The Hollywood Handshake

Over the holiday break, my family and I binge-watched the Great British Baking Show on Netflix. If you haven’t seen the show, each week amateur bakers take part in a bake-off that test their skills as they create complex desserts, pastries and breads. After weeks of increasingly more difficult tasks and eliminations, the show crowns one champion as the Best Amateur Baker in the United Kingdom. After nine seasons, the show has grown in popularity and is one of the most watched shows on PBS and Netflix.

Across the different seasons, many of the hosts and judges have changed. One consistent member of the Great British Baking Show team, however, is celebrity chef, Paul Hollywood. Hollywood is the show’s no-nonsense judge. He can be painfully direct and is not quick with praise. He also doesn’t sugarcoat things. When a baker’s custard is thin, he’ll say that it’s “slack.” He’ll also refer to a pie as having a “soggy bottom” when they haven’t been baked long enough and will critique a baker’s ability to properly fold and proof their creations. Despite the competitors being amateur bakers, Hollywood holds them all to the highest of baking standards.

Mixed in with his icy stares and his pointed critiques, Hollywood is also incredibly focused on the competitors’ development. Hollywood doesn’t just criticize the bakers. He gives real feedback for growth. He’ll ask how an “off” dessert was made and offer alternative ingredients. He’ll say that a bread would benefit from longer baking or suggest that a different mixing method would yield better results. When he reviews a baker’s work, Hollywood clearly includes both progress and discrepancy feedback, which I blogged about a few years ago. As he examines a baker’s creation, he’ll identify exactly what has been done right but also give specific feedback on areas to improve and offer suggestions on how to do it. If you’re a beginning teacher, Hollywood’s assessment and feedback processes would be good ones to emulate.

Across all of the shows and the multiple seasons, the one feedback strategy that stands out is the Hollywood Handshake. I know it sounds a little corny but when a baker has met and exceeded his expectations, Hollywood will speechlessly shake his head and offer the baker a firm handshake. In the world of the Great British Baking Show, there is no higher honor. While the judges name a Star Baker each week, weeks will go by without a baker receiving a handshake. But then it happens. And I’ve watched bakers literally come to tears as Hollywood silently shakes their hand. It’s a sight to observe.

As teachers, I think there’s a lot to unpack with Paul Hollywood’s method of feedback. Hold students to high expectations. Be consistent with your assessment techniques. Give students feedback for growth and identify specific areas where they can improve. More importantly, however, Paul Hollywood shows that we must be ready to celebrate when students have met our expectations and shouldn’t offer empty praise to those who don’t. The Hollywood Handshake is powerful because he only offers it to those who reach his standards. Everyone else gets feedback for growth. While both are great to receive, one makes the other more meaningful.

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