How Waiting For Superman Misrepresents Teaching And Learning

Waiting For Superman reviewed by Don Berg.

While it's a well made movie the filmmaker's concept of learning and teaching falls short.


Waiting For Superman

on Rotten Tomatoes

at Netflix


Video Script:

Today's movie is Waiting For Superman directed by Davis Guggenheim and released in 2010. It's a political documentary that focuses on the fact that having great teachers is necessary for having a great school system and how teachers unions have become an obstacle to achieving that goal. As a film it focuses on the stories of 5 children from across the country who are each in a lottery to get into a public charter school. This film is an example of excellence in documentary filmmaking. The filmmakers skillfully weave lots of different threads together unified by the political focus on the role of teachers and the dramatic focus on charter school lotteries and the emotional roller coaster that children and their families experience in that process.

However, I have to take issue with the understanding of learning and teaching that the filmmakers so artfully presented. But first, I have to change hats. I earned this beret as a theater manager for the Port Townsend Film Festival in 2008 and thus far I've been talking from a film buff perspective about Waiting For Superman.

The Represention of Education in Waiting For Superman

Now I am putting on the red feather which means that I am shifting to the education perspective on the movie, in this case, challenging their presentation of teaching and learning.

[Waiting For Superman Excerpt: Male voice over animation of a female teacher opening a child's head then pouring stuff in until it appears full then closing the head and moving on to the next child. (13 seconds)]

"It should be simple. A teacher in a schoolhouse filling her students with knowledge and sending them on their way. But we've made it complicated."

The famous educational critic Paulo Friere called this the banking model of education.

It's also known as the transmission or delivery model.

This conception of learning has been soundly criticized for many decades, so I was amazed when I heard them say it without any hint of irony.

But that's also because I sometimes forget that I have the advantage of 20 years of studying education, and just because this view has been rejected by every educator I know, it is, in the wider world, quite common.

Everyone who knows anything about learning knows that it's a terrible description.

It's like the flat earth theory of education, but unlike the actual flat earth idea it hasn't been completely rejected by everyone on the planet yet, so a filmmaker can still present it in all seriousness and almost no one will balk.

But the problem is that this one image is the logical premise upon which the entire political agenda of the film is based.

So the accuracy of this image of learning and teaching is an all-important point.

The Central Problem With Waiting for Superman

Here's the issue, since the delivery metaphor sucks then accounting for the delivery of units of content misses what's really important.

A much more apt metaphor is cartography, learning is more accurately described as a kind of map making.

The cartography metaphor better reflects basic biology.

It acknowledges the important role of purpose in guiding human behavior.

And it accommodates differences in available resources.

The delivery metaphor portrays the learner as a completely passive receptacle for whatever information is delivered.

But learning is inherently active and when the learning activity of an organism becomes completely passive then it is dead.

Personally, I find it disgusting that an ideal student in the delivery model is dead!

What is going on in the learning process is not just the piling up of data points, what is most important about how we learn is creating meaningful relationships between data points such that later we can successfully navigate the world based on the map we construct with all that data.

One of the key outcomes we want for children is that they become reasonably autonomous individuals.

They should be able to make good decisions on their own.

They can only do that after they have a pretty good map of how to get along in the world.

Here's a clip from a TED Talk by Bill Stone that illustrates the importance of autonomous exploration, although he's not talking about children.

TED Talk Robot Mapping Narration: What you are seeing as yellow beams emanating from a central point represents the signals put out by the robot and the dots being arrayed around it are the points it determines to be where that signal bounced back from.

Thus it is constructing a concept of the world in which it exists.

Which is what we do, too.

Our signals are more complex and the world we construct in our minds is far more nuanced, but the basic process is the same.

We activate varied aspects of our being and gather in the results that occur in the world.

From this we construct cognitive maps of our world.

Learning is the construction, correction and ever present maintenance of these maps. [end TED Talk excerpt]

The cartography metaphor also implicitly assumes not only activity but also purpose and the application of particular resources to achieve that purpose.

Both of which are missing from the delivery metaphor.

Think about it this way: let's pretend we are both in Portland, Oregon, and I want to help you get to Seattle, Washington, but you don't know how to get there.

In order to give you a truly useful map I have to know how you plan to get from here to there; driving, biking, boating and walking each require very different maps.

