Showstopper Lessons: What Beginning Teachers and their Mentors can learn from GBBO.

I love baking and all things cake.  So, having recently written about what mentors might learn from Strictly, I now turn my attention to what beginning/ early career teachers and their mentors might learn from Bake Off and the nature of the three baking challenges included in each episode.  Bear with me…

Challenge 1: Signature bake

During the Signature Bake GBBO challenge the contestants show off their tried and tested recipes within a particular theme.  Time and time again, it is astounding how much variation there is within the same ‘template’ and how much opportunity there is for these familiar bakes to go wrong.  What worked perfectly in your kitchen at home, when made for your friends, sinks under the steady gaze of Paul and Pru, and soggy bottoms abound. 

Similarly, beginning teachers often approach their first teaching experiences with a carefully crafted lesson plan following the tried and tested structure they’ve had drilled into them, arriving at the lesson ready to enact their ‘rehearsed in the mirror’ direct instruction episode and launch their meticulously prepared application task onto the pupils.  And yet, in the pressure of the moment, as the time available in the lesson ebbs away and pupils give responses they were not expecting, they discover their watertight lesson ‘recipe’ is not quite as fail-proof as they believed.  The more experienced they become the better equipped they are to manage the unexpected insecurity of a lesson not going according to plan and the easier it is for them make ‘within’ lesson adjustments.   However, this experience does not come overnight; it is the result of being exposed to a range of experiences, supported by mentoring conversations which help the beginning teacher to notice the ways in which teachers make micro-adaptations in the moment to ensure their outcomes are still achieved.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov on

Challenge 2: Technical Challenge

In the Technical challenge every contestant is given the same raw ingredients and are tasked with creating the same finished product.  It quickly becomes clear that making the perfect bake requires a passing familiarity with the bake in its completed form, coupled with enough technical knowledge and experience to interpret the limited recipe instructions and navigate the equipment required for the task.

For many beginning teachers this is what their first experiences of teaching can feel like.  They may have been given ‘everything’ they need to plan and teach a lesson, but their limited experience means that utilising these ingredients to their best effect comes down to how well they interpret the instructions. 

The ability of beginning teachers to enact effective questioning is a good example of this.  Lesson plans may incorporate lots of opportunities for checking for whole class understanding through a questioning phase but very few explicate the questioning stages or approaches for managing misconceptions.  Just as the GBBO bakers would benefit from more detailed recipe instructions, beginning teachers also benefit from articulating aspects of their lesson planning process in more detail.  Developing focused targets around different aspects of the planning and teaching process can transform the outcomes of the raw ingredients but there also needs to be a recognition that beginning teachers can’t become whizzes in every ‘technical’ challenge overnight – they need time and a range of experiences to allow them to encounter and build their understanding of as many different subject knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, lesson contexts and processes as possible.  They cannot be ready for technical eventuality in week 10, let alone week 1.       

Challenge 3: Showstopper Challenge

The Showstopper challenge is the opportunity for the bakers to show off their skills and talent.  Following the completion of the challenge the judges provide feedback and select a star baker – often chosen because their Showstopper bake had the most professional appearance and outstanding flavours. 

The comparison with the seemingly high stakes ‘observation’ lesson, prepared by beginning and early career teachers as part of their assessment profiles, could not be more obvious.  These are the lessons planned to the ‘nth degree’, imbued with detailed subject knowledge and with a vast range of pedagogical approaches squeezed into the lesson to ‘show off’ what the teacher can do.  And yet even in these set pieces things still can go wrong and mistakes can happen.  Just as the 3D Biscuit Rocking Horse collapses under the pressure of the moment, or a baker forgets to switch on the oven, the classroom is full of variables which can derail the best laid plans. 

Lessons which are performative for the sake of the observer rarely have the learning of the pupils at their heart.  Removing the high stakes and allowing these lesson observation experiences to be formative and supportive rather than judgemental is critical for the development of the beginning teacher and the learning which will take place in the lesson.  Freeing the beginning teacher to focus on their lesson rationale and most appropriate approaches to achieve this invariably results in better outcomes.  For the beginning teacher, knowing that the observer will support and guide their self-reflection and evaluation to improve is critical for building confidence.  Bake Off exemplifies this every year as more cautious bakers grow in confidence and try increasingly complex bakes as the weeks progress, naturally developing their practice through reasoned risk taking. 

It’s all about the flavour

Full disclosure – as a keen baker I find GBBO both inspirational and intimidating in equal measure.  Weekly, I am awestruck at the ambition of the contestants and the precision with which they create their bakes.  Without doubt I would be a competitor who was more about the flavour than the presentation but, to be honest when it comes down to it, doesn’t the flavour matter more than how good it looks?  In the same way, I would suggest we need to be focusing on creating opportunities for our novices to imbue their practice with as much ‘flavour’ as possible.  To achieve this, they need a supportive environment which recognises the nature of the challenges they are facing and the ways their teaching practice is developing to support pupil learning through their varied experiences in the classroom.      

Further Reading:

Flores, M.A. (2019) Learning to be a teacher: mentoring, collaboration and professional practice, European Journal of Teacher Education, 42:5, 535-538, DOI: 10.1080/02619768.2019.1680207

Flores’ editorial in this edition of the European Journal of Teacher Education provides a brief overview of the papers in the journal edition which may prove interesting further reading in relation to these themes.   


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