Home All The Delights and Dangers of Cookbook Education

The Delights and Dangers of Cookbook Education

written by Sherri Fisher 5 June 2008

Sherri Fisher, MAPP '06, M.Ed., Director of Learn and Flourish LLC, is a coach, best-selling author, workshop facilitator, and speaker. She works internationally with smart people of all ages who have learning, attention, and executive function challenges. Sherri’s evidence-based POS-EDGE® Model merges her expertise in strengths, well-being, motivation, and applied neuropsychology.

Full Bio. Sherri's articles are here.



In her “Me at My Best” story, one of my clients crystallized her top moment in time this way: “I was doing what they wanted, and it was what I wanted, too.” Why had she come for career coaching? This kind of moment had not happened for a long, long time in her work as a teacher. Instead, she was increasingly expected to work from a curriculum manual that dictated not only the goals and objectives of her teaching, but also how she was allowed to apply her skills, education, experience and strengths of character. But as she said, she could “really cook” without that book.

I don’t know about you, but I get bored making, serving and eating the same old-same old. And don’t you love to be served up a fabulous meal by a serious foodie? I’d be the first to agree that cookbooks perform a vital function. Especially in an age when it is unlikely that children and grandchildren are in the kitchen soaking up the traditional family recipes, cookbooks allow people the ability to perform in a kitchen with a reasonable amount of self-confidence.

Faced with a raw chicken, fresh vegetables, and a mound of potatoes, a person can produce a satisfying meal. They can choose to add garlic and herbs or leave out the mushrooms. People who really like to cook may take cooking lessons and are likely to take cuisine-specific classes in their areas of greatest interest and strength or even attend culinary institutes that reveal the advanced techniques of food preparation. To become truly proficient, they practice, practice, practice. (see my article on the benefits of sustained practice)

Three Ring BinderIn education there are a number of cookbooks. They may be called “curriculum frameworks” or something similarly sturdy and substantial sounding. Some have actually been around for years despite being touted as the outcomes of education reform. They serve the same purpose as kitchen cookbooks (attempting to guarantee a consistent outcome) and as such are bound by the same limitations. However, in an education system which is under fire from many quarters, cookbook education can sometimes rightly be seen by administrators in charge of “making the numbers” as the most easily defensible program a system can take. A school of educational thought, based on educational theory, develops a highly structured program that is as close to”fool”proof as it can be made. The program is presented to teachers, who are then expected to present it to students. Voilà, education happens. That is supposedly the delight of cookbook education.

So what separates someone who can cook from someone who really cooks? It helps if you are engaged by cooking, love food, and if you understand culinary procedures and presentation, without being bound by them. It is this ability to move beyond the cookbook, to stray from rote adherence to the steps one is given, to adapt to the circumstances of the kitchen, its resources and ingredients, and…to become creative (My top VIA strength).

There are, of course, inherent dangers in this approach. Remember, rote cook booking is essential for the novice. One who cooks every day, though, gains the kind of confidence to deviate from the cookbook, to improve the recipe, to adapt the recipe to individual circumstances and ingredients. Ideally, this happens to teachers, too. In fact, the better a teacher is, the more likely it is that the recipe will be improved for the students in her or his classroom, naturally shaping it to the strengths of students by using a teacher’s own strengths.

Good teachers are often acutely aware of the drawbacks and limitations of the educational recipes they are given. When educational systems insist on cookbook education, they may alienate their most creative teachers, their most experienced teachers, their most effective teachers. One area of promise from positive psychology research in the field of education that addresses this is collective efficacy, the belief of a faculty that as a group, they can execute the positive courses of action required to successfully educate students (Goddard, et al., 2004).

Collective efficacy represents a level of confidence in the ability of a group to reach a shared goal. It influences common expectations for action, supports creative problem-solving, and results in resilient goal attainment by influencing the effort and persistence necessary for academic achievement. No cookbook needed!! Perceived collective efficacy facilitates collaboration and the willingness to accept challenges to teaching in the face of difficulty (Goddard, et al., 2004).

Collective EfficacyMore importantly, educator collective efficacy is significantly related to both math and reading achievement at the elementary level, and to cross-curricular achievement at the high school level, even when controlling for those all-important school context measures such as socioeconomic status, minority enrollment, urban/suburban/rural location, size, and prior student achievement (Goddard, et al., 2004). Faculty collective efficacy significantly influences not only the ways in which teachers approach their work; it also has a direct impact on high school students’ verbal, math, and science achievement (Goddard, et al, 2004).

So why work alone, and why cook from the book when positive professional cultures foster productivity, collegiality, support for hard work, and high expectation for student achievement (Deal and Peterson, 1999). Get cooking 🙂


Deal, T. & Peterson, K. (1999). Shaping School Culture: The Heart of Leadership (Jossey-Bass Education). San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

Goddard, R.D., LoGerfo, L. & Hoy, W.K. (2004). High school accountability: The role of perceived collective efficacy. Educational Policy, 18(3) 403-425.

must have! (cookbook) courtesy of Aunt Owwee

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Jeff Dustin 5 June 2008 - 5:10 pm

I was in one of my final Master’s degree classes (sigh of relief) and we were exploring Professional Learning Communities. You raise a great point about cookbook recipe education among many. That is why restrain chefs with rote structure when they can do so much better on their own? PLCs do the job much better because they trust that a collective of educated and passionate individuals can improve education locally.

I think the answer comes from the accountability movement. You probably mentioned that and I missed your message. People want to point the finger and say, this individual messed up. It just feels safer to know who is to blame. Then all we have to do is fire that one and get another one. It is factory model education, 100 percent.

Trusting people is hard. After all, people do mess up, are prone to petty squabbles and feuds, and have fragile egos at times. Motivation sometimes lags and entropy can wreck groups and classrooms. People leave groups taking expertise and skill and maybe even worse passion and friendship. So trusting that the collective will do the job is scary.

Yet for all that I think you are right on the money. Collectively we can leverage our strengths. Thanks for a brilliant article.

Sherri Fisher 5 June 2008 - 5:34 pm

Hi, Jeff-
Thanks for the thumbs up.
I agree that the accountability movement has made cookbook education more prevalent. I had a whole paragraph in the draft of this about NCLB related things but removed it to keep the focus on what works! I love the idea of leveraging our collective strengths. Research says it works for teachers and kids 🙂

David J. Pollay 8 June 2008 - 11:20 pm

Hi Sherri,

Thanks for a great article. I’m glad you’re in the field of education!

Would you recommend the Deal and Peterson book to principals?

Best to you,


Sherri 10 June 2008 - 10:03 pm

Hi, David-
Since I love to individualize I usually recommend books based on what someone is looking for rather than because they are in a particular field or hold a particular position. It sounds as if you might be thinking about a particular person. If you can give me an idea of what you think the person wants to be, know or do, I can make an informed choice to recommend.

Lovely to hear from you!!


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