Geography: It’s a piece of cake

Last night brought the first episode of a new season of The Great British Bake Off and with it much excitement. I love the show. I like the safeness, the comfort, the niceness. It is completely unchallenging. I also like the online reaction to it. The choosing of heroes and villains, the memes, snarky comments and joyous fun poking that goes with it. This year is extra exciting as we have one of our own on the show, a real life geography teacher!

It was with all that in mind that I sent out what I thought was a bit of an innocuous tweet.

Many people had already clocked that part of the show. You can see it below, tellingly labelled “modern teaching” and contrasted to copying out of a textbook in silence. A slice of angel cake has been lain on its side on a plate and the middle layer has been eaten to leave a “notch” between the bottom layer (showing the platform below the low tide line) and the top layer (showing the rock above the notch).

Other people started tweeting about it, often tagging me in to poke a bit of fun and asking my thoughts. They seemed blissfully unaware that this kind of thing is very common in geography lessons. Have a look on a geography teacher Facebook group and you’ll find plenty of people bringing out the biscuits or the cakes as a fun way to teach different physical processes.

Most people took it in the light hearted spirit but a few were more concerned. These concerns tended to fall into two slightly different, but often overlapping, views.

  1. Using cakes to teach the formation of wave-cut notches in this way is a good thing.
  2. Whether this is a good thing or not, we shouldn’t be critical of how other people teach.

I’d like to consider each point in turn.

Using cakes to teach this is a good thing.

We will start with the easier point. I don’t think it IS a good thing, especially in this case, which is why I assumed it was a stunt for the camera. Lets start with this specific way of using cake; to show the formation of wave cut notches.

My problem here is that when we use different colours on a diagram in the way they are used here on the cake, it tends to be to show different rock types. The harder chalk in pink, for example, contrasted against a softer clay in yellow. By using the colours in this way on a cross section of a cliff we are likely to encourage a misconception that the cliff is made up of different rock types and that this is something to do with the formation of wave-cut notches. You also have the bands of icing running through it that seem to give horizontal bedding planes which may or may not be a feature of a cliff but it doesn’t help to understand how different structures may lead to different rates of recession. It just muddies the water.

It also makes little sense as the slice of cake is lain on its side. Surely, if you want to show anything, it is how the cliff retreats as the notch develops and the rock gives way above it? That won’t happen here. I am also not convinced that it is necessary anyway. I have taught coastal erosion from pupils aged 11 – 18 for many many years and not once has a pupil struggled to understand that gravity exists and the rock will give way. Seeing it in action, in the form of cake, doesn’t seem to add anything to their understanding.

If we move beyond this one example we can see where using cake to show a process might make a little more conceptual sense at least. Headlands and bays eroding at different rates might just about work, but even then you’d want the layers of cake to be of different densities to really make this stand out. Otherwise, you’d first have to make them understand what is happening, that they need to eat the softer rock faster than the hard rock, before they start, and if they already understand it… what is the cake for?

Once they have eaten their soft bit of cake and made a bay, what then? They have been told their spoon represents the waves, but of course it doesn’t behave like a wave. How is it now going to demonstrate wave refraction and bring everything back into equilibrium? More confusion arises.

Leaving aside the issues around using cake as an effective way of demonstrating physical processes we also need to think about whether they are efficient. There are few teachers out there telling me they just have too much time on their hands and are looking for things to do to fill up the hours but yet there is an expectation that they go shopping, buy cakes, talk to food tech about borrowing 30 spoons, slicing cake, checking for allergies, thinking about distribution… etc etc etc.

Then there is a the time it takes in the lesson to play around with biscuits, cakes or play-doh as a teaching aid. It is always interesting to see how many teachers who are recommending the use of cake-based lessons in September are complaining about how there is too much content to cover come March.

One argument I have seen put forth is that all this is fair enough but it misses the point. This is meant to be fun. One person last night even commented that it was a necessary break from all the teacher talk and exam practice. I tend to find this argument the most baffling. If geography teachers can’t see the joy in teaching pupils how the world is shaped then what hope have we got? Being able to look at a landscape and know how it was shaped, is being shaped and will be shaped in the future is exciting! We don’t need to hide the learning behind patisserie! And yes, it might make the lesson more memorable, it creates an episodic memory of the time we ate cake, but it doesn’t mean they are more likely to remember how a wave-cut notch is formed.

In short, it creates misconceptions, it can’t demonstrate as much about the formation of physical processes as a diagram or animation, it takes more time and it means we are forgetting the joy of actually learning our subject in and of itself.

So…

Are we allowed to say any of this?

The second complaint raised about my reaction to the cake lesson on Great British Bake Off was that we shouldn’t be critical of how others chose to teach. Is this true?

I think context is key here. If a teacher had gone on to twitter to talk about the lovely lesson they had just taught using cake etc. I’d be inclined to stay quiet. If on the other hand something is shown on a national TV show being watched by millions, I’d say it is up for debate. I also think we should be free, in fact encouraged, to debate and discuss different teaching ideas anyway, in a non-personal manner. What exactly is the problem with saying “these are the downsides of doing that” so that others can reflect, respond and then make their own professional decision? Why have we become so terrified of disagreement?

It could be that you read this post and think of a hundred reasons why I am wrong and why using cakes to teach physical geography is a great idea. Good, I’d love to hear them. Then we can discuss it. It could also be you read this, agree, but decide to do it anyway because you see a greater benefit in doing it (maybe a close relative works for Mr Kipling?). Fine. You are a professional free to make your own informed decision. And we are free to disagree.

Conclusion

I have been there. I have taught lessons using cake. I have used biscuits to show the action of plates. I have done trading games with sweeties. It was fine. No one died (I checked for allergies) and the kids enjoyed eating some cake. It took much more time than I should have spent and cost more money too. The kids didn’t learn as much as they would have done and I largely had to teach what need to be taught first or go back over it all again later. I’d have been better off just finishing the lesson 5 minutes early and sharing some cake.

My concern is less that people use cakes to teach these things but that we are not allowed to discuss and critique it as a method. I think this is again a symptom of the years of abuse teachers have suffered where they have been told what to do by a stream of outsiders, all of whom have their own tune they’d like us to dance to. If we are going to reclaim teaching for teachers we need to be open to discussion and disagreement between ourselves. That is healthy.

Anyway, I’ve made myself hungry with all this talk of cake. Pass the wave-cut notch.

Teach Like Nobody’s Watching: A Guide to Effective and Efficient teaching is out now.

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