What Cooking Has Taught Me About Education

In the past year, I have spent far more time at home cooking several dishes. My other area of interest is education – I am a professor at a university when not cooking. While cooking, I often think about everything that’s wrong with our education system, and whether we can find a way to fix them. And in that process, I find my cooking hat often colliding with my professor hat.

Cooking has taught me a lot about education. Here are a few things that I have observed and learnt.

Lesson 1: creating masterpieces

I cook from the heart, not the head. I feel the process with my five senses, and often with the sixth one too. Cooking needs intuition, gut feel, and emotions; not structures. I never replicate a recipe. I treat my recipe book as a suggestion, not prescription. If I have to create masterpiece that I can call my own, I can’t just copy someone else’s work.

Similarly in education, we often put too much emphasis on memorising facts, sticking to the textbooks, listening to professors, dutifully taking notes – and then spilling it all out on the exam paper. Our system can’t limit students to textbooks and classroom lectures, keeping them away from the immense knowledge that the world has to offer. We need to allow students to debate, disagree, and come up with original ideas instead of asking them to just reproduce already existing theories.

In our high power distance culture, children are taught not to disagree with their elders. In my opinion, this creates and promotes a very hierarchical system of education which acts as a barrier to everyday learning process.

In cooking too, sticking to the old recipe doesn’t always yield a satisfying result. But when I experiment with new spices and new cooking methods, the process brings in exciting flavours and enhances the dish. Allow students to create their own masterpieces, not copies of their professors’ masterpieces.

Lesson 2: mix spices; mix disciplines

The best cuisines are those that have assimilated ingredients and cooking techniques of other cuisines. Indian food is a melting pot of Persian, Arab, Turkish, Portuguese, British, Chinese influences. Such assimilation creates magic because, as they say, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Similarly, interdisciplinarity is the future of education. As we integrate the concepts and methodologies of various disciplines and take an interdisciplinary approach to a challenge, we see solutions which a single discipline would never have been able to see. Hence, whenever it comes to solving any problem (big or small), it is always advised to bring in different perspectives together before taking the final decision.

Also read: How My Kitchen Saved Me in Quarantine

This again is very similar to the process of cooking. When we combine spices from different cuisines, we create flavours that are beyond what any single spice could have created. Likewise, when disciplines mix, the resulting interdisciplinary approach extracts hitherto unknown solutions.

Lesson 3: outcome not output

People often focus on the input (ingredients) and the output (final dish) of cooking, but never on the outcome. Now, if I follow a proper procedure, I will definitely get a desired end result. I will get the dish I want without any moment of surprise or magic. But if I share the same dish with my friends and family, I will see the magic on their faces, lit up after tasting my dish. That is outcome, and it is clearly more important than output.

In education, we focus too much on input (lectures, textbooks, attendance, exams) and on the output (marks, grades, degrees). But we need to understand that the outcome of education is not the degree. Instead, the outcomes are the lessons you learn about life, and the desire you develop to learn more. Almost everything that we are teaching students today will be obsolete in the next couple of decades. People need to learn how to learn, so they can constantly reinvent themselves through their lives.

Lesson 4: toppling down the bed of Procrustes

The industrial farming system forces farmers to produce fruits and vegetables that are perfect in shape and size, so they all neatly fit into prefabricated containers and look good on the supermarket shelves. Hence, ‘ugly’ looking vegetables are weeded out before the final produce is sent to the market for sale. All carrots looking alike are considered better than each carrot growing into whatever wild shape its heart desires.

Let the carrots be ‘ugly’ and grow wild. That brings the flavours out.

This reminds me of the Greek myth about Procrustes and his bed. He used to host travellers to sleep on his infamous bed which of course wasn’t fit for all. If the guest was too short, Procrustes would stretch the guest’s legs to fit the bed and if the guest was too tall, he would chop their legs off. No wonder, his name became synonymous with forced uniformity. We often use the phrase called ‘Procrustean education’ to describe the dominant model of education today. Every student is stretched or chopped to fit the exact template: sit in the same classroom, take the same exams, and get the same degrees.

Students who don’t fit into the conventional set up are either beaten into shape or are intimidated to an extent that they fall off the assembly line. I am a proponent of the ugly food movement, fighting for the wonky carrot. I would like to see a post-Procrustean education system where each child is allowed to flourish in his, her or their own areas of interests, and not forced to fit into a template. Innovation and creativity happen when one follows their heart, and not when one is churned out like identical bots from an assembly line.

Ravi Miglani is a home cook and a consumer insights professional. He is an alumnus of IIM Ahmedabad. Ravi has worked in various corporate roles in eight countries for three decades. Now he is a Professor at Ahmedabad University when he is not cooking.

Featured image credit: Pexels/Pixabay