November 20, 2012 by samuelshep
Recently I started baking my own bread. Partly because it’s cheaper than buying shop bought bread, but mostly because I love fresh baked bread. It’s a bit of a morning ritual: come down, mix dry stuff (500g ish of flour, couple of teaspoons of easy bake yeast, teaspoon or so of sugar or honey, three spoons of oil), boil kettle for coffee and to make suitably warm water (made up of roughly 200ml of cold, 100ml of boiling), stir it all up for a bit in the bowl until there’s a dough, then knead for ten minutes. Ish. Then start warming the oven up, and put bread in to rise in the (switched off but still warm) grill for 15 minutes (ish) then bung it into the oven on gas mark 7, or maybe 8 for a bit, then turn it down a couple of gas marks, for a bit longer, then take it out, tap it on the bottom to check it sounds hollow, leave to cool, play with children, eat warm bread with preferred topping. Golden syrup for me.
I learned this, more or less, off the side of a flour pack. Apart from all the “ish”. When I started I was very strict: ten minutes at gas mark 8, then fifteen at gas mark 6. 450g of flour if it was wholemeal, 500g if it was white. 7g of yeast. I even used to let it rise properly, knock it back, then let it rise again. But now, although I still use scales, I don’t need to check the quantities, I play with proportions of white and wholemeal flour (300g white and 200g wholemeal makes a nice loaf), use different oils (walnut oil with honey instead of sugar is particularly delicious), make different shapes (hedgehog looked more like road kill, but never mind), all sorts. Making bread now is a very comfortable, natural process. I know when it’s ready to put in the oven, I don’t panic if it hasn’t “doubled in size” when it rises, I know how to knead and that a warm wooden board makes for a better loaf than our cold granite worktops. And I’ve had good feedback: for one the bread rarely lasts long enough to go stale, and even my father in law, never one for effusive, meaningless praise, reported it as “very good.” Sometimes, of course, it goes wrong. And this is fine, a slightly deflated or burned loaf from time to time is a small price to pay for generally pretty decent bread.
I need to experiment more. I have reached a bread making plateau. I can make basic bread. I am confident in my bread making. So I need to explore other breads. I’d like to try sourdough, although I need more patience, but I could vary the flours a little. I could try adding other ingredients: nuts and seeds, of course, or raisins and extra sugar for a sweet loaf. I could try different cooking styles: bagels intrigue me, my attempts at soda bread have been hit and miss, although I can knock out a pretty delicious yoghurt flatbread.
So far, so bready. But I was thinking the other morning about how I developed as a teacher, and how there are parallels.
Like how your confidence, and your skill in teaching develops primarily through trial and error, and through accepting those errors. Interventions like direct instruction, training and coaching have only had a limited impact on my teaching practice, but getting it wrong, and knowing that it was wrong, has been the best teacher trainer I have had.
Like how a classroom is a mass of variables, all of which can pull together beautifully, or which can fall apart, and in either case there can be no apparent reason.
Like when I was a fairly new teacher, the first five years or so, I knew relatively little about the science of teaching: psychology, neuroscience, that sort of thing. I have a working knowledge of these, but I get the essential principles. Ditto bread making. I know the principles (i.e. yeast gets jiggy in the heat with the sugar thus creating gas which makes the bread rise, etc.)
And then I came across this:
“The ability to articulate what it is you have learned often arrives after you have learned to control and manipulate the situation, if at all. Indeed, the attempt to use conscious knowledge to guide learning frequently turns out to be counter productive. The effort to apply what you think is going on, or what you have been told is going on, can actively interfere with the ability of your brain to pick up useful but subtle aspects of the situation just through trial and error.”
(Guy Claxton & Bill Lucas, Is vocational education for the less able? in Bad Education: debunking myths in education, edited by Philip Adey & Justin Dillon)
Wow, I thought, this is exactly how I have learned to bake, and how I learned to teach. The worst loaves, and some of the worst lessons I have taught, have been where I have been consciously trying to apply some theory or some piece of knowledge, and certainly it got me thinking about how often I usually try to approach teaching a grammar point or some vocabulary unconsciously, focussing on meaning and form, but not directly teaching it.
My learning as a teacher hasn’t been simply “here is the theory, now go and make it practice” but rather a case of “here is the practice, now understand the theory behind it”. The theory came very much after the practice, and helped to shine something of a light on that practice. Some teacher training courses I know take the “practice then theory” approach (CELTA comes to mind) but my, admittedly limited, experience of PGCE type courses has been that they have been theory first, practice after. Not that there isn’t a role for the theory in teaching: I like a good bit of theory, it can shed light on and explain why something went well, or not. (and even more I like a bit of real evidence to back theory up. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again “because it’s good practice” doesn’t count: it’s reminiscent of Blake’s General Good.)
Really, the other thing I realised, or rather had confirmed, from all this is that learning to teach is very much a craft learning, rather than a purely theoretical learning, or a purely practical learning: there is theory which can help, but only when applied through the lens of real practice. Much like baking a loaf of bread.
Speaking of which, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get a loaf out of the oven.