Willingham: 'Superman' is entertainment, nothing more
This post was written by cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?”
By Daniel Willingham
In an iconic scene in the film Back to the Future, Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox) uses a skateboard to escape bully Biff Tannen (played by Tom Wilson). The scene culminates when the bully crashes his convertible into a truck which dumps manure all over him and his pals.
It was the only role of note for Wilson, and the actor reports that he is frequently stopped by strangers and asked “Was that really manure?”
His answer? “It’s a movie.”
In other words, it’s a story, a piece meant to entertain. Reality takes a back seat to these goals.
Is Waiting for Superman an incisive analysis of American education? It’s a movie.
A movie (even a documentary) must tell a story. It must entertain.
In The New York Times, the director, Davis Guggenheim, is quoted as saying:
“Any film is a simplification. I know the inside-baseball people in education will criticize it. I was always saying to myself: ‘Davis, you’re not an education expert. Tell the story from the point of view of a kid trying to find a good school.”
It’s a movie.
In the Los Angeles Times, the director responds to the criticism that Waiting for Superman depicts only charter schools as good. "All the good schools are charter schools not because I think all good schools are charter schools, but because those are the ones that have a lottery, and I knew the lottery was a central metaphor."
It’s a movie.
There is also much in the movie that is true, and told vividly. American kids fare poorly compared to kids from other industrialized nations. On average, there is nothing like equality of educational access between rich and poor. There are “lemons” in the teachers corps who ought to be fired. And perhaps most important (although it breaks my heart to believe this actually needs to be said) poor kids can learn just as well as rich kids.
But Waiting for Superman, in it’s quest for movie simplicity, caricatures complex institutions and policies. The trope is familiar: spirited band of virtuous reformers (Harlem Children's Zone founder Geoffrey Canada, D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee) battle unfeeling, selfish and powerful foe (teacher’s unions).
Do teacher’s unions deserve to get beat up on? Sure. So do big city bureaucracies, which take a few licks in the movie. But so too do lazy parents, mountebanks hawking educational drivel, inattentive, idle, or corrupt state legislators, greedy and unprincipled textbook companies, out-of-touch professors at schools of education, and incompetent or cowardly boards of education.
At the end of the day, the ones who deserve the severest criticism might be you and me for letting it all happen, given that the school system is ultimately under the control of politicians and their appointees.
But if you’re not well versed in education issues, you’ll walk away remembering that there are some good guys out there trying to fix things, but that evil lady from New York named Wein-something-or-other is trying to stop them.
And you won’t walk away thinking that instruction has anything to do with schooling. All we need to do are get the right structures in place, and “great teachers” will be forthcoming. Apparently, the classroom is a black box, and we needn’t concern ourselves with its contents.
Guggenheim is aware that Waiting for Superman tells an incomplete story.
On National Public Radio: “"It’s important for people to understand that charters are not the silver bullet.”
In New York Magazine: “Here’s what I’m scared of: that the movie will be misperceived as a pro-charter, anti-union piece.”
Well, dude, if you were worried about that misperception, you shouldn’t have sacrificed accuracy in favor of storytelling. You should not have made a movie.
It could be argued that Waiting for Superman is terrific in that it is starting a national conversation. There’s something to that. I’m thrilled that education is on the minds of more Americans than ever.
But the post-movie conversation ought to start by saying “Okay, that was really fun. Now let’s get serious about what’s going on.”
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| September 27, 2010; 11:30 AM ET
Categories: Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers, School turnarounds/reform | Tags: back to the future, dan willingham, michael j. fox, school reform, waiting for superman
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