The Worst Teachers in America

I’ve been watching a lot of the Food Network’s “Worst  Cooks in America” lately on Netflix. Worst Cooks is a reality program in which about a dozen people with terrible cooking skills spend eight weeks at a culinary “bootcamp” learning how to cook from two top-notch chefs (Bobby Flay and Anne Burrell in the seasons I’m watching). Each week the worst two “recruits” are forced to turn-in their aprons and the show ends when one recruit wins the final cooking challenge and a $25,000 prize.

Now I’m not naive enough to think that this reality show actually has anything to do with reality and I know that the format is chosen to maximize ratings rather than sound pedagogy, but while Burrell and Flay  may be some of America’s best chefs, I can’t help noticing that they’re also some of the worst teachers. Here’s why:

  1. On every first episode, before they are taught anything, recruits are asked to cook something for the chefs, usually with humiliating results. During this time they are mocked by the experts and generally made to feel inept for lacking a skill they’ve already admitted they do not possess.
  2. Each week the worst two recruits are asked to leave, the same recruits who are most in need of more cooking lessons.
  3. The chefs often skip over the basics and demonstrate advanced cooking techniques very quickly, then expect the recruits (who “don’t know how to boil water”) to duplicate the results in an arbitrarily short span of time.
  4. After many of the demonstrations the recruits are asked to personalize or alter the recipe, even though they hadn’t practiced the original first.
  5. The chefs routinely give advice (“Be bold with your flavors”) that gets the recruits in trouble if followed (“This is too spicy.”)
  6. The chefs often shout meaningless advice at their recruits (“Get your act together!” “Are you kidding me?”) and are constantly berating them for their poor “time management,” even though they’re doing things they never done before and have no idea how long each step takes.
  7. No accommodations are made; vegetarians are expected to cook chicken and lactose-intolerant recruits are asked to make ice cream.
  8. Surprise twists are frequently thrown at the recruits, like adding a side-dish at the last minute or using a different ingredient than they were taught.
  9. Towards the end of each season, the chefs are forced to “make a difficult decision” and send someone home who’s actually cooked quite successfully.
  10. Many (most?) of the 5-star cooking skills the recruits learn in boot camp are not going to be useful to them when they return home. They can’t even pronounce many of the dishes they’re working on and their home kitchens are not going to be stocked with quail eggs and KitchenAid pasta makers.

I’m guessing most of these issues are done on purpose to make it more dramatic and interesting to watch. But I can’t help feeling that a good teacher should avoid using Anne Burrell and Bobby Flay as role models and do the exact opposite of what they do instead.

Better than Operation Christmas Child

Operation Christmas Child is a massively popular program run by Samaritan’s Purse, a Christian organization headed by famed evangelist Billy Graham’s son, Franklin. Every year about this time hundreds of thousands of kids in elementary schools, youth organizations, and church groups in the United States and other countries collect shoeboxes filled with Christmas gifts to be sent to needy children in hundreds of countries across the globe. Samaritan’s Purse has delivered more than 124 million such boxes since 1993.

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The appeal of Operation Christmas Child is obvious. It’s a well-run program and it’s an easy way for affluent children (and their parents) to share the Christmas spirit, to give a tangible expression of love to the less fortunate. Christian organizations also like the fact that OCC shoeboxes are sometimes accompanied by literature sharing the Gospel message and giving an opportunity to get involved with a local church.

In spite of its popularity OCC isn’t without controversy. Some allege that Franklin Graham’s salary is disproportionately high compared to presidents of other charitable organizations. Others claim that Samaritan’s Purse downplays (or hides) the evangelical nature of Operation Christmas Child leading to awkward situations where non-Christian children are inadvertently participating in an activity contrary to their own faith. Still others are bothered by the fact that Franklin Graham is an outspoken critic of Islam, a partisan stance most humanitarian relief organizations try hard hard to avoid.

But even assuming they’re all irrelevant or false, these criticisms completely miss a bigger issue. Operation Christmas Child might be a good tool for evangelism, but it’s a lousy aid program. Here’s why:
  • OCC does nothing to directly address the long term needs of the children receiving the gifts or their parents. (Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Give a shoebox full of toys to one of his kids and you…?)
  • Toys (particularly cheap, plastic toys) and candy are some of the worst things you can give to children who really need access to health care, education, and nutritious food.
  • The people who derive the most economic benefit from OCC are Chinese toy manufacturers, and shipping companies. The local economies of the countries where the toys are handed out receive no benefit from OCC and may actually be harmed. (If you were the local toy store how would you feel when the OCC boxes arrived?)
  • OCC hopes to deliver 11 million boxes in 2015. At $7 per box, the shipping fees alone amount to $77 million. Imagine the impact that money could have if it was donated directly to local non-profits and pumped into local economies instead.
  • OCC does not have enough in-country staff to equitably distribute the shoeboxes. They have to rely on volunteers and partner organizations who determine to whom, when, and how the boxes will be given. Sometimes this works well, other times it does not. (In 2001 I witnessed an OCC shoebox delivery at a Special Olympics event in Managua, Nicaragua turn into a political campaign rally as everyone had to sit through a presidential candidate’s campaign speech before he got the honor of passing out the boxes.)
  • It’s difficult to buy toys in the United States that are not directly tied to some aspect of North American culture. We’re exporting our language, our sports, our music, our movies, and our Disney princesses without any regard for the cultural context of the children on the receiving end.

When it’s all said and done, Operation Christmas Child is an easy program that does more to help us feel good about ourselves at Christmas time than it does to help fulfill the long-term needs of the less fortunate.

They’re not as flashy and you may not get as much personal satisfaction donating to them, by there are other organizations which achieve better, longer-lasting results with your money. Here are just a few: