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What “The Great British Bake Off” Can Teach Us About Learning

You’ve heard all the hype about the latest technological cure for what ails training: augmented, virtual, or mixed reality. Sure, I’d be the first to agree that mobile learning with augmented reality could be truly revolutionary in the workplace, a fact that visionaries in our industry have been talking about for the last six or seven years. Yes, let’s start using AR/VR/MR (augmented reality/virtual reality/mixed reality) in our learning and performance support solutions where it makes sense!

But let’s also consider a decidedly low-tech method used in The Great British Bake Off (GBBO), called The Great British Baking Show in the U.S. For the uninitiated, this is a TV show from the UK in which 12 unfailingly polite, really nice, highly skilled amateur bakers compete over 10 weeks to be recognized as the best. The winner doesn’t get any money but is delighted to receive an engraved cake plate and some moderate fame. In other words, it’s a refreshing difference from U.S. reality TV! If you’ve never seen it, look for the past seven seasons on PBS and Netflix.*

The GBBO Technical Challenge

Every show has a segment called the Technical Challenge. One of the two judges (professional bakers Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood) gives the bakers a sparse recipe containing the name of the “bake,” its ingredients, and a very high-level procedure — no picture, no step-by-step instructions, not even oven temperature or baking time.

The bakers are expected to produce the finished product within a specified time using their baking knowledge and skills. Typically, most bakers have never made or even heard of the item before. However, it’s very rare that a contestant will completely fail the Technical Challenge. They almost always manage to produce some facsimile of the item, albeit with varying degrees of success. And it’s obvious they’re engaged and energized by the challenge.

How It Matters to Training

So, what can the GBBO Technical Challenge teach us about training? First, it’s a great illustration of the Apply and Analyze levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, or Apply and Solve in Gottfredson and Mosher’s Five Moments of Learning Need: that is, having learners bring their knowledge and experience to bear in a new situation.

Second, I think we can all agree that trial and error are powerful teachers, and applying knowledge to a real-life situation has much more impact than learning something in a vacuum.

Now, if I were using the GBBO Technical Challenge as a training activity, I’d probably want to follow it up with an expert demonstration of how to make the bake. Or perhaps each learner’s effort is videotaped, and the expert discusses the learner’s performance with him/her afterward. The point is, learners will be much more ready and open to receiving instruction after attempting to do it themselves than they would be without that frame of reference.

Putting the “Adult” into “Adult Learner”

The GBBO Technical Challenge also shows that we can treat adult learners as… adults! After all, as an adult yourself, you know that:

  • Adult learners enjoy a challenge.
  • Adult learners don’t need to be led — or forced — through step-by-step instructions.
  • Adult learners are capable of applying their powers of reasoning and deduction to learning problems.

Give it a try — see if you can incorporate an activity like the Technical Challenge in your next learning solution, no matter what the subject matter or delivery method. And yes, you can use virtual reality if you want!


*  The GBBO was in the news last year when the show’s production company parted ways with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and moved to commercial Channel 4, causing the defections of one judge and both hosts. The 2017 season of the reconstituted show is currently in production.

2 Responses

  1. Londa Horton

    Interesting comparison, Susan! Who would have thought you could apply training concepts to “The Great British Bake-off!” I will watch with renewed eyes going forward.

  2. Susan Fisher

    Thanks for your comment, Londa! This insight suddenly struck me one day when I was watching an episode… Why don’t we give workplace learners similar problem-solving challenges as a supplement to (or even in place of) conventional training? It could be used for a wide range of work applications.

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