Monday, November 17, 2008

Hollywood, Education and Globalization

In the 1999 film The Matrix, the main characters have ports in the back of their heads in which information can be downloaded. Within seconds, they can access information like jujitsu fighting or flying a helicopter. Yet in this world in which anything is possible and everything is learn-able, the characters are still seeking “The One” who will set them free and they use a Oracle to find it. In many ways, this describes our current educational system. We continue to try and download information into kids, but we are looking for “The One Way” which will make education fair, equitable and accessible to all.

I've been pondering the idea of paideia for quite some time, though I may not have called it that. As a novice teacher, I was concerned about the content I was teaching. My assigned mentor was very traditional – with grammar, vocabulary, literature, and spelling all scheduled out each week. Yet I knew there should be more. I stumbled on Harvard's Project Zero and the idea of Teaching for Understanding, which, in brief, “ says that understanding a topic of study is a matter of being able to perform in a variety of thought-demanding ways with the topic, for instance to: explain, muster evidence, find examples, generalize, apply concepts, analogize, represent in a new way, and so on.” (Perkins, 1993). While attending the 2002 Project Zero Summer institute, I heard a lecture by Howard Gardner based on his work on The Disciplined Mind:What All Students Should Understand. He proposed that schools are dehumanizing education through the focus on standards and teaching. Instead, study should focus on the ideas of truth, beauty and goodness. When I returned to my classroom, I began planning backwards – What major understandings did I want my students to demonstrate at the end of a unit? Then, more importantly, how would these understandings make them better people? At a time that affective education was antithetic, I was embracing it.

Paideia - In ancient Greek, the word paideia (παιδεία) means "education" or "instruction." Paideia was the process of educating humans into their true form, the real and genuine human nature. Since self-government was important to the Greeks, paideia, combined with ethos (habits), made a man good and made him capable as a citizen or a king. This education was not about learning a trade or an art—which the Greeks called banausos, and which were considered mechanical tasks unworthy of a learned citizen—but was about training for liberty (freedom) and nobility (the beautiful).” (Paideia, 2008)

When I look at Hollywood, the directors have already embraced this trend. Dead Poets Society (1989) encouraged students to "suck the marrow out of life" and throw away the institutional format of reading poetry. Dangerous Minds (1995), Freedom Writers (2007) and The Ron Clark Story (2006) showed that students need to see meaning and purpose to their education – but also, part of education should be about becoming fully human – empathetic, creative and purposeful. 
According to Vavrus, education in Tanzania is moving toward social constructivism in order to foster a more democratic society. She quotes Richard Tabulawa who states that too often classrooms in Third World countries are authoritarian, which does not support development of democracies. Yet in her research, Vavrus found a disconnect between what the system says it values and what it actually values. The skill and drill form of instruction dominates because skill in isolation is the focus of test. When pre-service teachers were confronted with the idea of student centered teaching, they mostly rejected it on the basis of “What's going to be tested?” This argument is not unfamiliar in the United States. As wonderful as the student-centered, constructivist, humanistic paideia idea of theorists and thinkers sound, the reality is that teachers/schools are being judged by the test performance of their students. Until the system goals match the system's evaluation method, there will be this struggle.

Hollywood even understands this disconnect. In the 2006 release Accepted, the main character, Bartleby is rejected for every college, although his grades were good. To forestall disappointing his parents, he creates a fictional, South Harmon Institute of Technology. However, when his parents actually want to see the campus, he is forced to really create a school from an old building. With the help of his friends, they fix up the building, create a website, and enlist the help of a burn-out drifter to be the director. When “opening day” arrives, they find themselves with hundreds of students (all rejected from other schools) at the door. Although it is a comedy, the important part of the story is how the curriculum is developed. The students write on a large board what skills and ideas they have and what skills and ideas they would like to have. On the board they find their own teachers and classes and learn from each other. In the end, the school receives a provisional license to try their experiment in education. 
If Hollywood is articulating our society's desire for change, and making money off of it too, why aren't we listening?


“Paideia.” (2008, November 2). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved November 13, 2008 from

Perkins, D (1993, Fall). “Teaching for Understanding,” American Educator: The Professional Journal of the American Federation of Teachers; v17 n3, pp. 8,28-35.

Vavrus, F., The cultural politics of constructivist pedagogies: Teacher education reform in the United
Republic of Tanzania. Int. J. Educ. Dev. (2008), doi:10.1016/j.ijedudev.2008.05.002