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hungry for learning!

Over the years I've been interested in food/eating/cooking as metaphors for various aspects of the teaching and learning processes. I came across an article I wrote when CRN's English language site was just beginning, nearly 10 years ago. This was a dialog with Nobuyuki Ueda, presently a professor of Child Science at Doshisha Women's College, that touches on cooking/eating metaphor, as well as the agelessness of the idea of "childhood." ( It was fun for me to look back at this earlier work, especially to see my little computer drawings! Since writing that dialog, I have also been involved in a few workshops for CRN ("playshops" we called them) where cooking/eating played an important role.

Recently I've been watching a tv show in Australia about Jamie Oliver's new restaurant "Fifteen" that will be opening soon in Melbourne, and it has made me think yet again about the many possible connections between these two vital human processes: eating and learning. Cooking and eating have great power to engage people, and when people are engaged, they are learning something, not just with their mind, but with their whole beings.

I'm always so disappointed by the way that most schools are run - causing tension, fear, lack of confidence and other negative feelings in many young people. In my experience, in 90% of the classrooms I see when walking along the hallways of a school, the students are unengaged, like gears spinning in neutral. Jamie, too, was an unsuccessful student in the traditional sense; that is, he didn't do well in the usual courses, and was often made fun of for being interested in the "girly" subject of cooking. At sixteen, he left school and entered a special college to study cooking. (from Jamie's homepage at

If you don't know Jamie Oliver, google him and you'll get 3.1 million results! (enter "Jamie Oliver" into your search engine, such as I first watched him in Japan on his show called "Naked Chef" and was amazed by the show's design: every week, this young guy throwing food together, having fun in the kitchen, and ending each show by inviting his friends over to share his delicious results. All this was done with a clear love of what he was doing. Sure he had great skill, but this was secondary to his love of cooking. It isn't hard to imagine that typical school learning design wouldn't captive his active mind and body.

Over the years, Jamie's show was a big hit in many countries, and he wrote books and became a media star with the power that goes with it. Rather than do nothing with this power, Jamie has tried to make some changes that he thought were important. One area that he attacked was the horrible school lunches that most kids were being provided with in British schools. According to an article by Karen Brooks in the October 11, 2006 Courier Mail of Brisbane, Australia, Jamie's school lunch campaign was the cause of the British Government's promising to put 280 million pounds (that's about 62.85 billion yen!) into improving the quality of school lunches over a three year period.

After this Jamie turned his focus to helping young people with problems find themselves through cooking. Interviewing a huge number of potential candidates from various problem backgrounds, he chose 15 people to train as chefs for his London restaurant, aptly called "Fifteen". Now there's a "Fifteen" in Amsterdam and Cornwall, and soon to be one in Melbourne. That's what this latest reality tv series is about.

I've been watching this show since it began a few months ago. After interviewing many young people, Jamie's staff choose about twenty people that they thought had the most promise to become chefs. Most of the finalists have had a lot of problems with their family or personal lives: drug related, violence, jail, anger management. Most of them have had little or no emotional support from families, some have been living on the streets, some had children when they themselves were only 17 or so. All are struggling, all haven't been successful in "normal" schooling or work experiences. Jamie wanted to give them a chance to change their lives.

In the first few episodes I was surprised to see that much of the early training took place in the classrooms of TAFE - the Technical And Further Education program supported by Australian government in every state. And the teacher often used threatening or bullying tactics tried to scare the students into working. I was happy to see that in a week or two, Jamie and his associates could see that this was not an effective way to help these young people and that they needed hands-on experience in the kitchen, which is where most of the learning took place for the rest of the program.

This made me think again about a some ideas which are central to my own philosophy about learning styles. Claude Lévi-Strauss, the cultural anthropologist, distinguished between the bricoleur style and the engineering style - the tinkerer and the planner. (Lévi-Strauss, C. (1962) "The Savage Mind" Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press) The discussion about this was brought into the educational context in a paper by Sherry Turkle and Seymour Papert (Turkle, S. & Papert, S. (1992) "Epistemological pluralism and the revaluation of the concrete" at ( If we were to put these two styles into a cooking context, we might say - a person who followed recipes exactly would be the engineer type, and a person who took the changing condition of the ingredients and the context (the weather, eating space, the people who are eating, the mood etc) into consideration and created something different each time would be the bricoleur or tinkerer.

Thinking about the production stage of food in a real life restaurant, such clear cut distinctions don't work. (Actually I'm convinced that all dichotomized comparisons which put things at extreme ends are not so helpful because they blur the important shaded distinctions lying between the two ends.) To function well in a kitchen of a busy restaurant, obviously a number of practical skills must be mastered and certain standard recipes must be followed. A busy restaurant like "Fifteen", has little time for playful tinkering, though certain aspects of the spirit could be helpful.

But if we think about the early learning stages, I believe that these two styles are very important. The reason why many young people don't succeed in schools is because schools are designed by engineer types with a carefully planned, step-by-step approach to learning. First we do this, next this, then this, and then we "have knowledge". One of the purposes of this approach is to "save time" and be efficient, removing the chance of making errors, which also results in removing the chance of being surprised and having fun. And in fact, most people want to enjoy the learning process, be surprised, proceed in a variety of ways and speeds, and feel free from constant pressure and competition (though a certain amount of pressure is needed for many learners.)

For the young people in "Fifteen", there was the vague, but powerful goal of trying to change their lives and become chefs in a famous restaurant, but there was also the daily goal of waking up, getting to work/class on time, managing physical and emotional issues, and trying to learn something new. What a challenge! To put them in a classroom with books and papers and lectures, with an authoritative teacher in front of them, was just the wrong choice, and happily Jamie and his team recognized this and moved the students into practical learning situations very quickly.

And here is a point that I always come back to - this idea of feeling connected, and also the idea of learning through mistakes, discovery and surprise is related to using our senses of touch, smell, and taste which are left underdeveloped in most of classroom learning.

In Dr. Brooks' article, she mentions another idea of Lévi-Strauss: that nature is turned into culture through the process of cooking. I thought about the concept of "bento" (Japanese lunch boxes) and what it means to the mother-child relationship in Japan and it's importance in the Japanese culture. At one of our CRN playshops, we had children create food for their mothers in order to develop the awareness of everyone about how food preparation shows love.

For many of the young people who are involved with Fifteen restaurants, the confidence which Jamie has placed in them is the first time in their life that someone believes in them. Most of them never imagined that they could be successful learners about doing anything, but this experience with hands-on, sensual learning has started them on a new path for their lives. In a sense, they have entered into a new culture in this experience. We can wish them success, at the same time hoping that those working with them continue to support them with understanding of their previous negative experiences in different learning cultures of traditional schools.
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