Professional Development CTQ Collaboratory

Why Professional Development Should Be More Like ‘MasterChef’

By William J. Tolley — May 24, 2016 5 min read
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The alarm goes off. You roll out of bed, sidle to the kitchen, and have a glass of water while you fumble for the button on the coffee maker. Semi-alert, you suddenly remember: Today is a professional development day. Perhaps you just issued an imaginary sigh of relief, reassured by your school’s focus on staff development and eager to engage with your colleagues over meaningful professional development. Or perhaps your spirit just died and you counted in your head how many sick days you still have in your bank.

The trending apathy toward PD is ironic in that it coincides with rich developments in teaching. Maker spaces, gamification, personalized learning, standards-based grading—while not taking hold everywhere, these modern learning concepts define the current conversation on enhancing learning for students, so why not teachers? How many times do we have to hear that interactivity and inquiry are the best forms for learning from a hired expert lecturing from a text-laden PowerPoint presentation before someone does the math?

Here’s an idea. What if teacher professional development looked more like what transpires on the popular reality show “MasterChef”? What if our trainers were expert chefs, and we engaged with our peers the way they ask their amateur chefs to? What are the best practices of “MasterChef” that should be brought to our PD table?


As the most obvious and distinct characteristic, “MasterChef” gamifies learning for its contestants. It is important here to recognize the distinction between games and gamification. On the show, proficient home cooks race around the “MasterChef” kitchen competing in “challenges” that push them to cook this, cut that, or recognize essential ingredients in a context that motivates them to meet their goals.

Of course, it is also important for the PD developer to realize that some teachers, just like people everywhere, are not as tuned into gaming as others. They should also remember that one of the key complaints teachers have about their PD is that they are often treated like children. The majority of teachers won’t mind a little competition, but no teacher likes to be treated like they don’t know what they’re doing.

Mastery Learning, Differentiation, Personalization

The amateur chefs on “MasterChef” get multiple opportunities as members of teams and in individual challenges to prove their mastery of a particular skill. Those who demonstrate mastery are “safe” and removed from competition in that particular challenge. Then they are allowed to advise their peers, and may be taken away for a personalized training session with one of the hosts—advanced training they have proven themselves qualified for.

Back in the studio, the contestants who have not yet mastered the task are given further opportunities to improve and prove competence under the close supervision of the expert hosts. This is the very definition of differentiated learning—how have TV cooks gotten there before us?

Peer and Expert Evaluation (With a Nice Aussie Touch)

Teachers aren’t scared of tough-talk—they are scared of the perceived repercussions. If an experienced mentor or peer tells a young teacher to work on classroom management, counsels on how to achieve this goal, and supports regularly through direct observation, the teacher is not going to cry because he or she is a professional adult. The fear creeps in when a teacher thinks that an appraisal of an isolated aspect of the total skill set will result in an unsatisfactory yearly rating. We tell our students to not be afraid to fail, so why do we still let this fear fester among teachers? Professional development should never provide cause for permanent censure.

By contrast, the contestants on “MasterChef” work in an environment that keeps the pressure on, but in a way that motivates and inspires. When they are working hard, they get kudos. When they are slacking, they get a kick in the patookas. Even the normally sweet Australian hosts George, Gary, and Matt (“MasterChef” U.S. host Gordon Ramsay is a tad too aggressive for our purposes) will lay down the science when a dish is ill-prepared or tastes bad. But the contestants almost always get a chance to redeem themselves and try again.

This sounds like a relationship most teachers yearn for when starting their careers. Instead, far too often, without hands-on guidance, we are told to aspire to “satisfactory.” I don’t know a single professional educator who wouldn’t be willing to nurse a few bruises to their ego in exchange for truly constructive critique.


The ultimate prize in “MasterChef” is the coveted golden immunity pin. Once in possession of a pin, contestants can use it to sit out any elimination contest, surviving to fight another day.

Translated into the teacher’s world, the case for microcredentials is strong and growing. Among their many benefits, just like on “MasterChef,” microcredentials prove mastery of a particular subject or skill and can relieve teachers of being forced to repeat training unnecessarily. By designating who is trained on certain issues, schools can also identify experts in these areas to lead sessions (rather than sit through them) and assign mentors to less-proficient peers.

Speaking of leading sessions, remember those hired guns lecturing at their keynotes? Let’s trade that model for this one and see what synergy we conjure up when teachers don’t passively listen to the big-name instructional experts of the world, but those luminaries throw on their aprons and dig in to help—or compete with—teachers in writing units, crafting lesson plans, and designing project-based learning experiences. I would suggest that the teacher who produces a better backwardly designed unit than Jay McTighe has earned the right to sit out the next Understanding by Design training session—or lead it!

Redemption and Empowerment

Professional development that borrows from the model of “MasterChef” will challenge teachers in a way that builds grit, instills meaning, and conveys all the benefits we attribute to competitive sports—and extol to our students. Yes, we will have to brace ourselves for the occasional critique, sometimes in the presence of our peers, but we also create opportunities for praise and commendation. When was the last time an expert watched one of your lessons and told you it was perfection?

The “MasterChef” franchise has even worked out that this environment works on escalating levels as your career advances and thus has created spin-offs like “Junior MasterChef” for children and “MasterChef Australia the Professionals” for seasoned chefs. This makes perfect sense if, like we tell our students, learning is a lifelong process.

Of course, the one difference we must maintain between our profession and the model of “MasterChef” is that as working education professionals, we are not limited to a television season’s timeframe, nor do we need to declare a final winner. We can repeat the cycle of supportive, meaningful, fun, personalized professional development as long as it takes for all of our colleagues to become proud of their work, but still keep improving with the encouragement of a community of peers.

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