Experiencing Mastery, Backwards & One Step at a Time, with Julia Child.



Julia Child was terrific at teaching us how to cook, eat and live.

I have no monopoly on this insight.

But it's very enjoyable to be reminded not only how much a very effective and hard-working person can do in a very small space, but also how much Julia Child has to teach us about teaching and learning.

Not long ago, I stumbled across a little half-page essay by Child in a cooking magazine. It's a miracle of compression. In less than 650 words (about a half a page), Child:

  1. defines quiche,
  2. tantalizes us with a description of the dish,
  3. chronicles the dish's culinary rise and fall,
  4. whets our appetite for the dish,
  5. inspires us with a story of how make the dish more easily,
  6. gives a recipe for both the crust and the quiche.

All in eight paragraphs! How many of us could teach half as much in twice the space?

What's going on here? How does Child work this magic?

To start, Julia begins with the result, the end-product: its taste and smell and pleasures. Quiche smells good, and it's part of welcoming friends into your home. This is very motivating. You think: "I want to do that!"

Second, Julia makes the process easier by dropping out unnecessary or more-complicated steps. Her inspiring anecdote concerns an anxious neighbor who dread making the dough. Julia comforted the neighbor by advising her to skip that hard part: just buy a pre-bought crust. Who would be the wiser?

The effect was magical: the neighbor brimmed with excitement at her newfound ability.

We may call this "confidence," but learning experts call it self-efficacy: the feeling of 'I can do it!' Apparently, it doesn't necessarily come from experience. Some people just have more of that feeling. But "experiences of mastery" can boost that feeling of self-efficacy, hence preparing us for greater challenges.

That's what Julia did with her anxious neighbor: made the task simpler so the neighbor could experience a success and feel more confident to approach a bigger challenge. Julia was quite the psychologist!

Cooking is hard. It's a complex, multi-step, goal-oriented process. Changing the salt here changes the taste and texture there. Kneading more or less there, changing the temperature elswhere––each of these changes the end result. So you might have to go through the same process many, many times in order to get each step just right, otherwise the end result may be inedible.

It's difficult to do something without knowing where you're headed. And too much challenge overwhelms us. So these two strategies work very well: (1) emphasize the end result, the goal, and (2) simplify the complex process, in part by reducing the steps.

So are these two clever methods something that applies only to cooking? Hell no!

There are simple names for these methods. The first is sometimes called reverse-engineering. You take the end result and you take it apart to see how the pieces fit together.

The second is an old educational method called (depending on the context) chunking or scaffolding.

  • The idea of chunking is simply: the average person's memory only holds so much information. So in order to hold a long string of info, break it into smaller bits. We do this all the time when we separate phone numbers into three- and four-digit chunks.

  • The idea of scaffolding is simply to help the learner by building a supportive structure around him––like the scaffolds built around a building to work on it as it's being assembled.
    • You give someone pre-assembled bits of the work, so the work is easier, and then over time the learner is able to do the more complex task.

If you teach or train, you can apply the same methods to any complex, multi-step, goal-oriented process.
  • Say you want students to learn to write solid argumentative prose.
    • You might start by asking them to take some apart. Identify the argument, the evidence, the reasoning. Reverse-engineer what good writing is.

    • Then you might give the students the argument and have them support it with evidence and reasoning. Or give them the argument and a pile of evidence and have them pick which evidence supports and which undermines the argument.

  • You can do the same thing with scientific experimentation.

    • You might start by giving students a finished scientific paper supporting a conclusion based on hypothesis-testing. Working backwards, you can ask the students to explain why this particular experimental method was used, why another one would not have worked.

    • Or you can give the students the experiment to run so they can collect the data, or give them the hypothesis and the data and ask them to analyze the data to see if it supports the hypothesis or not.

In short, Julia Child was certainly a miraculously gifted teacher. And like all gifted people, she worked tremendously hard. But her gifts and hard work follow underlying principles. And one of the inspiring things about Julia Child is how much we can learn from her about teaching. Namely:
Any complex, multi-step, goal-oriented process:
(1) can be practiced forwards or backwards––and should be–– (2) can be practiced from any step or 'moment' in the process to the next––and should be so practiced, e.g., by providing pre-fabricated materials for each step in the process and asking the learner to use them so as to lighten the burden of learning.
Learning is hard.
  • Learning anything complex is harder.
  • Learning a multi-step process is hard.
  • Orienting all your thoughts and behavior towards one goal is hard.
  • Doing them all together is very, very challenging.
Julia Child knew how to lower the difficulty level while keeping us stimulated by the excitement and challenge of a meaningful goal. And she does this the same way we should: by starting from the end, working backwards, and making the steps easier by simplifying them or practicing them separately.

––Edward R. O'Neill

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