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Being a food technologist

Focus key competencies: Managing self, creative thinking

Learning area context: Technology


At the start of their very first lesson in Year 9 food technology the teacher asked her students to discuss what food technologists do. As she had anticipated, when the small groups reported back it was obvious that most students had very little idea of the range of activities undertaken by New Zealand’s food technologists, or their importance to our economy. The teacher then showed them a YouTube clip in which Kelsie, a secondary school student, visits a Sealord fish processing factory and sees at first hand the many different roles for food technologists in just that one industry. (The YouTube clip the teacher used comes from the Careers NZ website and is called Just the Jobs: On-shore Seafood. A similar video for slightly older students is a first-hand account by a food technologist developed by Futureintech: Michelle Lucke, Product Development Technologist for Heinz Wattie's Ltd.)

The teacher wanted her new class to be aware that food technology entails specific types of real jobs in real work places and that it is “such a big thing” in terms of its importance to New Zealand’s economy. She said it was important to spark students’ interest right from year 9 because if they did want to go into this type of career they would need to keep the right learning pathways open, and specifically keep up their sciences and mathematics.

Once she had them engaged, the teacher introduced a food technology challenge: the students were going to design and make picnic bread suitable to sell. She knew that some students had never made bread before and she did not expect them to be able to be innovative without first getting the basics in place. So they began with “lots of little activities” that introduced students to various techniques in bread-making.

In one activity students watched a short YouTube clip that demonstrated how to make long rolls of bread dough into a five-stranded plait. Some students struggled: they needed to watch the video clip multiple times before they ‘got’ it. Some finally saw what to do by making a connection to braiding their hair! For others, the plait idea was the springboard for innovative thoughts. When it was time to design their own picnic bread, some students very successfully rolled flat strips that they filled with savoury stuffing before plaiting them. In another activity students made the potato-based leavening agent. When this was suitably fermented several days later they made Rewena bread, which most of them had never tasted before.

Once the basics were in place and first design plans had been completed, students created their own picnic bread for the first time. Every product was photographed and taste-tested in simulated picnic conditions. Design criteria included that the bread would be able to be easily eaten without knives and plates, and that it had to taste good when cold. Students gave each other feedback in the form of “compliments and suggestions” and then set about revising their designs and creating a second sample. Everyone was required to revise their designs between trials. Students who had struggled to meet the brief the first time now had a better idea of what they needed to do and some made big improvements. Others made more subtle changes because they had been more successful the first time around. However one group struggled to get beyond creating a very messy pizza-like product, even on their second attempt.

First and second trial photos of all the breads were then evaluated as part of a whole class reflective discussion. The teacher noted the importance of this shared conversation; during the actual creation process students were often too busy with their own work to take a lot of notice of what other groups were doing. These photo sets then became a resource for reference in later units, when specific design issues or challenges came up again.

Reciprocal relationships between the subject and the key competencies

The NZC essence statement for the technology learning area states that “students learn to be innovative developers of products and systems and discerning consumers who will make a difference in the world” (NZC, p. 17). At level 5, the relevant technological practice achievement objective states that students will:

  • Investigate a context to develop ideas for feasible outcomes. Undertake functional modelling that takes account of stakeholder feedback in order to select and develop the outcome that best addresses the key attributes. Incorporating stakeholder feedback, evaluate the outcome’s fitness for purpose in terms of how well it addresses the need or opportunity.

In this unit students are challenged to think creatively as they design and make an original food product within the constraints of a specific brief. Every group must refine their design for a second trial after receiving peer feedback. Several aspects of managing self are implicated here: students need to be to be honest with themselves when considering their product and feedback after the first trial, and respectful but specific in how to shape and communicate feedback to other groups. Participating and contributing is integral to the carefully sequenced, group-based, practical tasks.

One focus in this story is on the nature of careers in technology. This aspect has strong links to the career management competencies: deciding and choosing; developing self-awareness; and exploring opportunities. (These three career management competencies were introduced by MOE in 2010. They provide opportunities to strengthen aspects of key competencies as these relate to students’ future-focused thinking about their own work lives beyond school. More information can be found at NZC Online: Career education - career management competencies. The careers competencies signal an important shift in careers education: classroom teachers all share in the responsibility to develop them and this example illustrates one way that could happen. For other examples see Vaughan & Spiller, 2012.)

Reflections on effective pedagogy

Working creatively within the constraints of a brief is the central challenge in technology, whether in school learning contexts or in authentic work contexts. Students need to display considerable initiative in creating something a bit different: this provides strong opportunities for students to “think with their hands” not just their minds, and for students with good practical skills to shine. However they do need a fund of relevant practical experiences on which to draw. Multiple opportunities for competing short, sharp practical tasks were integral to the design of this unit.

It is also challenging for students to give and receive feedback in a disciplined, respectful, constructive manner, and to act appropriately on the feedback they receive. The way in which the teacher sets up these opportunities, and the clear expectations they convey and model are important here.

This unit made multiple meaningful connections for students:

  • ŸAlmost everyone eats bread; it tends to be a taken for granted food.
  • ŸMaking Rewena bread connected this food to Māori cultural traditions.
  • ŸSome techniques were connected to similar actions in different contexts (for example, plaiting fancy bread shapes and plaiting hair).
  • ŸThe challenges of al fresco food consumption would be familiar to almost all New Zealand students.
  • ŸThere was a future-focus connection to technology careers and choices to be made in future school learning pathways.

Discussion starters: Enabling constraints

This story, like several others, illustrates the idea from complexity theory that “enabling constraints” play an important role in shaping of learning encounters where students are able to successfully demonstrate demanding competencies such as creative thinking. What sorts of things did this teacher do to constrain students’ design choices yet at the same time create an open space where they could bring their individual flair to the technological design challenge at hand?

How important do you think this idea of enabling constraints is to key competency development more generally? Where and when did teachers in this story collection encounter enabling constraints that unleashed their own creativity and competency development?

We could argue that clear and specific criteria are important enabling constraints if students are to realistically and constructively assess their own learning progress. How do self-assessment and peer-assessment challenge and potentially strengthen students’ competencies in managing self? (The same question could be asked of relating to others when the focus is peer assessment.)


Vaughan, K. & Spiller, L. (2012). Testing the Waters: Career Management Competencies in the Subject Classroom. EEL Research Report. Lincoln: AERU Research Unit, Lincoln University.

Published on: 15 Apr 2014