Why I Love the Great British Baking Show: A Quasi-Diversion from Music Education

I’ve been watching a lot of the Great British Baking Show lately, so much so that I’ve even been trying my hand at making some treats of my own for the first time (i.e., the pic of my proudest macaron below). It’s been fun to try and develop a new hobby in the blips of free time available this Fall semester. Beyond the potentially delicious outcomes, I can’t help but think about why I seem to like the show so much and why I so easily fell into a habit of what probably amounts to “binge watching” it.

One reason that seems fairly obvious to me is that watching the show and spending time on baking has been a nice respite from what amounts to “the daily news”. On the surface, the general emotional calm of the show is appealing when juxtaposed with the chaos of so much else happening in the world from moment to moment. Overall, I appreciate how the producers portray the humanity of the participants and the drama of the contest with what feels like a sense of sincerity. They do this without resorting to too much of the topsy-turvy camera work, canned conflict, yelling, and insane overhyping that is present in most other reality shows.

Also – for better or worse – I know that, personally, I can be persuaded to indulge in escapist behaviors (e.g., my love of all things sci-fi… books, TV, movies…), and watching TV certainly fits that bill. There are undoubtedly lots of great reasons for enjoying the show. After all, it’s a popular show and I’m definitely not the only one who has been transfixed by it. But, when I think about it for a bit, I believe there are probably some music education-related analogies “baked” in to my attraction to the show that might be interesting to consider. As a result, I wrote this post to try and extract some professional lessons that perhaps could be gained from the time I spent escaping with the Brits into their baking tent…

Why do they do it?

Considering the motivation of the folks who participate in this show is fascinating. The participants appear to do what they do for what in education we would probably consider to be “ideal” motivational reasons. Nearly every baker stresses the importance of two things (1) the intrinsic joy of their work and (2) how it benefits some broader community. They bake because they want to feed their family and friends nice things and because they find it satisfying and exciting to expand their skill and develop a “signature” style replete with personal choices for flavors and techniques. While they’ll usually express a desire to “win”, when they talk about winning or losing, they typically describe an appreciation for getting recognition that their work results in good food or a regret that they didn’t live up to a personal standard, respectively. Their motivational dispositions rarely if ever lead them to focus on comparative standards. Also, it’s important to keep in mind that the prize is a glass plate… …not money, some exotic trip, or a business deal, etc. Beyond that, the silly glass plate is eventually bestowed amidst a large family gathering where all the bakers from the whole season return and celebrate each other’s work. Ultimately, their motive seems to rest largely on personal development and being a contributor to their community of family, friends, and fellow bakers.

In my view, this seems to be a pretty ideal model for some of the ways a music educator could be energized to develop as a professional and do good work with their students and communities. 

How do they get along?

The collegiality expressed among the bakers is equally fascinating. In fact, there seems to be an inherent lesson apparent in the make-up of the participant pools themselves. The groups of bakers who are gathered for any particular season seem to be purposively designed to be quite diverse in regard to a number of compelling characteristics. At the risk of making too much of a TV show, I think it can be inspiring to see how their diversity appears in their work and – more importantly – the consistent expression of acknowledgment, appreciation, and respect they have for their differences. In regard to more mundane matters of week-to-week baking, the participants seem not to possess any real sense of a “cut-throat” competitive urge. While they all clearly want to do their best, there are almost no instances in which the bakers appear to be working in a “for me to win, you must lose” mindset. In contrast, most episodes show examples of how bakers help each other. It’s pretty common to see those who have finished their work helping the others who are in danger of running out of time for any given challenge. Ultimately, they are more often depicted celebrating their triumphs together and empathizing with each other when things don’t go well.

Again, this seems to be a great model for how teams of music educators could come together and work through kindness for the mutual benefit and gain of all.

Well, if you read all this – thanks for indulging with me in this escape. If you feel like sharing, I’d be curious to know your take on these simple metaphors. If you haven’t seen it, check out the show, I think it’s a pretty cool diversion.


