedures.

Can the same approach work in a writing class?

As I see it, the problem is not in terms of the assignments. Writing projects could feasibly be adapted to the kinds of open-ended, collaborative tasks being demonstrated in MOOC MOOC. And instead of asking students to read an article a night for background knowledge, we could easily provide a menu of options for students to use when they feel it is necessary in order to complete their task. I appreciate the approach of this week’s assignments, and I have almost mustered the courage to implement them in my own teaching.

But I see a problem with teacher-less composition classrooms once we begin talking about assessment. First-year composition classes are often university gatekeepers, functioning as a screening device, often with qualitative-style achievement standards. When used in this way, FYC classes may be incompatible with a more open or less-structured assessment approach by nature of their position within the institution. If a student needs to pass a composition course and perhaps demonstrate a level of writing competency, can we, like Top Chef judges, assess based on the impressions and subjective experience of the writing our students create? Or is that what we already do?

If our goal, like our counterparts on the television, were to determine the best student writing from a class, this system makes perfect sense. But if our goal is to determine various levels of competence, it seems to me that providing more specific assessment criteria–even at the risk of reducing the authenticity of the assignments. For example, Stommel commented on one of his students who asked him to clarify his formatting requirements for a writing assignment, which he staunchly refused to provide. He did, however, explain “that she should format her assignment in the manner that felt right to her…that she give careful consideration to both the form and content of her work.” By doing so, Stommel still provided expectations for student performance. No, he did not use a specific rubric that demanded one-inch margins, but he also did not say that the judges would ultimately decree what was and was not worthy without offering any clarity.

Much as I wish our assignments could all be “real world” activities that are loosely defined and judged based on their success in an authentic environment, the fact of the matter is that our students are not the professional chefs we see on television, and our classrooms are laboratories of experimentation where failure can sometimes be more valuable than success. At the same time, our classes also and with the necessity of grading using a more sophisticated system than a simple win/lose decree. Over the past four days of work in the MOOC MOOC and the related conversations, Stommel has challenged and inspired me in a number of ways. Today’s example simply doesn’t sit right with me. I’m sure that I’m over-analyzing the food-preparation analogy and fixating on details. But something about the almost incessant demand for structureless assignments this week strikes me as difficult if not impossible to manage in a first-year composition curriculum.

Here is what I would like to know from my readers: what am I missing that causes my frustration? Is there a way to allow for the “participation power” that Howard Rheingold discusses while still maintaining the institutional structures of a gatekeeper course? Am I unnecessarily conflating issues of pedagogy and assessment, or is there actually a tension here that I think is gnawing away at me?

I don’t really want to end this list of questions with, “Am I crazy?”, But I suppose that is there, too.