What I learned when I learned to make an omelette

What I learned when I learned to make an omelette

How do you know when you’ve learned something?

I mean, not just attended the class and diligently taken notes, but truly absorbed what you’ve been taught? Remembering back to something that happened to me many years ago, reminded me that I believe there are three stages to true learning: experiencing, trying and teaching. Together these three elements not only keep learning as a circular journey, they keep it social.

To truly learn, you have to share.

One night, back when I was about 19, I found myself one of a small number of stayers at a late-night house party. We’d all been drinking and smoking (the kind of things I did back then) and were all getting a bit peckish (in embarrassingly Cheech and Chong-like style, the term we used back then was “we had the munchies”). I suggested that I’d make omelettes for everyone. I went to the kitchen, found a big pan and some eggs and set to work.

I came back and offered my leathery, eggy handiwork to a friend called Carlton.

“You don’t know how to make an omelette, do you Andrew?” Said Carlton after his first mouthful.

“Yes I do. What do you call that?”

“Er, not very nice. Let me show you how to make a good omelette.” Carlton replied as he stood up and made his way to the kitchen, leading me with him.

Carlton started to break it down: “Okay, crack two eggs in a bowl. Now add a tablespoon of water (eggs are slightly too thick on their own).”

“Now mix until its one colour. No trace of yolk or white showing.” He continued. “Now add a bit of salt and pepper.”

I added salt and pepper, then reached for the big pan.

“No, too big. Grab that one about the size of a 45 record.”

I complied and put the smaller pan on the hob and then reached for the oil.

“No, never oil. Always butter.”

I put the oil back and put a knob of butter into the now hot pan.

“Now listen”. He said. I listened. Carlton was silent.

“Well I’m listening; say something”. I blurted eventually.

“Not to me, listen to the butter. Can you hear it sizzling?”

I listened. I could.

“Right now wait until you can’t hear it any more. It stops sizzling when all the water’s evaporated. From then you’ve got about 5 seconds until the butter starts to burn.”

A couple of seconds after a raised eyebrowed look between us confirmed the buttery silence, Carlton said “okay, put the mix in now.”

I poured the eggs in the pan and watched them bubble and curl at the edges of the pan.

Almost instantly, Carlton delivered his next instruction “Right, now fold the edges into the middle, then swish the mix round so it covers the pan again”

“Now watch the omelette.” He went on, “It’s cooking, but it’s still wet on the top. When some, not all, of that wetness has cooked away, fold it onto the plate. It’ll finish cooking on the plate.”

I did what Carlton asked and folded the hot, soft, slightly browning omelette onto the plate.

Now, up to this point I don’t think I had done any learning at all. The first third of my learning was about to take place.

With Carlton smiling beside me, I dug my fork through the soft, steaming eggs on the plate, then lifted the forkful into my mouth. It tasted wonderful.

Carlton’s instructions worked.

Using this method, I made omelettes for everyone that night. Munchies abated, we gradually drifted home.

But that was only one third of my learning journey. The second third came a couple of days later. Without Carlton looking over my shoulder, I made omelettes for my housemates. I flew solo and landed, not just safely, but perfectly.

The last third was when I had to show my housemate, Annie, how to make this sumptuously simple meal.

I taught her as I’d been taught, and passed the method on. I truly knew I understood what Carlton had taught me, only once I had taught it to someone else.

Experience, try, teach. Once shared with others, my learning was complete.

Whilst there are learning methods (for instance, Maria Montessori’s) that stress the importance of peer-learning, I think that the inherently social act of teaching is too often undervalued in much mainstream education, and in this virtually peer-to-peer connected age, we’d do well to redress this.

But it’s more than this. Today the UK Secretary of State for Education bowed to pressure and dropped his plans to replace high schools’ General Certificate of Secondary Education with a more “didactic”, less “progressive” alternative (the quotes are not value judged, they are his words spoken here). Meanwhile universities are struggling to make their age-old model of tertiary education adapt to the economic, social and technological context of the twenty first century. Not just here in England, but internationally, we’re looking at better ways to foster learning.

At a time like this, maybe we should be more daring and revolutionary and consider the vital role that teaching itself plays in a learning journey.

After all, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.