What The Great British Bake Off can teach us about assessment

Ready. Get set. BAKE!

My wife and I heard this triumphant starting cry easily thirty times over the course of two recent snow days. This is how The Great British Baking Show (The Great British Bake Off in its native U.K.) opens every baking challenge over the course of its seasons’ ten-episodes, and I’m not going to lie, it would excite us every time, immediately inspiring intrigue as we anxiously awaited to see what these twelve amateur bakers would create.

A quick explanation for those of you who are unfamiliar with GBBO: twelve amateur British bakers compete over ten weeks for the title of best all-around baker. During each themed episode, the contestants compete in three separate rounds with the hopes of earning “Star Baker” for each mini-competition.

Needless to say, we became hooked. We binged the three seasons available on Netflix with a strange urgency–we needed to know who would win. I’m not sure why. Other than a cake plate and bragging rights, each season’s winner does not get anything. No television deal or monetary windfall. Nothing. Just the pride and honor that comes with winning.

After several trips to Williams Sonoma and multiple Amazon splurges, we found ourselves filling in the gaps in our kitchen’s bakeware. We also purchased the official Great British Bake Off recipe book, hoping to try our hands at some of the beautiful baked goods (or “bakes” as hosts Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins would call them). Things got a little out of control.

Then, at some point in the midst of our Bake Off/baking fervor, a thought occurred to me: The judges on this show were pretty good at assessment. My teacher brain, as it often does, was beginning to knock on the door of my baker brain (I’m being fairly generous here, as I am certainly, in no uncertain terms, not a baker).

I tried my best to explain this in a couple of short takeaways:

Diagnostic Assessment:

Every episode of GBBO is themed (cakes, pies, biscuits, breads, etc) but the three competitions are always the same. The first competition every week is the “Signature Challenge,” which requires the bakers to prepare a recipe that is tried and true, but still fits the theme. So if it’s the “cake” episode, every contestant comes in with a cake recipe they have baked a million times before and feel fairly confident recreating for the judges. This round is clearly just a good old fashioned diagnostic assessment. The judges, Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, are getting the opportunity to see what the contestants can do before receiving any advice or guidance. What do they already know?

As a teacher, I have found diagnostics to be incredibly valuable in my decision-making. It helps me get a benchmark for where my students are and allows me to set goals that are ambitious but realistic. More often than not, a diagnostic assessment does not figure into a student’s end grade, as it’s only formative, but that data can stop problems before they begin (Think of a student who may be placed incorrectly, or just need some more scaffolding for an upcoming assignment). On the flipside, students who perform very well on diagnostic assessments sometimes are announcing themselves to their teachers as those who may need to be challenged more.

Skills Check

The second competition on every episode of GBBO is a “Technical Challenge.” The contestants are not told beforehand what they will be required to bake, and are all given the exact same recipe, though it is sparse and contains minimal instructions. The goal here is that the bakers will need to rely on the skills they already have in order to create the final product. Because everyone is baking the exact same thing, it becomes more apparent who possesses superior, practiced baking skills, and who still needs more practice. Furthermore, the finished products are evaluated blind, so the judges do not know whose items they are sampling until the end.

Since the advent of the Common Core, there has been much more emphasis on teaching students transferable skills. I’ve seen a lot of my “tests” change significantly over the past few years. It is rare these days for me to have many plot questions on an end-of-book assessment (a lot more reading comprehension and writing now); I am finding much more meaningful data in the results of these exams, and I am able to target my instruction more effectively by determining where students still struggle, skills-wise.

While this isn’t the exact aim on GBBO’s Technical Challenge (at the end of the day, it’s still a game show), I do like that every contestant is required to do the exact same thing. This makes it easy to see a range of abilities present in the kitchen/your classroom. Blind evaluation isn’t a bad idea either.

Showstopper

The last round of every episode of GBBO has the contestants create a “Showstopper”

bake, which requires them to show off not only their technical prowess but also their design chops. What this results in are some of the most imaginative and beautifully designed creations that you’ll ever see (and you can eat them too). If you’re wondering how this ties to assessment, it boils down to one thing: student choice.

What’s always the most fun part to watch in any episode’s Showstopper challenge is when the bakers explain their inspirations for their unique designs. You can see the pride on their faces (when the end result works out for them) as they unveil these wild pieces of edible art to the judges. One contestant literally made a loaf of bread that looked like a lion.

While understandably, not every assessment we design is going to inspire our students to lion-loaf-like heights (there is still a place for the good ol’ fashioned test, I.M.O), I do find that students learn more and are more engaged when they are able to lean into their passions and know-how while being “assessed.” I mean, this is the whole idea behind 20% Time or Genius Hour Projects, no?

 

When you watch The Great British Bake Off, it becomes clear very early on that what drives these people is a love of baking, and sharing that love with those around them. When they do “fail,” it is because they had the courage to take risks that didn’t pan out. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to design assessments that allowed our students the same amount of freedom?

It may not be a piece of cake, but where there’s a whisk, there’s a way…

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