Sunday, August 2, 2015

On loving home grown tomatoes and what that's got to do with learning

Rachel Burnham writes: Like a great many people I much prefer home grown tomatoes to the ones bought in shops – in depth of taste and scent they are far superior.  The tomatoes in our allotment greenhouse aren’t quite ready to pick yet this year – but their distinctive slightly spicy scent is already in the air and the vines are filling with warm orange globes – maybe by the end of the week, we’ll get our first pick.  
Courgettes, lettuce, yellow rasberries and of course tomatoes - crop 2014

On our allotments, which we share with another family, and for which I can take precious little credit for this year, we grow lots of different fruit and veg – potatoes, onions, shallots, garlic, broad beans, runner beans, little purple beans, rhubarb, strawberries, raspberries (personal favourite), spinach, chard, white carrots and so on.  In my view, the flavour of pretty much any of these is better than the shop-bought equivalents – something to do with picking when actually ripe; freshness due to less distance to travel; and of course being able to favour flavour over appearance, when picking which varieties to grow. 

I like home-made jams and pickles – and sometimes manage to make my own, but if I can’t get home-made it is great to get ones made by smaller producers with higher fruit content and fewer additives.  I have a great affection/craving for damsons and in recent years we have done a family trip to the Lyth Valley in Cumbria in order to get fresh damsons and secure essential damson jam supplies for the year.  This is the kind of jam that the big producers just don’t make – it is where artisan producers come into their own – though at a cost.

I love to cook and produce food from basic ingredients.  Nothing fancy.  An essential part of my weekend is making soup.  I make lots of meals from beans and lentils, having been vegetarian since my teens, with an emphasis on what is in season and available locally.

In fact, it would be fair to say that I love everything about food, cooking, growing it and of course, eating it.

And I love everything about learning – identifying what’s needed & what’s not, planning, designing, curating, facilitating, sharing and of course learning myself.  

But not everybody feels the same about cooking or learning.    

Some people say that they don’t know how to cook and that they can only do a few things and so get bored with what they can make themselves and rely on take outs or ready meals – always on the look-out for something new.   Others feel it is a waste of valuable time to cook and they’d rather get on with living – and I do seem to spend an inordinately large amount of time growing, preparing and washing up afterwards – the time seems worth it to me and a necessity that is part the richness of life rather than an alternative.   More parallels with learning.
Chard 2014

Of course, there are many whose choices around cooking are limited by poverty, even in this country and whose access to fresh ingredients, fruit and vegetable is limited by budget - where just getting enough for the whole family to eat is an achievement. 

And there are some people who love fast food – the pizzas, the burgers, the chips and the kebab.  Often the sights and smells of this have an immediate appeal – at a fun fair pink candyfloss can have its attractions – a bit like conference speakers who are full of jokes, funny hats and easy models.   Not that there is anything wrong with the occasional bit of fast food - I have a soft spot for the veggie burger made by one of the major burger chains and nothing, but nothing beats fish and chips after a cold November afternoon working on the allotment.

But the best meals, like the best learning opportunities, involve a number of aspects:

  • Being hungry; 
  • Fresh, quality ingredients – not disproven theories, or models pulled out dusty from the back of a cupboard;
  • Skills in putting them together – more on this in a moment; and
  • Presentation – my father could never understand my mother ‘fussing’ over the presentation of food and wanting to have a nice mix of colours in the food on the plate.  But presentation of food and learning does make a difference to the appetite for each.

Some of the best meals are the simplest, only needing basic skills that anyone of us could do with a bit of support.  Not every meal needs to be Michelin starred creation.  

I’ve learnt so much from home-made YouTube videos – production values not always that great, sometimes with a pause whilst the host puts the barking dog out of the room, but free, easily accessible and effective.   Not unlike scrambled eggs with mushrooms and grilled tomatoes (home grown, of course).

Sometimes, it is time with friends/family/colleagues that makes a meal special - the conversation, the exchange of ideas, the understanding of background & context.  The food is only an excuse – a starting point for the real feeding.  And the skills involved may not be in the content creation (the cooking) but in hosting and facilitating those conversations.

Sometimes it is right and proper to give a meal the full works – a relaxed setting, the elegantly nuanced menu, the skilfully prepared dishes, the choice of wine, the doggy bag to take home.

Just as with our eating habits, so we need to adopt a healthy approach to learning – it can’t all be restaurant meals or fast food, but a mixed and varied diet.  Home grown learning can be rich in flavour, contextual, simple but effective.

This is something that many in L&D are grappling with.  And more of us need to.

The occasional stick of candyfloss won’t do you any harm, but don’t mistake it for real food.

Rachel Burnham


Burnham L & D Consultancy helps L&D professionals become even more effective.  I am particularly interested in blended learning, the uses of social media for learning, evaluation and anything that improves the impact of learning on performance.

Follow me on Twitter @BurnhamLandD

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