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Can Students Learn Math by Cooking?

This blog was originally posted on on October 25, 2017.

For hundreds of years, the classroom hasn’t changed much. Teachers lecture. Students listen. Then the students apply what they learned.

In today’s world, however, it’s become increasingly clear that this method is flawed. First of all, lectures can deprive students of opportunities to learn for themselves through exploration and trial and error. Secondly, it’s hard to get context from lectures and classroom practice. It may not be apparent how the lecture applies to the practice, and it’s usually even less apparent how the practice applies to the real world.

The problem with math

This is especially true in math. Although some students go on to become mathematicians and engineers, many never take math classes beyond high school. These students need to understand how math applies to balancing a checkbook, calculating the best-priced brand at the grocery store, and tipping a waiter. Yet the classroom in which they learn is so far removed from real life, it’s hard for them to see how the math is applicable.

At some point, someone decided to apply context to mathematics through word problems. You know: “John has six apples. If he gives one to Caleb and one to Rachel, how many apples will John have left?” While this is a step in the right direction, word problems don’t quite cut it. For one thing, they force students to jump over the hurdle of reading and analytical skills before they allow them to actually do any math. A student might know the math but not be able to figure out where in the paragraph of text it fits. Also, studies suggest that transferring knowledge is hard for human brains, so students may not make the connection between reading about somebody doing something and doing it themselves.

So what do we do about that?

What if instead of students being lectured and doing word problems, they lived word problems? A disproportionate number of word problems involve food — for good reason. Cooking and eating are everyday activities, and they involve a ton of math. What if students learned math through cooking?

Although cooking as a method of teaching math isn’t yet widespread, there are teachers who are having great success with it. Christine Reeves, an educator of autistic children, uses cooking to teach math and other skills to her students. She finds that if logistical concerns are taken care of beforehand — making sure the recipe isn’t too difficult, testing the recipe to see if it works, assigning groups for cooking if necessary — cooking is an effective way to learn skills in context, especially because it’s “very motivating to students because typically they get to eat what they make.”

What if instead of students being lectured and doing word problems, they lived word problems?

Many kinds of math are used in cooking: fractions, measurements, volume, division and multiplication, adding and subtracting. Following a simple recipe from start to finish involves all of these things. To narrow the focus to a specific discipline, teachers could introduce complications or limitations: “We need to double the recipe. What do we get when we double 1/3 cup?” or “It looks like we only have one tablespoon today. Which of these other spoons holds as much as a tablespoon?”

Because cooking does take time, teachers would probably give only a brief lecture or no lecture at all. That’s okay, though, because research suggests that through the hands-on learning of cooking, students would gain a deeper understanding of the concepts than they would if they were lectured.

Is that really realistic?

It should be. Most junior high and high schools have classrooms with stoves and ovens, and most schools at all levels have lunchroom kitchens used only for a few hours a day. Teachers may be able to use those facilities with permission.

Gaming is a great way to learn, and math is no exception.

However, if facilities aren’t available, if ingredients are too expensive, or if students are too young to participate, there are alternatives. Gaming is a great way to learn, and math is no exception. A realistic cooking game where students practice math skills would work in much the same way as physical cooking. For example, a game called Tiggly Chef teaches young learners basic math skills through helping an animated chef — without requiring the young’uns to work a stove or pick up a knife.

Additionally, as augmented reality and virtual reality develop further, students may have opportunities to cook virtually without picking up a single ingredient. Augmented and virtual realities are already being incorporated into classrooms for hands-on learning of STEM skills and to perform activities that normally cannot be done in a classroom setting. Though such technologies may appear to be exclusive and expensive, many of them are widely available through mobile devices and low-budget virtual reality equipment. A good augmented or virtual reality cooking experience would be less expensive in the long run and provide many if not all of the same benefits of physical cooking.

Finally, more and more school districts find themselves in the undesirable position of cutting fine arts programs because of budget restrictions. Bundling an art like cooking with an educational staple like mathematics would be a good way to retain more fine arts programs. Plus, there’s nothing like getting to eat your math homework.

If you’re looking for custom corporate training for your team that incorporates experiential learning or gamification, connect with us to see how we can help.