The pasta lab is the first opportunity for the students to reveal their cooking personality. When they engage with the lab, they transform, the room transforms, and the lesson transforms into a thing greater than the sum of its parts. Often, the students remark that in this lab they felt like they were running a restaurant. A few students even start to self-identify as a ‘foodie’ at some point in the process.

The recipes to date have not really allowed for a creative license or full ownership. The ingredients and method were intentionally locked down so that the students could develop the necessary basic cooking skills, before their inner chef took over…before recipes entailed risk. The byproduct of controlling the lab so clearly is that when given the chance to adjust their rules and act on instinct, the students need help.

Despite the fact that many of my students have some culinary knowledge- some have part time jobs, some cook for their family, others go out for dinner frequently- being in charge of a dish that is so familiar presents an interesting challenge. A common tenet of the course is that you can know how to do something, but you can’t make your hands do it… the simplicity of the reduced tomato sauce beguiles a student and challenges them to recreate a dish that they are simultaneously remembering and forgetting. Regardless of their pre-knowledge for this course, the addition of layers of student agency to this lab added just the right challenge and spice to the class.

We started from a common understanding of the 5 tastes. Since we all accepted that the flavours would need to be developed the flavour enhancement options were varied. I observed that each student would start from their own set of food experiences to create the sauce.

The food biases of the students initially kept the risk of trying something new, ie mistake making, kept some from remaining open minded. Since I did not provide a recipe, just a method, the opportunity to explore became the heart of the lesson. For those who only trusted my method, then the recipe did not stray from the demo. But, if only one person rocked the boat. Or if there was only one risk taker in the group then there was another view planted.

What I listened for was the conversation that started with ‘what if we..?’ There was little chatter around the method for making the pasta, but the vision for the sauce, now that became a massive debatable point.

Dan Finkel’s suggestions when it comes to learning are pretty profound. His five step frame became more and more powerful as I avoided answering any questions that were not based in direct experiential experimentation. Students that dared to demonstrate a sense of ownership of their learning were by far a more interactive group. For better or worse, the debate around the shape that the dish would take was thrilling to watch. The haggling and counter haggling was on par with any political science discussion. Every student was transformed into a stakeholder.

When a student sits and receives learning from someone else without challenge, the student becomes quite docile. A vacuum or absence of engagement is clearly observable in the relations between students and the connection with the curriculum. Student learning that is driven by student agency looks quite different. It feels a little messy, out of control, and exciting. Deep learning began the moment that the students realized that the sauce recipe was theirs to manipulate and the negotiating started. The recipe was not complex, but the creative process is.

Starting out simply and getting out of the way will be my goal from now on.