Are You a Cook or a Chef?

shifting-conversations-logoA few days ago, a superintendent who I respect very much sent me this Twitter message in the middle of a back and forth about what real, relevant change in education looks like.

“Too many look for cookbook recipes to use; unfortunately more educators are cooks than chefs.”

That really got me thinking, especially in light of a lot of the writing I’ve been doing lately about most of our work being engaged in “doing the wrong thing right.” Apologies up front for the extended metaphor that I’m almost sure to mangle, but it’s an interesting difference worth exploring in more depth.

“Most leaders in education tend to be cooks in search of a better recipe than chefs in search of a new way of doing things.”

Cookbook solutions to the challenges of education are a dime a dozen, but rarely do they serve to significantly change or alter or, dare I say it, transform much of what we do in schools.

Spend any amount of time on the vendor floor of a big conference like ISTE or BETT or FETC and you’ll see what I mean. “We have the solution (or recipe) to fix your problem. Just buy our product and follow the instructions.” And I get why we go for that; it’s easy, in many cases it’s “effective” (by nostalgic measures,) and it serves as tangible evidence that we are “innovating” or “changing” or “modernizing” or whatever. The cost is perceived as being worth it, and the risks are comparatively low. But that’s the work of cooks; buy the ingredients and follow the steps, the same steps that hundreds (if not millions) of others have followed in the past.
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Chefs, on the other hand, don’t see the world as a bunch of predetermined measures and steps in order to get to a desired goal. Chefs are more about seeing what’s in the cupboard and then creating something new based on what they have in front of them. Chefs don’t want tried and true solutions; they are constantly looking for new combinations, trying different variations in search of a unique dish that they can call their own. They are driven by their knowledge and passion for food and taste and presentation. They aren’t bound by traditional practice or outcomes.

I can’t help but agree with that superintendent friend of mine that most leaders in education tend to be cooks in search of a better recipe than chefs in search of a new way of doing things. It’s incredibly rare to see or hear of a school that is seriously invested in “different” when it comes not just to classroom practice but also culture and uses of technology. Especially now as we enter a much more “modern” landscape for how we learn, work, connect, and communicate, isn’t it time we start developing and nurturing more chef/leaders? Here are a few starting points:

A messy, yet organized kitchen. Truly modern leader/chefs see the world as a bundle of constantly changing questions to embrace and grapple with. They look for ambiguity, for signs of disruption and evolution and evaluate what they find through a problem solving lens that is grounded in a desire to “do the right thing” for kids, not the system. They seek to constantly challenge their own worldview and find comfort in “not knowing.” And they look at off the shelf answers to their questions with skepticism. Yet, they have the end goal in sight, always.

The chef culture. The greatest leader/chefs create cultures of ongoing, transparent learning where everyone is allowed, even expected to innovate and share. And most of what is learned is of the tacit variety, knowledge and skills shared freely among all so that everyone gets better at their craft, not just a few. While explicit knowledge of their craft is certainly useful, the culture of sharing what works and what doesn’t work only serves to improve all areas of the menu, so to speak.

Sharp knives. Leader/chefs have a great expertise in the tools they choose to do their work. Not just the technologies, but also the ways in which they motivate the people around them. And while certainly we can innovate without technology, we can have more reach and more effect if we know how to use technology wisely.

Promoting the menu. Part of what makes the best leader/chefs successful is that others hear about their work and are drawn to it. That’s not to say that in schools the leaders should be the face of the work like many chefs are in their restaurants. But there is no question that new innovations, successes and failures, should be shared to a wider community. This isn’t just about making great food; it’s also about pushing others to create their own new recipes as well.

Leader/chefs in education are growing in number as it becomes increasingly obvious that the old recipes just aren’t satisfying any longer. That’s why you’re starting to hear so much about design thinking in schools, because it speaks to this idea that there are new ways to approach old problems, new solutions to be found. That’s also why the idea of making is taking root, because it too is a way of stimulating that creative problem solving side of the brain that most schools have rendered dormant. Maker and design cultures (not classrooms) are the new kitchens, if you will, for modern, truly student-centered learning and creating that our kids need so desperately right now.

Image credit: Alan Levine

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