Baking and the Zone of Proximal Development

In her latest contribution to the Stenhouse Blog, frequent contributor and editor Maureen Barbieri wonders “how much modeling is too much” in life, in baking, and in teaching.

The POP! as I dropped the hot saucepan onto our 1950s red Formica table was ferocious. My next-door neighbor and best friend, Nancy Moran, jumped about a foot backward and screamed “Fire!” No fire but plenty of smoke. We were ten years old, and we had decided to bake my mother a chocolate cake for her birthday. She had often insisted, “If you can read, you can cook.” So, being good readers, we placed our faith in her old copy of Fannie Farmer. My parents and younger siblings were off shoe shopping on this November Saturday, so we had the house to ourselves.

We found a recipe that took us through the process, step by step. The cake came out of the oven looking pathetically flat. The frosting was more challenging. Neither of us knew what a “double boiler” was, and, according to Fannie Farmer, this is what we’d need to melt the chocolate. We punted, putting one pot inside another and letting things take their course. (The recipe had not mentioned water.) Hence, smoke, terrible smells, the loud explosion, and a quarter-sized hole in my mother’s table.

“They’re going to kill me!” I cried to my friend.

Still, we smeared the burnt chocolate over the cake and spelled out “Happy Birthday, Mommy” with whole cloves. Oddly, it was the cloves that got the biggest reaction. “What possessed you?” my mother later wondered.

We lived in a Levittown-type house on Long Island in a small town called Seaford—two parents, four kids, and a new baby. My mother took pride in her home: the drapes matched the slipcovers; there was a hand-painted mural in the finished basement and funky black and white wallpaper in the bathroom. We were required to keep things tidy because “someone might drop in.” My mother loved her kitchen, and I knew that destroying her table was a big transgression, no matter how wonderful my intentions.

The reactions—my parents’, Nancy’s parents’, and, worst of all, my siblings’—were pretty dramatic. You’d have thought we’d set out to burn the house down. “Are you out of your minds?” my mother shouted. “What did you think double boiler meant? What does BOIL mean? Where was your head?” This last directed not at both of us, but squarely at me. I wanted to die. Nancy’s father just shook his head in horror while her mother, frowning, whispered “I’m so sorry” over and over again. My sisters and brother held their hands over their mouths, so as not to anger my mother further by laughing, but their eyes twinkled. I was in big trouble now, and it was better me than them. Nancy slunk home, and I was dispatched to my room while my parents spoke in low tones about how to salvage the table.

It must have been a rough night, but the next morning, riding home in the car after church, my father explained that my grandmother would be coming over to bake another cake with me. My mother just looked out the window, still not speaking, but I knew this was a huge concession on her part. She was not fond of her mother.

My grandmother was the kind of person you liked to hug. She was always smiling or laughing, full of stories (real and imaginary), and—best of all—she was an amazing baker. Indeed, she was sometimes called upon to be a guest speaker at home economics classes in her town, so legendary were her talents. She and my grandfather arrived early in the afternoon, and she rolled up her sleeves immediately. First we read the recipe I had used.

“This one is good,” she acknowledged, “but it’s a bit complicated. Let’s start with something simpler.” Relieved and eager to redeem myself, I agreed.

She chose a basic white cake and insisted that the first thing we needed to do was take the eggs out of the refrigerator, so they could come to room temperature before being “folded” into the batter. Next she explained that flour has to be sifted and measured very carefully. Precision was key, she told me. Each step of the process—choosing which bowls and spoons to use, beating the eggs gently, sprinkling the baking powder and salt into the flour—was sacred to her. There was more to baking than I had realized. She showed me how to hold the wooden spoon and then, stepping back, directed me to meld the butter and sugar together until there was no clear distinction between them. Timing was crucial. You had to get the cake into the oven fairly soon after adding the eggs or the whole thing would “fall,” which is undoubtedly what had happened to my first attempt.

Once the cake was safely baking (and rising) in the oven, she turned her attention to the frosting. “Let’s try this double boiler recipe again,” she suggested. Shamed, I hung my head and tried not to cry. With her right forefinger, she lifted my chin. “None of that now,” she said. “You’re going to be a wonderful baker. You’ll see.”

The grandparents stayed for Sunday dinner, we sang “Happy Birthday” to my now smiling mother, and all agreed that the new cake was scrumptious.

“Who made this one?” my four-year-old brother asked.

“Nanna and Mo,” said my father.

My sister chuckled, “You mean Nanna.”

“We did it together,” my grandmother said. “A few more practice cakes, and she can try it on her own.”

Nobody in my family knew a thing about Lev Vygotsky or the Zone of Proximal Development—“What the child can do in cooperation today (s)he can do alone tomorrow”—but this experience has stayed with me fifty years. My parents often struck me as beleaguered, overwhelmed, anxious. It must have taken stamina to raise all those kids. But on this occasion I believe they also showed wisdom. Too distraught over her ruined table to help me herself, my mother knew exactly what I needed, and she gave it to me: forgiveness for my botched effort. The perfect mentor. Reassurance that I would indeed be able to learn. And the indelible lesson that life offers second chances.

When I’m in schools these days, I watch brilliant teachers present creative curriculum in stimulating classrooms. It’s a dance, this combination of offering explicit instruction (“Watch me do it”) and encouraging risk-taking (“Now try it yourself”). Don Murray warned that too much guidance could dampen a writer’s spirits. “Just write” was his mantra. But then he’d offer such concrete, practical advice that we’d clamor to try again. Like my grandmother, Murray knew his craft, and, like her, he believed we could learn it too.

How much modeling is enough, and how much is too much? When is it better to let the children “have a go,” as the Australians say? When is it useful to do more explicit teaching?  This depends on the context, the age of the children, and the subject matter being explored. Clearly, my friend and I could have benefited from some upfront demonstration before we attempted our brave approximation of baking a cake, regardless of how well we read the cookbook.

The expert does have a role to play in sharing knowledge and in demonstrating technique. But it is equally important to have faith in the learner. (“You’re going to be a wonderful baker,” my grandmother told me.) There is an art to knowing how much instruction learners need and when to let them immerse in the task on their own. Students must practice what they’ve observed, take risks as they experiment, and find connections to the world as they understand it. If we end up with big holes in tables, it’s good to remember that we can always try again.

1 comment January 24th, 2013

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