Lessons from Lockdown: What MasterChef teaches us about exceptionality

During this period of lockdown, our family, like many other families, has experienced a shift in lifestyle. Saudi Arabia has largely been under 24-hour confinement and we haven’t left our compound in nine weeks. Finding ways to keep our bodies, minds and spirits engaged and buoyant is increasingly challenging. Add to this another common problem: how can two adults in their 40s, a 13-year old boy and a 10-year old girl come together to find enjoyable, common ground in house-bound activities that keep everyone entertained and mentally nourished 24/7? Just writing those lines is an exhausting prospect. Ordinarily, we do not watch television, but adapting right now is key to our collective and personal survival (and sanity)! We have found one solution: US MasterChef with Gordon Ramsay. This competitive cooking programme has proven to be our figurative life belt – family viewing has served as an emotional cleanse after a day of grappling with various issues, all borne out of our new life of being caged up together. So far, we have rattled through two adult seasons of the hit TV show, thoroughly enjoying Ramsay’s outrageous critiques, the drama involved in pressure tests, and the wonderfully creative dishes served up by the budding amateur chefs. 

We then moved onto MasterChef Junior which became a complete game-changer for my 10-year old companion sitting next to me on the couch: she has been so inspired by what the young contestants have been producing that she has started up cooking herself, baking well into four hours most afternoons, trying out new recipes and expanding her palette. It’s been nothing short of a revelation for us to witness. MasterChef Junior is more than just an inspiration for other budding chefs. Whilst watching the incredibly talented 8-12 year old contestants create impressive three-course meals in 90 minutes, I realised that the show reveals reveals so much about how to cater for the needs of those with exceptionalities. Clearly, these children were born with some inherent strengths—be that a heightened senses of taste or smell, advanced fine motor skills to enable skillful manipulation of pastry and pasta, the ability to dream up conceptually complex dishes, or even a superior understanding of food chemistry.—but they must have also benefitted from a series of life experiences that nurtured those strengths. Most talked proudly of how the food they prepared represented their roots, or reminded them of that fishing trip weekend, or of days at home cooking with someone they loved. These cooking experiences were certainly hitting that sweet spot of learning, the cross-road of cognitive, affective, physical and creative development which educators can strive to achieve through classroom experiences such as authentic, independent projects. 

Let us take Kya, an 8 year old contestant who confidently demonstrated her tried and tested technique of poaching chicken in a bag andserving it with a white truffle sauce, a technique she learned from her Hong Kongese mother when ‘she was little.’ The following week, she created her favourite dish, duck a l’orange, because ‘French cuisine is my favourite.’ Another time, the pint-sized chef gave us all a lesson in how to sous-vide vegetables, something that most adults have probably never heard of. There was no doubting her culinary prowess and the judges were amazed that someone so young could produce dishes that spoke with such maturity. Kya’s example prompted me to consider this: how can we, as educators, use the amateur chef experience as a lesson in identifying, supporting and challenging youngsters with exceptionalities in school?

As I watched the show, it was immediately striking to me how the contestants on MasterChef Junior took themselves seriously, not just as participants in a competition battling it out for a trophy and $100,000 cash prize, but also as learners. When discussing their recipes, or their culinary triumphs with the judges, age became irrelevant. It was not a conversation between an adult and a child, but more like two people discussing their passions and expertise. How does this happen? This serious tone was cultivated by Ramsay: when he spoke to each of the young chefs individually, he listened intently, used technical and specific vocabulary, asked open and challenging questions, defined the indicators of success, and gave critical feedback instantly. Ramsay did not paraphrase their responses, water-down his language, avoid difficult feedback, humour mediocrity, or accept first responses. He set a tone for engagement and the result was that children took themselves seriously; they transformed into chefs in front of our eyes, not just children playing make-believe chefs in an adult’s kitchen. They were motivated to experiment with different ingredients, used increasingly more complex techniques, shouted ‘No chef!’ emphatically if their commitment or courage was ever called into question. The ceiling of learning was removed, motivation unbounded, and the possibilities became endless. This should lead us to reflect on the ways in which we communicate our high expectations to our students. To what extent do we talk to children in a manner that takes their intellectual, spiritual, and emotional pursuits seriously, or do we unknowingly infantilise or limit our conversations with them? Do we use language that is mature, complex and technical, so that students with exceptionalities have sufficient opportunities to demonstrate their expert knowledge? Importantly, do we offer sufficient opportunities for challenge so that that bravery and resilience are nurtured, and excellence is normalised? Without these considerations, it might just be that students with exceptionalities lie hidden. 

Providing children with opportunities to tinker, to experiment, to play around with ingredients and specialist equipment is important to emphasise. During ‘mystery box challenges,’ the budding chefs were provided with a surprise selection of ingredients with which to create a magnificent dish, all within a particular time frame. The result was a cacophony of action with children darting in every direction, leaving in their wake, noise, mess, and highly-charged emotions. Yes, there was competitive spirit present but the point is, when children have encouragement, challenge, choice, free time and open-ended opportunities with which to demonstrate their joy and passion, engagement will be high because empowerment will be high. This teaches us the importance of ensuring our teaching schedules allow for the pursuit of individual curiosities and self-direction, reinforcing the pedagogical importance of discovery, intrigue and joyful learning. In any learning environment, we should plan for such unstructured engagements, taking into account the types of resources that will support student’s interests, and then note the students who become engrossed for sustained periods of time: How do they take risks with their learning to push their boundaries of knowledge or skill? How reluctant are they if asked to switch activities, taking them away from their passion? Are they able to transfer their strengths to other contexts? These may all signal indicators of exceptionality. 

We cannot ignore the accessibility of expertise in the learning environment in the context of supporting exceptional students. The MasterChef kitchen and pantry is a place of wonder for both the adult and junior contestants, with world-class facilities available for the chefs to create literally anything. Mixers, blenders, pasta machines, blow torches, and every variety of pot, pan, knife, utensil can be accessed to manipulate a treasure-trove of fish, meat, spices, fruit and much more; the amateur chefs have everything they need to perform at their best. Resourcing is crucially important for any learning environment and for any learner, but for the child with an exceptional strength, they will need the use of expert tools, resources, spaces and equipment to fully hone their advanced knowledge, skills and talents. This does not mean that schools should purchase expensive equipment as the number one strategy for supporting advanced learners – in schools, we know that throwing money at something doesn’t necessarily guarantee a return. But there should be a consideration of how resources, spaces and equipment in schools are an investment for those with advanced learning needs. If the child with dyslexia requires specific reading resources, or another requires pull-out support for English language, and a third child needs specialist sensory equipment to support with emotional sensitivities, why might the resourcing needs of the exceptional child be less important? The school field, science laboratory, gardening allotment, theatre, maker space, library are all excellent spaces containing specialist equipment which should be considered to maximise learning for those with exceptionalities. The regular learning environment with generic resources is unlikely to hone strengths, allow for demonstration of advanced skills, or provide the necessary ambitious spark that these youngsters need to thrive. 

Additionally, children with exceptional talents need an expert with whom they can converse to ensure their area of strength receives sufficient nourishment of depth and breadth. Gordon Ramsay is a world-class chef who has been awarded 16 Michelin stars and is probably not going to be found running after school clubs or planning school enrichment days any time soon. However, his model in the learning process is what is important. The primary student with advanced mathematicsought to be engaging with secondary teachers or older peers to appropriately challenge their skills and knowledge. The child with exceptional coding skills should have a mentor from business in the local community will likely provide suitable enrichment at their level. The student with passion and talent for clothes design should be international teleconferencing with a fashion designer as who will serve as inspiration and aspiration. 

It is important to note that the adult who provides the added breadth and depth should not be shackled to the student, overly-structuring the dialogue and managing the pace of learning. As with Ramsay, the role of the adult here is to open up the learning experience through open-ended questions, authentic application of skills and talents, expert challenge, and providing a testimony for application of exceptionality. An additional consideration is that the student with exceptionalities is likely to develop asynchronously and they may already feel like a misfit in some way – because of the very fact that they are exceptional! Oftentimes, students can experience feelings of isolation, embarrassment or shame because they are aware of how they might be different to their peers. Feeling that their exceptionality is accepted, valued and taken seriously by an adult mentor or expert, can be comforting and life-affirming. 

One final point from MasterChef Junior which is important to stress is how the contestants ranged from 8 to12 years of age. They were all cooking in one kitchen and expectations were not bound by age-related targets. Working independently, or even in mixed-aged teams, children worked side-by-side sharing equipment, recipes, solutions, and work-load. There were varying levels of leadership capability (the oldest children were not necessarily the most effective at this) and there was equity in terms of access to resources and equipment. The budding chefs found ways to communicate, share, collaborate and provide peer feedback with minimal adult input. The language they used was technical and specific and they held each other, and themselves, to account. It is apparent to note that when you get a group of people together in one learning environment, who share the same exceptionalities, performance and outcome (generally) become elevated. This reinforces that in schools, students with specific strengths and passions, should be encouraged to work together, to inspire and challenge each other at their level. Age-related differentiators should be removed since these students are well beyond such parameters, and rather than ring-fencing students in cohorts, schools should find flexible ways in the schedule to allow for excellence to breed excellence. 

As we hurtle towards Week Ten of our confinement, we continue to search for ways to keep our hearts and minds challenged, entertained and at ease during uncertain times like these. However, I am reminded that there are lessons to be found everywhere if we are willing to look closely enough. MasterChef (Junior) reminds me that we have a collective responsibility to nurture advanced learners through the provision of appropriate challenge and support, as this group of students can easily be overlooked in schools. One way that educational institutions can develop their provision is to ensure there is organisational flexibility in terms of space, time, groupings, resource and mentorship programmes. Another way is to consider the pathways we carve out for such students, which is all too often limited to academics. The adult MasterChef exemplifies this point perfectly: two Harvard University students, undoubtedly en route to glittering careers in banking, law, or medicine, competed in the show, only to realise they wished to pursue careers in culinary arts and eschew what had been their academic trajectories. As educators and parents, we should understand the passions and interests of advanced students—academic or not—and provide them with the necessary choice, voice and agency to hone passions and strengths, both at school and in the home from an early age. Pigeonholing exceptional students into academic endeavours can be damaging in a world where their contributions have potential to improve lives on a global scale, or simply change the way we experience a traditional dish. 

2 thoughts on “Lessons from Lockdown: What MasterChef teaches us about exceptionality

Leave a Reply to Jeanne Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s