On a knead to know basis

Opinion piece by ACARA CEO, David de Carvalho, published in The Daily Telegraph, Sydney, on 21 July 2020        


MasterChef is more than just a reality show – it also has some valuable lessons for students and teachers.

What does MasterChef 2020 have to do with school? More than you'd think.

The show's Grand Finale took place last night, with Emilia and Laura vying for this year's trophy. As I was watching the season, I've noticed some things about the show that are relevant to education – and which parents should keep in mind as they follow their children's educational progress.

So what lessons are there in a reality cooking competition that follow through to the classroom?

The first three relate to the importance of having a knowledge rich curriculum if we want students to think creatively and critically. The second three relate to the role schooling plays in personal and moral development.

Creativity requires knowledge

When contestants are shown the ingredients they have to work with, they have little time to make up their mind what they are going to cook. Within a short period, they must come up with a range of possible ideas that could work, and then select one.

The range of possible ideas depends on what you know about the ingredients: how they taste, the different ways they can be cooked and how long that takes, what flavours go with what. If you don't have that background knowledge in your long-term memory, you're cooked. Creative thinking is not just a case of 'making stuff up' – it requires you to know things.

Critical thinking also requires knowledge

The judges must make fine distinctions of quality between dishes that, to untrained tastebuds, are pretty much the same. They must fairly compare dishes that have different ingredients and cooking methods. This takes expertise, wide and deep knowledge, and experience.

But while Melissa, Jock and Andy might be good at judging food, you wouldn't expect them to be good judges of a diving competition or ask them to decide who should get the Miles Franklin Award. Critical thinking is mostly subject specific. But all good critical thinkers have some things in common, such as paying attention to the relevant details and knowing the right questions to ask.

Order and proportion are the essence of beauty

"The flavours are beautifully balanced," the judges often said in praise of a dish. The beauty was in the balance of flavours, the way they worked together as a unity, not just a collection. This meant that the ingredients had to be in right proportion so that a sauce didn't "overpower", or the texture of the puree was "not too grainy".

In other words, there is virtue in things being done the right way in the correct sequence, and even the most creative dishes have to observe these principles of good order and proportion. Dishes were described as "a work of art", meaning not only was it visually appealing but that it expressed culinary order and beauty. Again, one can't apply these principles unless you have both theoretical and practical knowledge of them.

You can still win when you lose

Many in education worry about the psychological impact on students who don't meet expected standards, about them being "branded a failure". Whether a person is a failure depends on how they respond to failure. For me, whether Reynold won or not, the fact that he chose to cook in a high-risk elimination episode the same type of fish that he cooked disastrously in an earlier season, leading to his elimination spoke of his resilience and willingness to learn from his mistakes rather than let them defeat him.

A key question for parents and teachers is how we build resilience in our children and young people so they can experience disappointment and failure without being crushed by it, and adapt to the randomness and unfairness of life and get up when they are knocked down.

Competition encourages excellence

"These guys are all excellent cooks, so I have to bring my best game to the kitchen today." A cliche perhaps, but cliches become cliches because they have an element of truth to them. When we really want to win a prize that others are also striving to win, it pushes us to work harder and smarter. It encourages us to learn more, to develop and refine our skills, to do the best we can.

"You have to ask yourself: is this dish worthy of a final?" All of the dishes prepared by the cooks who made it into the final weeks of competition were good. Many were great. But fewer still were "finals-worthy". People rise to a challenge that is within their ability to meet.

Culture is important

Finally, what distinguishes MasterChef from other cooking shows is the supportive culture created between the contestants. While they are competitors, they are also colleagues. They want to do their best, but they also want the others to do their best. This is not about "beating" others or tearing them down. It's about building everyone up and developing everyone not just in terms of their cooking knowledge and skills, but so they also grow as people. That kind of culture is something every school aims to achieve.