Eating Your Mistakes

It was the Fourth of July, and I was doing what I love to do in summertime: using my barbeque smoker to make pulled pork sliders for dinner. I woke up at 4:15 a.m. to get it started so that it would be ready in time; after all, you’ve got to get up early in the morning if you’re going to make great food (I went back to sleep for a couple of hours once I got it going).

At some point in the afternoon, my stepson asked me, “Don, how’d you learn how to cook?” I thought about it, and I replied that it’s really something I’ve been teaching myself for the past 10 years. I cook whenever I have time, and it brings me great joy.

“But how’d you do it?” he asked again.

I’d never really thought to explain it, but I guess the answer is that I read many cookbooks, watch food television, read articles in magazines and newspapers, talk about food with anybody who will discuss it with me, and then I jump in there and try to cook things. Often I cook by myself, but I also love to prepare a meal together with my wife.

The best part of cooking is that when you make mistakes, you get to eat your failures. When you’re learning to cook, at the end of the process—no matter what—you are eating. Eating! What’s better than that?

This got me thinking about education and school. Like school, cooking is about something that is fundamental to the human condition. We cook so we can eat. We go to school so we can learn.

When I cook, nobody gives me a grade. If I make a mistake, I can either eat it or throw it away and start over again. When I make a meal, I can always make it again, better than the last time. I’m never forced to cook in the kitchen with my head down by myself, not talking to anyone. Usually when I cook, it is with my wife, and we talk, listen to music, maybe even enjoy a glass of wine. I love the feedback I get about my cooking, good or bad: “Don, I like your coleslaw with vinegar more than mayonnaise,” “Don, this is too spicy, this needs more salt,” or “This is so good, where do I get the recipe?”

The thing I love most about cooking is the infinite nature of food. I will never stop learning because the universe of food and cooking is seemingly endless. There is so much food to enjoy andso many ways to prepare it, and it connects you to other people and other cultures in a way that is singularly rewarding.

I do not wish to mislead: I am NOT an awesome cook. In fact, I’m far from it. If I wereforced to give myself a percentage grade (notice the emphasis on forced—I am strenuously opposed to grading practices that use “averages”), I would grade myself an 83 percent (whatever that means). But I always experience success when I cook, I never give up, I always learn something new, and I always love it!

Somewhere along the way, instead of being about learning, school often becomes a matter of success or failure. Kids are led through a highly prescribed path, often engaging with content in isolation instead of collaborating with others. The system cultivates an avoidance of failure, because failure equals bad grades, which equals angry parents, which equals negative life prospects; at least, that’s what kids are led to believe.

I don’t have the solution to this dilemma, but the similarities and differences between cooking and school has me thinking:

In schools, how can we create conditions in which kids are NOT afraid to fail? How can we make everything we do in school as joyful, as exploratory, and as fulfilling as cooking and eating? It’s our responsibility as educators to make it that way!

This spaghetti with clam sauce dish happened to be a success.

Donald Gately, EdD, serves as the principal of Jericho Middle School in Jericho, NY. He was the 2016 New York Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @donald_gatelyand visit his blog In the Middle of Learning.

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