“Believe Me, There’s Nothing Boring About Statistics”

This is a terrific BBC documentary on stats – for those of you that enjoy the insights that statistical analyses can yield, check it out. I realize this has probably made the internet rounds a few times over, but it’s too good not to share…

Watch the video “The Joy of Stats” at the Gapminder website.

Also – the Gapminder website is generally amazing. Playing with the map is great fun.

It’s fun to imagine the ways such approaches to data analysis and visualization could enhance what we know about music education in the world.


I Gave a Final Exam at a Restaurant

Disclaimer: This post is part confessional and part epiphany.

Here’s the context:

I’ve recently made an effort to schedule the work that I require in some of my courses so that the weightiest assignments are not the last assignments. In other words, I’ve been thinking of ways to create a schedule where what might typically be considered a ‘term’ project is due one or two weeks before the traditional final exam week. Then, I schedule a lighter, reflection- and/or application-oriented assignment that’s due during the exam week. I’ve got several reasons for doing this – but, the most obvious are (a) to try to avoid loading the heaviest work on the students in my course during their most busy/stressful/hectic time of the semester and (b) to try to allow for more time during which I can provide substantial feedback on the ‘term’ project for the students to think about/discuss prior to the end of the course.

Here’s how it happened:

We came to the time in the course when folks are scrambling to get their schedules for the last couple of weeks settled and the inevitable queries about time, place, and requirements arose: “Where’s our final exam, what room?” “Which day is it again, when?” “What exactly do we need to turn in?” etc. etc. Once we established the basics – a weekday night, the same space as where we typically have class – I reiterated to the students that the project that was due at our final exam time was relatively ‘light’ as compared to the ‘term’ project they had just completed. I had planned on using the final exam time for this particular course for brief presentations of the students’ final projects (syntheses of materials on a topic of their choosing). Another thought also came to mind, that recently, a colleague of mine had hosted a class event at their house and was very happy with the results. And, after thinking about that…  I simply suggested that we could perhaps hold the final exam event someplace other than the same classroom that we’ve inhabited for the past 16 weeks. As you might have guessed, that seemed to be a somewhat appealing option to everyone (note the sarcastic tone in this font). We decided that everyone would present his or her final work in a quasi-formal manner during dinner and we left it at that.

Here’s what I think:

First off, I must admit that I was skeptical of the idea that an academically rigorous final exam could take place in a social setting such as that typically found in a restaurant. Granted, the assignment in question was not a traditional final exam – but, still, I wanted the students to have high standards and to take their work seriously.

However… once the evening began and the conversation started to flow, I started to think about what might be going on… …I started thinking about important professional social situations I had been in over the past 15 years (meetings with students’ parents, meetings with administrators, meetings with school board members, meetings with new colleagues, interviews, conferences, meetings with donors, etc.)…

We didn’t jump right into the student presentations, there was no ‘start’ or ‘stop’ for the evening and with the exception of a couple of awkward segues put forth by yours truly to move along here and there, the evening was organic.

I was ultimately very pleased with the work the students had done and I think the students were pleased with each others’ work as well. However, what became especially apparent to me was that the students needed to draw upon several skills that I don’t typically see them use, but are quite valuable in academia and professional music education settings in general. In essence, they had to speak intelligently, competently, clearly, and deeply about a topic they were interested in without ‘ripping’ the social fabric of the night. We all had to be able to sit and talk face-to-face about important and valuable ideas while also making small talk, munching on appetizers, ordering entrees, talking with the waiter, and generally getting to know each other as human beings. There was essentially no difference between any of the professional-oriented social situations I described above and this particular “final.” All-in-all, the students presented interesting works, fun was had, and it may even have been an opportunity to ‘practice’ some skills that will come in handy outside of the classroom in the future. I think I might try this again.

…or maybe I’m just rationalizing an evening out a restaurant 😉 As I said in the beginning, this is part confessional, part epiphany – I’d love to hear your thoughts one way or another.


Recent reading related to this post (albeit tangentially): Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar – Cathcart & Klein  (a brilliant book of jokes)