Panera Bread and Learning

In the last month I’ve become a Panera regular. We’ve been doing a lot of traveling and Panera was as close to fast food as we were willing to go. Until the last month however I’d only been there a few times in several years, without being particularly impressed.

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Take a look at the menu above. This is what you encounter when you walk into Panera Bread for the first time. Seven sections of menu packed with different dining options. For the less food savvy among us, not only is the menu packed with stuff, but it’s packed with a lot of stuff that is unfamiliar. In my first couple of visits I stood there bewildered for a while, let my friend order, then picked something with turkey in it.

Because I was pretty sure I knew what turkey was.

Well, I was wrong. I mean, I think the thing had turkey in it. But everything else did not complement the turkey in a positive way.

The next time I went there with a few colleagues I ordered a caesar salad. Why? Because every time I’ve ever ordered a caesar salad in a restaurant I haven’t been surprised by what came out. The same was true for this visit.

Sweet. I found something on the menu without holding up the four people behind me.But after that I avoided Panera for a while. A long while. I could get a caesar salad from a lot of places. The notion of standing there in line trying to find something different felt as though it would only bring frustration.

Then my wife and I were looking for something quick and healthy to eat, so we decided, to my slight dismay, to give it another try.

This time however, on the way there my wife looked up the menu on her phone and read off several items, describing them from their website. When we walked in I knew several of the items on the menu, how it worked (that “pick 2” thing for example) and was basically ready to order when I walked up. We’ve been there a couple of times since and now it’s one of my favorite restaurants. Since I’m confident in my understanding of the menu, I try new items, ask questions about different types of food, etc.

How does this relate to learning?

Think about the first time you encountered an unfamiliar topic and tried to learn it. This was difficult at first but I can certainly think back to math lectures (here’s lookin’ at you, Linear Algebra) in which there was new notation, vocabulary, and concepts and it all felt unfamiliar.

However, once I got with my peers and we began working through the problems (encountering the “menu” multiple times) the concepts began to feel more familiar. I realized that I knew more about them than what I thought (romaine and kale! Hey, I know what those are…). The more I worked individually and with my peers the clearer the concepts became.

If I avoided doing the exercises or only did it individually, that feeling of everything being foreign never really went away. Usually parts of the notation would be confusing. Or the instructions around a problem wouldn’t make sense. Or I could start a problem, but get lost in trying to solve it, etc.

A couple points can be pulled from this. First, a student’s first exposure to a topic is incredibly important. If you drop seven new vocab words and a gaggle of new notation on students at 8:00am on Monday morning you’re bound have a large group of students not wanting to come back to the menu you just presented them.

Even if they should know most of the food on there.

So we have to think carefully about how students first engage with content. The second point is helping students understand that multiple engagements with a concept will (usually) alleviate this feeling. I think many students never go back to the restaurant because they don’t want to be embarrassed for not knowing what their peers may already know. We have to help students be comfortable with this phase of unfamiliarity (my study group in college was a place I felt comfortable being wrong), and develop tasks that help them engage with the concept in safe, productive ways (investigating the menu on the way).

For a great post on how students see unfamiliar mathematics check out Ben Orlin’s recent post entitled What Students See When They Look at Algebra.

Alternative Titles

“What’s on that sandwich? Oh… will that be on the test?”

“How Avocado Ruins Education”

“I don’t even like lettuce so why should I be learning about salads?”

One Comment

  • Sam Morey Reply

    I like what you are saying here. This is an excellent way to relate the idea of the necessity of returning to a concept in order to master it.

    Personally I think Panera is way too expensive for what you get. Do you feel the prices are comparative?

    I like to introduce topics on Mondays through activities. I think this eases students into a concept. Then we unpack the mathematics throughout the week. What methods do you use to prevent menu shock in your class?

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