During the past month I indulged in watching one of my favorite shows, The Great British Baking Show on PBS. The drama, the flour, the sugar and oh, how I love those British accents. For those of you unfamiliar with the show, it is a contest that begins with twelve bakers and at the end of each episode one contestant is named “Star Baker,” and one contestant is sent home. Each episode has a theme; for the cookie episode, for example, they each had to make a gingerbread house, the bread episode a bread sculpture out of three different kinds of dough, you get the idea. There are also three challenges: the Signature Challenge, where the contestants know what they are going to make ahead of time (for example, they can make any kind of cookie they want); the Technical Challenge, where they are all given the same recipe to make; and the Showstopper Challenge, where contestants have to come up with an eye-popping and tasty creation for the judges.
After I finished watching the latest season, it dawned on me that the show is a great example of how we would like our students to approach constructing and applying mathematical concepts, especially in the technical challenge. In this challenge the contestants may or may not be familiar with the recipe that they have to make. They are not given a picture of the finished product, just the recipe and the ingredients. Also the recipe might not give them an exact baking time or the order in which to do things. The have to use all their baking knowledge to come up with a plan on how to make the recipe. The contestants analyze the recipe, making sure they understand the directions and start determining the order in which they might start to do things. They look at the ingredients, tasting things that are unfamiliar, often comparing unfamiliar ingredients to something similar that they have used before. Then comes the fun part: watching them attempt to prepare the recipe. You see contestants put all the knowledge they have about baking to use. During the process, if something is not working, contestants quickly analyze possible errors and try something different. This is definitely problem solving through perseverance in action and it is awesome to behold.
As teachers, this is how we want to see students engaging in mathematics in the classroom. When we present a problem to students we want them to be able to analyze the problem, and assess what they know and have used before in similar situations that have worked. If they try something that does not seem to be working they are able to reassess, think about why it is not working and try something different. Most importantly, they persevere and do not give up. This year, I am on a research team that will be working with 2nd and 3rd graders. As we go out and interact with students, I will keep in mind the technical challenge of the Great British Baking Show as an example of how we want students to apply their mathematical knowledge.