Researchers v Teachers, Scientists v Chefs

Eons ago, even long before I regenerated as an EFL teacher, I worked unspeakable hours in kitchens. Never mind classes at school or words of wisdom passed on from some butch-armed Italian grandmother, or slavish days at home in the kitchens of a Parisian uncle, I popped on me chef whites and went the professional route.

“OK, umm…so what?”

Well, at IATEFL, this year, there was a fair bit of discussion on research and teaching – actually it’s come up a fair bit before IATEFL – with research being accused of being inaccessible to teachers, of methodology writers, course providers, and so on, being accused of peddling their wares without consulting the research, even – *cough* synthetic syllabus *cough* yer average coursebook *cough* route of acquisition – selling wares that didn’t stand up to the scrutiny of research.

The problem, then, for the researcher, is that the teacher is being hoodwinked, that educators are not giving students their money’s worth, because they’re ignoring the research.

The problem for the teacher is that the research seems alien, inaccessible and irrelevant.

So, where does this fit in with the catering industry?

Let’s take a steak. A good one. 32 day dry-aged, British beef, grass-fed, rib-eye (no, not fillet! Don’t be so boring!) Ask any chef the most important rule – hot pan. Why? Ask the scientist – the heat (above 160C) creates a reaction of amino acids and sugars that produce over 1500 flavours (collectively, these might be called ‘roasted’ in layman’s terms). Ask the chef – searing meat seals in the juices.

For a long time, this fallacy (sealing in juices) was believed by chefs and cooks and Mr J. Public. Generally, it wasn’t a problem. The steak was seared in a hot pan, what difference did it make if it was for flavour or juiciness? But, sometimes, it caused issues. People, cooking stews, would skip the searing stage when making a stew, or soup, or stock. There’s no need to sear it if it’s cooking in liquid, right?

So, without the scientists, the chefs got so far before things started to go wrong. In the same vein, teaching that ignores research can only get so far before it goes wrong.


But, the researcher is not off the hook yet! Ask a researcher to boil you an egg, and you’ll learn that eggs have 13 types of protein that coagulate at different temperatures, that the albumin cooks at a different temperature to the yolk, and that you’ve been waiting for your breakfast for the past blasted hour and a half, now!

See, in many fields, there is an ivory-tower sense of the academic, the abstract, around researchers. Their concern is to eliminate as many extraneous variables as possible, to ensure a data sample is valid, reliable, trustworthy, what have you. The chef, and the teacher, cannot work this way. They have myriad things to juggle at any one time. It doesn’t matter that 13 year old Indonesian CEFR B1 students studying in ELL classes in Texas state schools scored 13% higher using CALL than a control group. The teacher has lessons to plan and deliver, syllabi to follow, tests to mark, parents to meet, meetings to attend, attendance to keep track off, etc, etc, etc!

It has been suggested (see Scott Thornbury’s IATEFL talk, here: that intellectual mediators be employed to bridge the gap between researchers and teachers.

In catering, chefs were the mediators between scientists and the public. About as effective, in some cases, as a petrol-filled fire extinguisher.

I’ve argued several times in other places that EFL needs to overhaul it’s ITT courses, and I’ll add to that here that it would help, if we are to have mediators, that we think more carefully about who those mediators were. The rise of the chef-scientist, such as H. Blumenthal, and the scientist who’s not afraid to step into the kitchen and work closely with chefs, such as N. Kurti and H. This, and helped close the gap between cooking and science. Scott’s talk gave the impression of mediators who, despite their best efforts and intentions, would not or were not able to access and make sense or use of all the research. How about, then, we look to people who can, people who are a little more centre field? Or, even better, bring some people from both camps closer, open dialogue channels between teachers and researchers. Why should the mediators be tasked only with passing research onto teachers? Why not go the other way, as well, and also pass teacher’s views and concerns onto researchers?

Researchers need to be heard, but they also need to be told, and the people who do it need to do it with an open-mind and a willing sense of duty for a broken profession.


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