Why on earth do I need to slog away resitting maths and English GCSEs to become a chef when it’s doesn’t seem relevant? Sadly, It’s an all too common question that professional cookery lecturer Robert Broome and many other FE teachers have to answer from students who have discovered a vocation they really want to learn about after being switched off learning at school. For them incessant and repetitive English and maths lessons spell ‘brick wall’, ‘confusion’, ’turn-off’ … surely, they argue, college is the time to do something fun with a purpose - no maths and no English?
Robert, now in his second year of full-time teaching at North Herts College after 10 years as a professional chef, is one of many former PGCE teacher trainees at Bedford College who have discovered the value of doing and pooling practical research on FE teaching and learning.
He’s been encouraged by Sam Jones (featured in our Inspiring Lecturer series) , who is the research/scholarship lead at Bedford College Group and helped found the growing #FEResearchmeet movement that hosts meetings around the UK for all teachers interested in promoting and sharing FE research.
As someone who once struggled with English at school, Robert admits going straight to catering college regardless of what GCSE grades he had gained. In those days there was no requirement to continually study and resit maths and English until you pass or until you reach 18. His empathy with students facing similar difficulties in maths and English inspired him to look into the value of maths and English as part of the action research component of his PGCE teacher training course. He set himself the task to find out whether vocational courses could really support students with maths and English?
“I researched just how important a role maths and English plays in vocational training. Students even now tell me they don’t need those subjects to work in the kitchen - although it turns out that they do.”
He then took his research into the college kitchens. “I gave my students basic maths and English questions at functional skills level 2 - they were no more advanced than the level of a grade 4 at GCSE. I’d then mark their answers, tally the results, and then over the next month incorporate maths and English learning a bit more than I normally did in my cookery sessions.
“For instance, I’d ask them how to determine a ratio - in a quiche-making session I demonstrated the use of ratios to determine how much egg and milk was required to create the quiches. It was almost a subconscious way of getting across to students how to work out the ratios but without them realising they were doing it."
He also started putting up posters around the kitchens asking basic questions like: Heston Blumenthal was born in 1966, how old is he now? “It was a mix of simple multiplication, addition and subtraction - something to keep their minds ticking over.”
He then gave his students another set of questions very similar in scope and skill level to the set he had tested them on a month before - only this time the questions were expressed in terms of practical, industrial issues they would face in their kitchen workplaces. “A month did not give time for a huge improvement but it was substantial enough when you consider there was only four weeks between the two test papers. “
Robert also focused on spelling. “I did a quick spelling test at the start of the month asking 12 student sto spell ‘tagliatelle’ - and just one got it right - the others were mostly way of. I then held a pasta session showing them how to make it and attached a print-out of the world on the table they could physically see.”
For a couple of weeks he also put up posters about different types of pasta including the word ‘tagliatelle’.
“When I gave them a second test, they all immediately looked to the wall where the poster had been (I’d removed this before the test!). Then it was a case of not being able to spell the word yet they remembered seeing it on the wall. When I saw the results, three people had got it right and another eight out of the 12 had written the right letters but got one two in the wrong order. By contrast, in the first test their attempts to spell it looked like Egyptian hieroglyphics!
“There was a consistent improvement - even over a month. They had really improved. If they’d had changed just one letter, most would have got it right.
Robert also put up posters entitled ‘commonly misspelt words in the industry’. One student was testing himself how to spell it while peeling 10 kilos of potatoes in the restaurant on a busy day and sat there reading it, unwittingly improving his spelling as he peeled. It was such a painless way of learning.
“The results have proved my original hypothesis,” says Robert. “There is another way of actually teaching maths and English.”
Robert passed on his findings to the college’s maths and English department and now feeds back to them what topics his students tell him they find difficult. In turn, he is asked to use his research methods to reinforce learning in those problem areas. The result, he says, is more enthusiastic students who now want to attend their maths and English sessions. Engaged learners. Job done!
* A number of research networking/seminar events take place across the UK. See below for forthcoming events:
This week: February 20 What's next for further education? Competitive or collaborative? Local or national? Second chance or first choice? Talk by Professor Martin Doel (former Association of Colleges chief exec), Institute of Education, UCL, 5.30-7.00pm
March 11 Ways of engaging: approaches to developing learning skills for disengaged and disaffected young people, focusing on a new research project and publication. Learning and Skills Research Network (LSRN), University of East Anglia, 6.30pm
March 26 Developing critical connections for the future: policy, practice and research in the FE and skills sector, LSRN, University of Huddersfield, 1-6pm