What The Great British Baking Show Reminds Us about Assessment

  • High School
Sean Riley

While I was on paternity leave, I watched two full seasons of The Great British Baking Show. I’m not ashamed to admit that regarding the progress of Selasi’s Bakewell Tart I was on pins and needles. I have no embarrassment to confess I wept at Nadiya’s victory speech and Val’s farewell soliloquy.

I will admit that I did not expect to enjoy this show. I find something Brexity about British nostalgia. I find most reality cooking shows sadistic. I’m not a baker.

And, yet: the show sunk its bread-hook into me. Could Rav iron out his difficulties on the technical? Would Jane ever be able to match Candice in creativity? I watched anxiously and earnestly in my urp-stained sweatpants.

I frequently wondered: what about this show pulls me in?

This morning, as a I revised a rubric, I realized what it is. Obviously, it’s a show about quality assessment!

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  1. The Great British Baking Show reminds us that numbers are stupid for evaluating creative work.

If this were an American show, I’m sure the judges would be required to score the bakers’ creations. Rather than narrate qualities of a bake, they would cram their evaluations into the restrictive boxes of 9.6 or 3 out of 5. It’s bad television, but even worse, it’s bad feedback!

One thing I appreciate about Paul and Mary’s feedback is that it’s almost always descriptive. They describe with the senses. “It’s raw. See there.” “It has distinct layers.” “The sharpness of the ________ balances the sweetness of the ________.” “Oh, that’s a nice crunch.” Sometimes they’ll say, “That’s scrummy” or “That doesn’t work” but it’s always after describing the bake.

This feedback is rooted in explicit criteria. 1) Here are the criteria of an excellent scone. 2) Here’s where you are on those criteria. “Dense structure, bold flavors, too small.”

This feedback reminds us that the most helpful feedback is simply describing what you see and what you don’t see, and matching that up against the ideal. Some believe that data is more objective; when you apply that notion to baking, it’s clearly absurd.

Furthermore, the descriptive feedback helps the contestants in future work. They know what they’re good at; they know where their gaps are, and the contestants get to improve because there are frequent assessments.

2) The show provides multiple types of assessment, and different people shine at different moments.

There are three bakes per episode: the signature challenge, the technical, and the showstopper. Each challenge has its own, well, challenge.

The signature challenge focuses on a particular skill and, can you do it well, with a twist?

The technical is the “on-demand.” Can you do something effectively, on the spot, with little prep?

The third one is, what happens when you get lots of time and all the freedom you need to make a thematic piece? It’s the project.

Each “assessment” stretches the bakers in different ways. The first one stretches their ability to know fundamentals but add voice, like a sonnet. The second sees what skills are deeply ingrained and what concepts can be synthesized on the spot. The third assesses their creativity when restraints are removed.

It’s rare that anyone hits a homerun on all three; it’s rare anyone bombs all three. Providing multiple assessments not only shows the bakers what their strengths and weaknesses are across the discipline of baking, but it helps foster respect. Andrew the engineer nails the technicals; Candice, the gym teacher and daughter of a barkeep, crushes the Showstopper.

Furthermore, the technical is a “blind” assessment. The judges don’t know whose work they’re looking at. In the other bakes the judges do know who baked what. Because of this balance, relationships and fairness are in balance.

3) Relationships matter, but ultimately the quality of the work matters more.

It’s clear to me that the judges, Mary and Paul, care about the bakers. You can hear it in the language they use, even when it’s harsh. (Has Paul read Peter Johnston?). I’ve heard things like, “I want you to do well, mate.” At the end of one season, Mary teared up when Nadiya won. And they also tell the bakers what they know about their weaknesses. “You sometimes experiment too far with flavor.” “That bake just didn’t work.” So, while the relationships build confidence and rapport, the quality of the work is always what is at the fore. There are times where the judges, I can tell, want a particular person to win, but that person doesn’t always achieve the best bake. The judges have a responsibility to give it to them straight, even when it hurts, because the integrity of the work, the bakers, the judges, and the discipline itself are at stake.

Through a combination of relationships, fairness, varied assessments, and clear criteria, these moments hurt but they almost never carry the sting of bias.

4) The prize is the work.

At the end of the show, there’s isn’t a million dollars. There’s no vacation giveaway. The grand prize, even when you lose, is honor and self-respect. The bakers express pride even when they don’t win. They feel dignity in seeing how they stacked up, in knowing that they may not be the best, but, that one time, they made the best Jaffa cake the judges had ever seen. They feel pride in knowing firmly, “I may not make the best looking things, but my flavors are objectively bang on. That’s the kind of baker I am.”

In other words, the feedback helps them know when they are their best baking selves.

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The Great British Baking show reminds us that the best feedback--from parents, from teachers, from coaches, any sort of mentor--makes the amateur want to work more on their craft, not because they have to be the best all the time, but for the chance to touch greatness some of the time, which is in us all more often than we think.

  • Assessments
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