Sunday, January 6, 2013

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

I just saw Jiro Dreams of Sushian award-winning documentary about Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old sushi chef in Japan and proprietor of the first sushi restaurant (a ten-seat establishment inside a subway station) to be awarded a Michelin 3 Star rating.  It's also a film-length meditation on teaching, learning, and excellence, which is why I'm blogging about it.  It has many messages and discussions about art, craft, and teaching, but I'm going to pull out three.

  1. The essence of excellence is doing simple things consistently well.  At the start of the movie, you might think: sushi?  How complicated can raw fish on rice be?  What we learn is that it's not complicated, it's just hard to get exactly right every single time.  One critic mentions that, in all his years of attending Jiro's restaurant, he has never had a meal that wasn't fantastic.  Jiro himself has been fanatical in stripping down his work to the essentials:  he stopped serving appetizers, and now only serves sushi.  And what makes his sushi so good?  He gets the very best fish, and doesn't settle for less than the best preparation.  At one point, we meet Jiro's rice supplier, and hear the following (paraphrased) exchange:

    Supplier:  Hyatt hotel wanted me to sell them the same rice I sell you, but I said no--because I didn't want to betray our relationship, but also because they don't know how to cook it.

    Jiro:  Go ahead and sell it to them.  They don't know how to cook it, so it won't be any good.

    Supplier:  That's right.  It won't be any good unless they know how to cook it.  You're the only one who knows how to cook it.

    At this point, you're probably wondering--I was--how complicated can cooking rice be?  But Jiro has developed a special method for cooking this rice--they show it to us--that brings out its special qualities.  By the end of the segment, you're convinced:  how you cook this rice is really important.

    How does this relate to teaching?  As with any other "simple" art, there's no way to hide imperfection. With sushi, it's just fish and rice, so if the rice isn't good, the sushi isn't good.  When you watch a great teacher, what's great isn't just the overall lesson design or the major tasks--it's the details of how he or she handles the lesson's flow, how papers get returned (hint: not during the lesson itself!), what happens when students make errors or ask unexpected questions...the myriad tiny details that actually shape the experience of being in the classroom for the lesson.  And so great teachers think about these things:  a book like Every Minute Counts or Teach Like a Champion is really a compendium of dozens or hundreds of techniques to make those details perfect.
  2. Mastery is a process, not a destination.  Jiro is described several times as a shokunin, a Japanese term for "master craftsman."  But he doesn't see his own status as "the master," even though everyone -- the people who supply his fish, his apprentices, restaurateurs -- treats him with reverence.  Jiro himself is constantly innovating, asking himself how to do things better.  One example is his decision, in his mid-70's, to stop serving appetizers--to really focus his (and his customers') attention on the sushi. Another his adjustments to his processes for preparing octopus (he increased the massaging and marinating time).  At one point, Jiro compares his own palate to legendary French chef Daniel Boulud's, saying that if he (Jiro) had a more discriminating palate, he would be able to make sushi even better.  This attitude runs deep in Japanese culture: the shokunin never regards his own status as "mastery" but rather as "continuing to grow."

    There are many ways to relate this to teaching, but the most important is maybe the least obvious:  the really great teachers I've known are also the most self-critical of their own lessons.  These teachers leave the room, most days, feeling not like they just made a slam dunk, but wondering about different things that happened, could have happened, or didn't happen.  When a teacher tells me that he felt the lesson went "really well," that tells me that--usually--the teacher is still a long way from mastery.

    There are two reasons for this self-criticism.  First, the way you become a master at anything is by being very self-reflective and critical of your own work.  But there's more:  as you get better at teaching, you get better at noticing the tiny details (see #1) that make a lesson work or not work.  It's impossible to get all those details perfect every single time; the master teacher is always dissatisfied because he or she sees so much that could have gone better.  (This phenomenon is similar to the experience of doing well on a law school examination, where the key is to identify the legal issues presented in a situation:  the best students get only about 70-80% of the issues, but are also the most aware of the 20-30% they missed, while students who understand the material less well think that the 50-60% they spotted are all the issues there are.)
  3. Teaching people to be masters requires holding them to high standards, every time.  At Jiro's restaurant, the apprenticeship is ten years.  Only in the last year do students get to make the tamagoyaki, a kind of sweet egg omelet eaten at the end of the meal.  One apprentice describes making the omelet two hundred times before Jiro pronounced it acceptable.  But he's not fired, reprimanded--that we can tell-or punished in any way:  he's simply told, each time, that it's not right yet (and, presumably, how it's wrong or how to fix it).

    In our education system, we claim to hold students to high standards, but we often make it impossible to really do that.  Think of the traditional unit structure:  homework (often ungraded), a couple of quizzes, and then a unit test a day or two after the conclusion of new material.  A kid only has two or three opportunities to figure out how to do the tasks before he's held to account for them.  As a result, we make the tasks easier, or give partial credit--because doing something challenging exactly right requires way, way, way more attempts and feedback than this structure provides.

    Standards-based grading provides an opportunity to change that structure, but as teachers at Payton are figuring out, it can mean a lot more work:  students try again and again to meet those high standards, and as a teacher you have to create sample tasks, and give feedback, for each of those attempts.  But we've found that standards-based grading allows us to hold students to very high standards, to be very clear about what we expect students to know and be able to do--and to be really sure that they can do the things we want.  In short, standards-based grading helps us ensure that students are really learning to do tasks consistently well.

    Does this system work?  Return to Jiro's restaurant.  At the end of the movie, we find out an important fact:  over all of the Michelin reviewers' visits to Jiro, he was never actually the sushi chef on duty.  His (middle-aged) son and his apprentices, not Jiro himself, were the ones who prepared the sushi that, Michelin said, deserved no less than a three-star rating.  
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is a great movie.  I saw it on Amazon streaming (free to Prime members), but you can also get it on Netflix, etc.  What I've put in here is just a small taste of what I got from the movie; I hope that you, like me, leave wanting more.