I’ve been watching a lot of Top Chef lately. As a result, I find myself thinking at various times during the day about what contestants on the show say and do.’ One thing I was thinking about just yesterday was that when eliminated most contestants say something like, “I’m sorry to go but I learned a lot.”‘ Since so many of those eliminated say that kind of thing, I usually just laugh about how canned it is as a “leaving the show” comment. Then, yesterday, I started thinking about it differently. Maybe the chefs really do learn a lot, and if they do, then I realized I need to think more about how that Top Chef learning happens.
In case you don’t know what Top Chef is all about, the way it works is that each season a group of about 15 chefs from around the country are selected to compete against each other in order to be “named” Top Chef.’ In each episode there are two challenges – one which is quick and one that is more time consuming. In each challenge chefs are asked to demonstrate a particular skill.’ At the end of the second challenge one chef is eliminated.
As I started to think more about Top Chef, and how thinking and learning happen, I realized very clearly how reality shows that focus on a particular expertise are more than 15 minutes of celebrity events. They actually require:
- A set of skills from those involved. The contestants need to demonstrate, before joining the show, that they have a level of skill to begin with and they have to be able to demonstrate and improve on their skills over and over again.’ Of course some contestants might be picked for various non-skill-based reasons. But, overall, skills are at the crux of participation.
- The ability to analyze and use information in order to succeed.’ In Top Chef when contestants are given a challenge they have to interpret the rules of the challenge and develop a plan for what they are going to cook. They need to be creative while sticking to the basic framework of the assignment at hand.
- An understanding of how to learn from mistakes. Chefs often get reamed out by the judges when their food creations don’t live up to expectations.’ Most contestants take the reaming with finesse, and actually do use the feedback to improve in future challenges.
These are just some of the requirements of success in something like Top Chef. As I think about them. I realize more and more that these are the same kinds of abilities we want to instill in teens as they go through school and prepare for real-life.’ Doesn’t it therefore make sense that we make the thinking and learning activities we provide for teens in the library more like a Top Chef challenge?
I know that some libraries have run programs for teens that use reality shows as a framework for an event. However, I think I’m suggesting something more than that. What if all of the library education we provided teens was within the format of a series of Top Chef like challenges?’ Each challenge would build on the skills of the teens and would engage them with meaningful opportunities for learning.’ Each challenge would require teens to think for themselves within a specific framework. Each challenge would give teens a chance to learn from previous mistakes.
Key to the success of shows like Top Chef, is that the contestants are very connected to the activity at hand.’ Chefs love cooking and they want to succeed at it.’ Fashion designers love making clothes so they want to succeed in Project Runway.’ This then means that along with providing a Top Chef framework for teens in order to help them learn, think, and understand, we also need to make sure that what we are asking them to do is interesting and meaningful.’ That might be the biggest challenge of all. But, with Top Chef, Project Runway, and other reality shows of this type as models, I think librarians working with teens are up to the challenge.