A Tapas-Based Approach to Learning

Well, there is no argument that lectures are not the best sole teaching method for 21st century learners and leave a lot of students lacking, or even napping! Lectures have their place, but keep the professor center stage in the “chalk and talk” method, where some students will only hear the Charlie Brown teacher sound “wah wah wah”.

Active learning can engage students into learning complex things which can translate into other areas of understanding. Mark Carnes describes this well in his article Setting Students’ Minds on Fire by using games to engage students. But “active learning” can be read as yet another academic buzzword where the impact of the importance has become watered down from overuse.

So where is the balance? If we the teachers/instructors need to utilize the technology as the resource to engage learners, then how do we employ the most current tools to make best use of our assets in current ways?

Upon reading, digesting, and mulling over some literature regarding shifting in pedagogical approaches for the 21st century, I am reminded of the waves of tapas restaurants and bars popping up everywhere several years back. Yes, tapas, the Spanish cuisine at its brevity and finest.

So how am I connecting these two in my mind?

Tapas are basically a wide variety of appetizers and snacks. They can be hot or cold, simple or sophisticated, and combined to make a full meal. Tapas were designed to encourage conversation rather than to be focus on the food as a meal. The focus is on the engagement of the people enjoying the tapas and not solely on the food. The food is only one part of the bigger context.

Possibly we should look at serving education like serving tapas. We can start out simple, move to something more sophisticated, order a little or a lot, or try several different things to find out what is appealing. Tapas can be a great alternative to huge, heavy meals. Maybe our pedagogy needs to move away a huge, heavy approach to something lighter, varied, and tailored to each individual’s need.

In my mind, a tapas based approach to engagement would look like small chunks of learning opportunities peppered through the class time. Rather than talk out a topic for a 90 minute lecture, things would happen a bit differently. For example, in a 90 minute class, a teacher could have a 10 minute lecture, a 15 minute YouTube video, a 10 minute discussion, a 30 minute experiential project, 15 minute writing post to a common location, and 10 minute on-line discussion thread all related to the main topic for the class. This approach may encourage all types of learners to get involved and engaged at varying levels. Also by moving the teacher from the front to the sidelines, they could offer more assistance where needed by the students. It would also empower the students by trusting their ability to learn and engage on their own. The teacher becomes the helper, like the wait staff or chef. The shift of focus goes from the material being learned to the learning of the material.

After all, in a tapas restaurant, each table will not have the same things; nor would people always order the same amounts or types each visit. A tapas approach to teaching could offer variety, customization, and individual design. Creative approaches could foster imagination of the students, give them bite sized chunks of information to absorb the material, and grab their attention with a variety of teaching methods. Finding that balance of technology, just like finding the right balance of tapas to get you full, can be a beautiful and varied experience.

Hmmmm…anyone else hungry now?


9 thoughts on “A Tapas-Based Approach to Learning

  1. I really enjoy the comparison you draw between the tapas and the duration of a class. I used to live in Spain and one of the biggest things I found with that eating style is that the time just flies by and the food you had before influences the current snack.

    With the tapas-inspired method, how would you see each different type influencing each other so that they are not discrete and build off of each other? Do they have a theme that is built upon?How would you use them: is a video a good introduction and an activity at the end for summation?

    This is how we get started, little things at a time and some prior planning go a long way. I can see this being the method in revitalizing stagnant courses.


    1. I love this comment! My thoughts were suggestions and the possibilities of combinations or things you can do in what order are boundless. It could be totally interactive and the first leading the direction with the other modes building off of what was just covered. If you started with an activity, then there could be an on-line discussion about what occurred, followed by someone sharing a video that links to what was being learned (or even an off-shoot of what was being learned), that could lead to an instructor based talk to bring the ideas together, followed by creative way to synthesize all those things previously covered. I think it could work well both planned or allowing things to happen organically. As long as you are hitting on the marks of what needs to be learned, why can’t it not be an interesting journey? Sometimes the best routes are the ones that take us a little out of our way, but we find or learn the most interesting things. Thanks for commenting and keeping me thinking! 🙂


  2. I like the term “Tapas-Based Approach”. The comparison of teaching methods used in the class to tapas is interesting. I think the Tapas-Based Approach you mentioned here is useful and already used by many teachers/instructors. From my experience as a student and a TA, I see most of teachers combine lectures, videos, in-class discussions, in-class labs, outside activities and other methods together to teach effectively. The only thing is that it takes more time to design a course applying multiple methods.


  3. I would just like to share a different story I heard for the origin/purpose of tapas. I was studying abroad in Germany and visiting Madrid for the weekend. I was on a Tapas tour and our guide told us that some time ago all the peasants would come into the city for the lunch hour. Most could only afford food or alcohol so, naturally, most drank. This was causing problems so the King made it a law that you couldn’t serve alcohol without food. And that is where the little meals come from – to stop peasants from being wasted. I have no idea if its true but its comical.

    But I like your tapas analogy to learning as well. I think a variety of experiences is likely to allow some students to identify more complex patterns than a structure lecture would.


  4. OK I’m hungry now Karen….but apart from my love for food I totally agree with your comments and your lovely comparison. Imagination…I love your quote “focus goes from the material being learned to the learning of the material”…if only every teacher started thinking this way we could in an ideal situation resolve the issue of bored, uninterested and even napping students…wouldn’t we?!


  5. This is a really nice discussion and great use of a metaphor! I do like this idea of a tapas-like approach, however, I wonder if it might not offer too many options. Just as many people get bored and lost in a 90 minute lecture, there are likely just as many people who could potentially lose interest in a 90 minute learning session using 5-10 different types of media/learning styles. I think the issue with a lot of our discussions and proposed improvements in education are simply to be able to find a compromise (or balance maybe?) that works for everyone. I am not even sure it is even possible to find something that “works for everyone”, but I’m sure we would all like to try.


    1. I really like the Tapas metaphor but I do agree that there is a balance to be struck. You want to keep things engaging and dynamic enough for students to pay attention and enjoy their experience in the classroom, but too many different activities may seem to frenetic and scatterbrained, making it more difficult for students to focus on what they’re learning/doing, even if everything is centered around a central topic. And yeah, because everyone is so different and varied, it’s nearly impossible to find a single approach that fits every single student; the best we can do is to develop one that works as well as possible for as many students as possible.


    2. Yes, having a balance is a must! Mine was an example to get the thinking going, as I wouldn’t want to overwhelm students by doing too much to foster learning. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could find that well-tailored balance that works for most, yet gives options for those who need something different too? Hopefully we will get there (someday!).


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