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Why five recipes are better than one

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The cookbook, Simple to Spectacular, offers insights on more than making a tasty dinner. In his quarterly note, Vice Provost Matthew Rascoff explains its connection to an alternative paradigm  for learning that may foster more flexible, inclusive pathways in our education system.

Illustration of 5 cookbooks, a chef's hat, a man, a spoon and a fork.

By Matthew Rascoff

When I was learning to cook I found myself choosing between two kinds of cookbooks—glossy, restaurant-derived coffee table books by celebrity chefs, and practical guides meant to be used in the home kitchen. The former were inspirational but, for novices like me, impractical. The latter were useful but a little dull.

Then in 2000 two authors, the four-star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and “minimalist” food writer Mark Bittman, collaborated on a cookbook that broke the mold. Simple to Spectacular brilliantly combined the two categories into a volume that was both accessible and challenging. In the process they offered a fresh paradigm for learning more than just how to make dinner. 

Each recipe in Simple to Spectacular comes in five forms. The first is the most basic, with common ingredients and short cooking times. Each successive version adds a layer of complexity and technique. The fifth, most complex recipe, is a version you’d expect in a fine dining restaurant, requiring advance prep, specialty ingredients, and many steps. 

This step-wise approach to learning to cook can be applied to other kinds of knowledge. Many advanced mathematics textbooks start with basic theorems and proofs and layer in complexity with each chapter. A delightful YouTube series called “5 Levels” asks experts to explain the same scientific concept, such as CRISPR or black holes, at five levels of sophistication, from a version for kindergarteners to one for post-docs.

Yet the U.S. education system is stuck in a model that is more like the binary of conventional cookbooks than the supportive scaffolding of Simple to Spectacular. Too often, education reinforces divisions. Instead of supporting growth and flexible pathways, we divide students into brittle “tracks.” In New York City children are tracked into “gifted and talented” programs as early as kindergarten. California splits undergraduates into three “disjointed” systems of public higher education, with “very little cross-coordination or attempt at systemic coherence,” per a major new UC-Berkeley report on the future of education in California. 

Simple to Spectacular’s ladder from amateur cooking to Michelin-starred mastery offers an alternative. While that doesn’t make the climb easy, it makes the path clear. In higher education, historically, standardized tests were supposed to smooth the path to college for first-time undergraduates, and transfer was supposed to offer second chances at the bachelor’s degree. But research on undermatching in admissions for high achieving low income students, and credit loss in transfer (nationally, 43 percent of credits are wasted in transfer), demonstrates just how much friction students experience as they try to move up through education. And first-generation, low income, and minority students experience that friction the most.

A handful of exceptional colleges and universities have made progress in extending educational pathways, and their success shows the potential for systemic change. Education as a whole needs to reimagine how it provides a ladder for socioeconomic mobility. More than a ladder—we need a high-speed escalator from the entry level to mastery, and from minimum wage work to the knowledge economy.

The greatest need for such an escalator is among those who have been left behind by higher education. A new report from the National Student Clearinghouse shows there are 39 million Americans who have “some college, no degree,” and are not currently enrolled. These “stop-outs” typically carry student debt, without the degree that provides the means to pay it back. They overlap heavily with the 53 million Americans who earn less than a living wage, and are unable to pay for housing, feed their families, and obtain adequate health care. And they include many first-generation, low-income and minority students whose needs are not being met by the higher education system.

Technology could play a role in redesigning education to serve this population. Take the example of Merit America, a nonprofit boot camp that offers an online technical training program based on a curriculum designed by Google. Each student is assigned a remote coach, who supports their progress and helps prepare them for jobs in account management, IT support, and other entry level tech roles. A recent economic analysis by Profs. Ben Castleman and Kelli Bird of the University of Virginia shows that Merit America offers, on average, a $16,000 wage increase after just 14 weeks of study.

Working learners, adult students who are employed and lack a postsecondary credential, such as those served by Merit America, are becoming a greater priority for policymakers and educators. But what can a research university like Stanford offer them? This is the question a group of Stanford colleagues and I have been grappling with over the past months. 

Led by the Office of Community Engagement, the “Working Learners Community of Practice” brought together diverse groups across the university, including those who oversee campus operations in groundskeeping, dining and residence halls, IT, and medicine, alongside academics and administrators from the Graduate School of Education, Continuing Studies, and Digital Education. Our shared insight is that Stanford’s three roles, as an employer (Silicon Valley’s fifth largest), as an educational provider, and as a research institution, provide fertile ground for innovations in working adult education. What we learn as we try to better support our own staff may have broader relevance in the Bay Area and nationally.

One revelation from our discussions is the inadvertent inequity in our tuition reimbursement program. Stanford’s current program helps employees cover fees for courses meeting requirements for undergraduate or graduate degree programs, but excludes high quality non-degree technical programs such as Merit America and vocational programs for the skilled trades. Large portions of our valued workforce are unable to benefit from financial assistance to pursue professional expertise, even in high-need areas at Stanford, such as electrical work.

Another early observation is the difficulty many staff, including working learners, experience in trying to take Stanford courses. While there is an option to audit face-to-face courses, these are typically taught during the workday, so are not accessible to most employees. Our online courses and programs are designed to offer more flexibility, but they do not typically welcome auditors, so can be cost prohibitive for staff. In fact, we have heard of staff going to other universities to take online courses similar to our own offerings, as they are less expensive.

The Community of Practice also has identified an untapped resource: expert knowledge held by some employees with no opportunities to impart them. Experienced workers in the skilled trades at Stanford would welcome the invitation to train newcomers but there is currently no internal program for them to pass on their knowledge to the next generation. 

We believe as an anchor institution in the region Stanford can take steps to improve life prospects for everyone, particularly those in the bottom income quartile. Later this year our Community of Practice will be sharing some initial ideas for connecting efforts across campus to amplify their impacts in the region and for helping Stanford to create new programs for its working-learner employees.

Stanford and other universities have the potential to collectively design a new paradigm for educational pathways and opportunity. We need to think beyond the populations we have historically served, to those who are most in need. Let’s get cooking. 

Matthew Rascoff is an aspiring chef, lapsed letterpress printer, daily bike commuter, and dad to two small kids. He serves as Stanford’s inaugural Vice Provost for Digital Education and lives in Menlo Park.