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"Learning the Art of Pie-Making using the 'Gradual Release of Responsibility' Teaching Model"

Last updated 3 years ago

There it was, aromatic juices bubbling from the slightly sunken lattice-work crust, golden around the edges, small squares of baked red fruit peeking from underneath its toasted top, and the heavenly smell that I came to know as home.  I couldn’t tell you at what age I first ate her pie.  Apple pie was a part of the fall every year, and other fruit pies like cherry, blueberry or blackberry each had their season.  For some reason, though, my mother’s apple pie was her signature dessert, the jewel on the crown of her cooking.

My mother started training my siblings and I to cook dinner for the five members of the family when I was in middle school, with some mixed results at first. It was an introduction into a new way of thinking because 80% of the time my Mom didn’t use a recipe, a measuring cup or measuring spoons.  Learning her improvisatory methods lead me to understand, later in life, how to play jazz.  

Around the age of fifteen was when my sister and I had graduated into baking pies.  She helped at first, showing us how she created her signature pinched crust that made each pie look like a big smiling sunflower.  Shortly after that she’d call one of us in to “finish” her pie by having us crimp the edges for her and put it in the oven.  I recall at one time requesting she make a certain pie I was craving, to which she suggested I learn do the whole process myself.  She walked me through each step a couple times with feedback.  Gradually she backed off and we were on our own.

Little did I know my Mom was utilizing a process for learning that leads to independence, or in this case, ultimately leads to a person who could probably make a pie in her sleep.  The GRR Method, or ‘Gradual Release of Responsibility’ Model is a style of teaching in which the responsibility for learning is transferred from the teacher to the student (or baker).

In 1983 Pearson and Gallagher named the “Gradual Release of Responsibility” after the ideas in the 1970’s of the Russian educational theorist Lev Vygotsky.  Pearson and Gallagher use a model of 4 general stages to guide learning toward independence and automaticity:

  1. Teach using modeling and an explanation of a strategy
  2. Guided practice where teachers gradually give more and more responsibility to the student for task completion
  3. Independent practice accompanied by specific feedback
  4. Application of the strategy in real life situations

Modeling and Explaining:
In relation to pie making, as a toddler I can recall grasping her skirt or apron while she rolled out the dough.  Eating her delicacies and daily meals were as fundamental to my childhood as drinking water or breathing air.  Watching her and observing for years started the modeling process.  As I grew into my awareness I began asking questions about best practices such as preventing the dough from sticking to the rolling pin or the benefits of using butter versus shortening in a crust.  

Guided Practice:
When she started the guided practice by having me finish her pie crusts with her assistance, she could explain and fix a disaster if I rolled too thin or ran out of pie dough.  There was then a graduation into to me checking in with her after each step of the process while doing it on my own. She taste tested the fruit to sugar ratios by asking open-ended questions like, “How do we balance something if it’s too sweet?  What do we add?”  Once she saved me from baking a salty cherry pie because I had mixed up the salt from the granulated sugar when preparing the fruit.

Independent Practice:
The day my pie was done with no assistance from her was somewhat memorable.  When we served it I remember looking at the faces of the ‘Desserters’ at the table to gauge the pie’s success rather than eating it immediately myself.  The feeling of home I felt when eating my mother’s pie was something I had begun developing for myself, with the twist of my own experiences in life.  Making pie was becoming a practice in establishing where my roots were.

Now not only do I make my own variation of her pies, but I was able to adopt her ‘recipes are for suckers’ attitude by being able to improvise her pies and other recipes I had made time and time again.  Now I realize the gift of a pie, with a homemade crust and fresh seasonal fruit, is the best way to tell the ones you love that they matter.  It tells them that the smiles on their faces were worth the couple hours it took to make it.

This teaching model has been proven to be effective at all levels of learning, although, many educators now see an initial step of establishing prior knowledge as an ideal pre-cursor to the model. In my example, prior knowledge was established in all the moments she opened that worn oven door to pull out the peach pies in the summer, the pumpkin pies around the holidays and the first blackberries from the neighbor’s patch in the late spring.  She would sometimes grumble as she bit into the first bite of her slice saying, “This could use a bit more sugar and a touch more vanilla,” illustrating how much she used her taste buds, not a recipe, to create her masterpieces.

Teachers have a much more limited time frame to achieve mastery of a given skill or standard than the years in my Mother’s kitchen.  This four-step process is skill we need to install and develop in every teacher so that they can teach this way (even in their sleep).  If we are teaching concepts just to check a box that it was done but the students have not yet internalized the learning or had enough time to make it an automatic application in their mental ‘tool-box’, have we done our jobs?  When curriculum like math, science and history require students to work on a trajectory that builds off one idea to transition into the next, we have to teach toward true independence or we’ll lose students’ motivation and interest, and getting them caught up later is a well documented uphill battle.

In a culture of swift fixes and low attention spans we also need to teach people how to learn through creating systems designed to lead to engaged learning as well as the short term goal of teaching a necessary concept.  The leading nations in the world in regards to education typically integrate a longer process in teaching that not only teaches a skill, but a process of learning that can be replicated for any subject, for any learner, in a variety of realistic situations.  Almost always this includes the learner teaching or presenting to others about what they discovered as a final step in some form, which essentially adds an additional step to the GRR model.  The more we can adopt, embrace and then improve upon these practices the more effective our teaching is.

And we need more pie in the world.  Always more pie.

Written by Amber Lamprecht who is the Co-Founder and Clinic Director of the Literacy and Language Center in San Francisco.

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