Recipes for Success: Cooking Up Successful Learning Experiences

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I’m just going to say it – I love food.

There. I’ve said it. Wait… I’m not done.

I love making food, eating food, sharing food.

I love the multisensory experience of food – the smells, sounds, sights, textures, and, of course, the taste. I while away my time (perhaps too much time) dreaming up fancy tables, perfectly set, heavy with delicious morsels.

And I love to cook dishes that take humble, everyday ingredients, and transform them into something unforgettable. It’s a creative outlet for me.

What’s Food Got To Do With It?

Recently, the Curious Lion team had an incredible workshop about exploring our creativity. We asked ourselves questions like Am I a creative person? And Is creativity synonymous with perfection?

It brought me to a full circle moment – a moment of clarity where I saw how (what I thought was) an odd little hobby actually beautifully reflects the approach we take to designing learning experiences here at Curious Lion. 

Let me explain.

Test Kitchen

You may be wondering how recipes and learning experiences have anything to do with one another. Let me let you in on my a-ha! moment.

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Whilst exploring my own creativity in the workshop, It struck me that we can learn a lot about designing effective learning experiences when we compare them to cooking.

First, just as a recipe should provide clear and concise instructions, learning experiences should be well-structured and easy to follow. We do this through clear learning objectives, organized content, and actionable steps.

Now this is the thing that resonates most with me: recipes and learning experiences should allow for flexibility and experimentation. Just as a cook can modify a recipe to suit their tastes, learners should be able to customize their learning experience to their interests and needs. This can be achieved through the use of adaptive learning technologies, personalized learning plans, and alternative learning pathways.

Now, as much as I enjoy recipe hunting, I am notorious for deviating from the instructions. I like to experiment, and I have enough experience and knowledge banked in my brain to know what will and what won’t work. I know, somehow, in my bones, what substitutions I can make. I have a feel for what flavors work together. I can anticipate which dishes will pair perfectly to make a well-rounded meal.

I trust my intuition. I think this is why I’m not a great baker. I feel stifled when I can’t express myself, when I’m bound by the restrictions dictated by precision – I want – no, I need to be free to experiment and see what works best for me.

This is precisely the reason why I like cooking with vegetables: a salad is never just a salad. All you have to do is know what ingredients you have at hand, understand some basic cooking chemistry (not as scary as it sounds, promise), and you can make flavorful magic!

Samin Nosrat, New York Times columnist and chef, suggests that there are four key elements to successful cooking: salt, fat acid, and heat (SFAH). 4 elements, endless possibilities:

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Salt? Soy sauce or anchovies.

Fat? Butter, lard, olive oil.

Acid? Citrus, apple cider vinegar, or wine.

Heat? Stovetop, oven, or open flame.

Now, will any random combination of these ingredients work? No.

The Christmas Salad Dressing

Let me tell you a story about using the right elements wrong.

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One particular Christmas past, we were visiting my parent-in-law. The whole family was gathered and hungry – lunch preparation was in full swing. In fact, we were wrapping up the final bits and pieces before we all sat down to the rather impressive spread.

One of the final items to be made? Salad dressing.

The foundations of a basic salad dressing are acid, fat, and salt. It takes a bit of adjusting, and you can add additional seasonings, but that’s the base.

My mother-in-law had received a set of fancy salts for her birthday that year, and thought this was the perfect time to use them. She selected a black volcanic smoked salt of some kind. It looked very impressive.

In went the red wine vinegar (acid), the olive oil (fat), and a generous pinch of that salt…

In a matter of moments, everyone in the vicinity of the kitchen was assaulted by the fumes of rotten eggs. Chaos ensued.

The salt had had a chemical reaction with the vinegar, creating sulfur that permeated through the house.

Were the elements of the dressing wrong? Nope. Were the ingredients wrong? Yes. The wrong kind of salt was all it took to transform the hungry faces of my family into a nose-shielding mob.

My mother-in-law went on to use all the salts in that set, over a year or more. All but the bottle of black salt.

The SFAH of Learning Design

My mother-in-law is a great cook. But the Christmas salad dressing incident does illustrate something that happens both in the kitchen and in the minds of learning architects.

It’s the pursuit of curating the perfect flavor profile. And that comes with knowledge, experience, and tasting what you’re making.

As learning architects, we know the ingredients, the substitutions, and the pairings that will work to make a well-rounded learning experience. We know when to add more or less of a particular ingredient to suit the individual learner’s needs.

We know when to plug in an interactive element, and when it won’t serve the learner or the learning. We have a sense of how far to push learners to stretch themselves to work asynchronously on reflection exercises. We have tried and tested engagement approaches.

And most importantly, we taste our own recipes. We collaborate with one another to innovate, each one of us a food critic tasting a new learning experience menu. We give detailed tasting notes, feedback on room for improvement, and suggestions for how to make the flavors sing. Too many cooks in the kitchen? I think not!

Learning Happens in Experimenting

I remember asking my mom how she knew what to do in the kitchen, and how I could learn. Her answer: “You just try things. You know what flavors you like, you have an idea of what you want to make.” And then she would let me try things. And with each new attempt, my confidence in the kitchen soared ever higher.

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Like cooking, learning should be a creative and enjoyable experience. By encouraging learners to explore and experiment with new ideas, we can foster a sense of curiosity and excitement that can lead to greater engagement and retention.

Creativity plays such an important role in both cooking and learning. While recipes provide a foundation, as the cook we add our own unique touch to a dish through creative ingredient substitutions, plating techniques, and flavor combinations.

At Curious Lion, we empower learners to exercise their creativity by applying what they’ve learned in new and innovative ways. We give them control over their learning, and encourage them to make the journey their own.

We create a safe space for them to explore the flavors of learning that resonate with them, to test out new cooking methods that work best for their individual needs. We provide them with the conditions for their confidence to soar.

I can’t wait for the day when my daughter, Ada, stands next to me in the kitchen just as I did with my mother. I can’t wait for her to ask me how she can learn to cook. I can’t wait to provide her with the opportunities for her to explore, learn, and to watch her confidence soar.

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