October 6, 2022

I am a reality TV snob. I have never seen Strictly, I strongly believe Love Island represents all that is wrong with the world, and I still don’t really understand what Gogglebox is about. However, after my brother described The Great British Bake Off as “the comfort food of television” I found myself tuning in for the first time and falling in love with it. For those unfamiliar with The Great British Bake Off, stop reading this and go and catch up with the series on 4OD allow me to explain the format:

Each week the contestants are asked to complete three baking challenges. At the end of all three challenges, one baker is sent home. The challenges are broken into the following categories: the Signature Challenge, the Technical Challenge and the Showstopper Challenger.

This Technical challenge is arguably the hardest as it requires enough technical knowledge and experience to produce a finished product when given only minimal instructions. The bakers are all given the same recipe and are not told beforehand what the challenge will be. They aren’t told temperatures, specific quantities, or baking times. An example of the instructions would be:

  1. Make a choux pastry
  2. Bake

This week, there was a particularly challenging Technical. The bakers had to make a Gâteau St-Honoré. For those who don’t know (and why would you?) a Gâteau St-Honoré is a French dessert with a circle of puff pastry at its base and a ring of pâte à choux piped on the outer edge. Small baked cream puffs are dipped in caramelized sugar and attached side by side on top of the circle of the pâte à choux. The base is then filled with crème chiboust and finished with whipped cream using a special St. Honoré piping tip. (Yes, I copied that off Wikipedia.)

If you’re still not sure what I’m talking about, here’s a visual:

Whilst watching, our conversation turned to how impossible the task seemed to us:

Me: Where would you even start? How do they know what to do?

Husband: Think how many extra instructions we would need before we could even hope to produce anything of that standard!


And so began a long discussion about how many different instructions we would need to be able to make each part of a Gâteau St-Honoré:

  1. Instructions on how to make choux pastry. Actually, first I would need know what choux pastry is and then I probably  would need several lessons on how to make it because there in no way my choux pastry would turn out ok the first time.
  2. Repeat no. 1 but with instructions for puff pastry
  3. Instructions for caramelising sugar at the right temperature so it doesn’t burn.
  4. What is a chiboust?
  5. Instructions for how to make a chiboust
  6. What do do with gelatine leaves
  7. Instructions on how to use St. Honore piping nozzle and how this is different to a jam nozzle.
  8. What order should I make the different components in?
  9. What temperatures, timings and measurements do I need?
  10. How do I put all the pieces together?
  11. How will I know if I have made it properly? What should it taste/look like?

It would take hours of instructions and modelling and days of practising and failing before I produced anything that looked remotely like the Gâteau St-Honoré pictured above. Without any additional instructions, it wouldn’t matter if I had all the time int he world, I wouldn’t get it right because I don’t have any prior knowledge to bring to the task. The fact the contestants on Bake Off were able to successfully complete this challenge is testament to their expertise and experience.

Early on in my career, I taught a lot of lessons like they were the Technical Challenge: minimal instruction from me, lots of guess work for my pupils. From the very beginning, the messages was that “Outstanding” teaching meant you should hear far more of your pupils voices than your own in a lesson. In my teacher training I was told that the number of minutes of teacher input should be the same as the age of the pupil e.g. 10 years old = 10 minutes of teacher input. Being a very keen, eager-to-please young teacher, I stuck to this religiously.

I once taught an “Outstanding” lesson that had NO VERBAL TEACHER INPUT AT ALL. It was Geography lesson and I wanted each child to find the answers to a variety of questions about a country in South America. I gave each table a different country, typed up some instructions on envelopes and left them on the table. The class came in and read the instructions and then had to work out which resources to use to help them: there were atlases, maps, a couple of books from the library. Every so often I would put a handy hint on the board e.g. page. 75 of your atlas might be useful if you want to know more about land use in Brazil… such fun!

Now, here’s the issue with teaching like this. For the small group of children in my class who had plenty of experience of using atlases, or reading maps, for those who knew about time zones then you could have used the resources to find the answers to the questions relatively easily and you would probably been learnt a bit about Brazil in that lesson. But for the majority of my class, who didn’t have the knowledge or skills necessary to use those resources, the lesson would have been frustrating and they’d have learnt very little. Because, unlike in Bake Off, my pupils don’t come to lessons with expertise and experience to get by with minimal instruction. (What actually happened was they just copied the answers off of the few children who had understood what they had to do which, bafflingly, gave they appearance that they had all made progress in the lesson.)

Ten years in to my teaching career, I don’t teach like that anymore. But how often do we fall foul of treating our lessons like they are a Technical Challenge? Whether that’s by withholding vital instructions, not allowing time for practice or not modelling the process to our pupils? Do we make sure they always know what a good example looks like? How often do we assume our pupils have the prior knowledge necessary to access the content of the lesson without actually checking. Then we walk out of the classroom, frustrated that they haven’t “got it.”

At the end of the day, our pupils deserve more than: “On your marks, get set, bake.”