Gingerbread Houses and Cookie Cutter Approaches to Teaching

Two days before Christmas break this past school year, I unloaded the trunk of my car and hauled in thirty gingerbread house kits. The boxes were not heavy, but because I had bought one for each student, it took a few trips back and forth from my trunk to my classroom on that cold winter day. The gingerbread houses were our afternoon activity: the students would take the pieces out, carefully construct the house, use the icing to decorate, and then tidy up after. Once the afternoon rolled around, I laid out the basic ground rules for my students, turned on a YouTube Christmas mix, and told them to gingerbread house away. I took this time to attend to some long overdue paper work while casually observing the room from time to time to see how my students were doing. What I noticed about how students approached making gingerbread houses started to get me thinking about how students approach traditional learning.

Let’s take (the majority of) the boys for starters. Most of them rushed through the gingerbread house making activity. They were not patient enough to set the walls in place. They used too much or too little icing on parts that were supposed to connect the house together. Some hastily unpacked their pieces which subsequently led to the gingerbread being already broken before they even started. A few made a diligent attempt to construct the house, but when a piece would eventually fall or slide out of place, instead of having the resilience to re-set the falling piece, they grew frustrated and impatient. End result: maybe two out of fourteen boys went home that day with an intact gingerbread house.

After observing and laughing with the boys for quite some time, I went over to see how the girls were doing. (For this activity, we organized the class by pushing the desks into two long groups and I let the students sit wherever they wanted; so naturally, all the boys went to one table and all the girls went to the other). On the contrary to where you think I was heading with this piece, I observed much of the same things that I saw over at the boys’ table. Some of the girls made elegant gingerbread houses equipped with amazingly designed and perfectly distributed icing. Some had so little patience that after fifteen minutes their gingerbread house was a pile of broken cookie pieces with icing layered all over it. A small group of girls, instead of making the actual house, sat and ate the icing and candy that came with it while chatting. Out of sixteen girls, maybe nine went home with a pristine house.

How does this story tie into themes of teaching and education? One activity, as fun and engaging as it might be, is never going to speak to the unique abilities and strengths of every student in the class. Most of the students didn’t mind going home with half crushed, falling apart gingerbread houses. But when we take the gingerbread houses and replace them with grades and tests, we can start to see the flaws in teaching to a one activity, one assessment approach. If building the gingerbread house was a test, eleven out of thirty would have passed. Now, some would have done better if they got to see someone else model how to make it. Others would have done better if they could work in a quiet environment. You get the basic point here: a cookie cutter, one box approach to teaching and learning is a faulty way of going about our job as a teacher. We’ve got to mix it up, add a little icing so to speak. Yeah…these were just some thoughts as I watched my students having fun on a cool winter day.


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Matthew R. Morris

Educator, Speaker, Writer

Matthew R. Morris is a writer, speaker, and elementary educator in Toronto. He has an M.A. in Social Justice Education from OISE at the University of Toronto and is the author of the forthcoming book, Black Boys Like Me. 

Matthew R. Morris

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