Above: Photo courtesy of tradesappliedtech.viu.ca

By Dane Gibson, VIU Communications

Sometimes you have to get things wrong to make things right, a lesson students in the Vancouver Island University (VIU) Professional Baking and Pastry Arts Program are about to learn, as they gather around eight fresh-out-of-the-oven loaves of bread. Each one baked with different grains, such as kamut, red fife, spelt, and stone ground whole wheat. The unique aroma fills the air and almost immediately it’s clear–something smells wrong.

But that’s the point of instructor Martin Barnett’s cause and effect class. As program chair, he introduced this teaching method into the curriculum this semester as a creative way to challenge students. What it means for them, is that one day a week, nothing is going to turn out right.

“The point of the cause and effect class is to make changes to the recipes without students knowing what we changed. When you introduce a little too much baking soda, too much salt or forget an egg—unexpected things happen,” said Barnett.

He says instead of always pushing for perfection with each baking or pastry project, the students know that something will go wrong during the cause and effect class. More importantly, they are given time to track down exactly what happened.

“Our classroom is a busy commercial kitchen. We produce a wide range of products for our VIU community cafeterias and various events held across campus—and they have to be perfect,” said Barnett. “For some students, a failure is devastating for their self-esteem. Their product comes out wrong and has to be thrown in the trash. By offering this class away from the pressure of production, when mistakes happen, they leave knowing why. It’s much easier than trying to figure out what went wrong after the fact.”

Once the loaves have cooled, he tells the students: “Go ahead—look at it, smell it, taste it.” Keen with anticipation, they cut into the bread and prepare to take notes. One student turns up her nose: “This one smells like concrete.” Another: “This one tastes like cardboard.”

The cause and effect teaching method was suggested by an instructor from The School of Artisan Food (SAF) in Nottinghamshire, England, which has been using the technique in their classes for some time.  VIU and SAF participate in student and teacher exchanges, and, through that process, Barnett was introduced to the idea.

VIU’s Centre for Innovation and Excellence in Learning director, Dr. Liesel Knaack, says the introduction of the cause and effect teaching strategy is giving baking students the opportunity to co-create their own knowledge and skills through innovative and high-impact learning experiences.

“Enhancing teaching and learning practices in the trades and applied technologies is a vital part of successful learning at VIU,” said Knaack. “Martin and his colleagues are designing rich learning experiences to assist students in deeper retention of key competencies of being a successful professional baker.”

First year student Jessica Scott uses her finger to tap the brick-like loaf of bread in front of her. She carefully cuts into it to begin the process of finding out what happened.

“This class is great because I know I will screw up in the future. When it happens, it’s going to be really useful to know why and what I can do to fix it,” said Scott. “It’s about trial and error, and I believe it will help reduce mistakes as we move forward.”

Angelique Frederiksen graduated from VIU with her Red Seal baking certification. She is now an instructional assistant in the program, and says it’s interesting to watch the students use their senses to deconstruct what was changed in a recipe.

“I can see that the cause and effect class is making things less stressful for our students, which is always a good thing. By taking that production pressure away, you learn how to problem solve, which is just as important as the baking when you are employed full-time in a busy kitchen,” said Frederiksen.

For Barnett, incorporating new teaching styles is exciting, especially when the lesson is something that transcends the kitchen.

“There are 12 steps to making a loaf of bread. Baking is a science, and in a busy environment like this, mistakes happen all the time,” said Barnett. “Cause-and-effect relationships affect students every day, whether they recognize it or not. To be successful, students need to be aware of their environment and their place in it. Decisions have consequences, and if we can make students aware of that, they will be better equipped to think analytically in not just their academic lives, but their personal ones as well.”

Prospective students are welcome to make an appointment to visit the baking program area anytime the program is in session. To learn more, please visit the VIU Baking and Pastry Arts Program.