It would be really stupid if I gave you a nautical chart when you are riding your bike.

Or a walking map when you are driving your car.

Purposes and resources are crucial to success so a productive concept of learning and teaching must account for them.

Getting Beyond Waiting for Superman

Since the whole point of Waiting for Superman was the importance of good teaching, how should teaching be understood in this way of thinking about learning? you ask.

First we have to make a distinction between teaching and instruction.

Because actually, Waiting for Superman was about was instruction, not teaching.

So to address the main point made by Waiting for Superman, effective instructors are very important for excellence at the transmission of information and training people to follow the customs of different fields of study.

And the difference between good and bad instruction is like the difference between interacting with a rock wall and interacting with the world wide web on a computer.

The robot was gathering information from the rock walls of an underwater cave, not a very dynamic source.

But, what kids have to work with is another living breathing human being who can act as a conduit for vastly more information, like an internet connection.

In the movie they pointed out that good instructors cover 150% of the required material whereas bad instructors cover only 50%.

Now, teachers, are the ones who determine the context of the learning environment, the climate of the school and the classroom.

This means that teaching is a responsibility that is mostly vested in the principal, who was originally called the “principal teacher,” but everyone in the school has some power to alter the climate.

So while the principal is responsible she is not really in control of it.

But in this sense I absolutely agree that teachers are extremely important, but the job of establishing and maintaining the school climate is not what gets accounted for on a test except indirectly.

And when a school focuses their energy on preparing students for tests they are missing the point.

They would be better off focusing on creating a positive school climate, and if tests are included within an important school purpose, then the test scores would improve, too.

So ultimately what we probably need are high stakes accountability protocols for school climate, not student test scores.

And instructors should be held accountable for the classroom climate as much, or maybe more than, content delivery.

The difference between good and bad instructors is not an ability to plow through material.

The difference is that people who are inspired by purpose process relevant material more efficiently and effectively.

So the difference in instructional quality is not about delivery, it's about the ability to align the class on purposes that inspire engagement with the teacher and the material.

The difference is skillful management of the climate, not delivery of the content.

Finally, cartography offers a similar account of why certain schools succeed and other don't.

It is not the mere input of more data that makes the difference, it is what the kids are inspired to do with data when it's aligned with their purposes.

Remember the robot that will be going off to Europa.

It will get lots of data, but in order to be effective at it's job it can't just collect data, it has to process it intensively and make decisions based on the map of it's world that it creates.

A map that will be informed by both purposes and available resources. The same is true of kids, they need to be able to handle the data and make decisions informed by good purposes and realistically constrained by the resources they have available.

Schools that work, work because they share purposes and take account of the resources that can be brought to bear to accomplish those purposes.

So to address the central political point of Waiting For Superman: Teachers unions might be an obstacle to progress, but the truth is that they are ultimately made up of human beings who are just as capable of being inspired as everyone else.

So if they continue to be a problem it's a failure of the reformers to align the union leadership with the purpose of the reforms.

Union folks are navigating the world based on their maps just like everyone else, so until their maps are informed by a transcendent purpose, they are going to remain focused on the narrow purpose of taking care of their own in the tried and true union manner.

Ultimately real solutions will enable passionate people to align themselves around shared purposes to organize their school.

If charter schools have an advantage, the advantage is the high degree of purpose that school leaders have developed and that their school stakeholders are aligned with.

So even though having a purpose is perfectly accessible to every school in the world, only some schools actually achieve it.

Creating good policies for accountability based on cartography requires schools to be held accountable for delivering the kind of environment they promise.

Schools should be judged on whether they treat the children the way the children expect to be treated.

They should be judged on whether or not the children and their parents know exactly what their options are for resolving conflicts.

And on whether everyone involved in a school knows explicitly how to make changes when there are conflicts that cannot be resolved.

Accountability based on cartography learning would judge the quality of schools based on a combination of the school climate and the ability of the organization to meet the expectations of it's stakeholders.

So I'm all for school standards but standards of just treatment and democratic participation, not content.

So, waiting for super instructors is not the solution. Instead we need to be cultivating inspired purposeful leaders who create and maintain positive school climates.

I personally and professionally want to help school leaders to pursue that goal through the implementation of democracy and restorative justice.

Another good aspect of Waiting for Superman was the showcasing of a number of schools that have benefitted from inspired leaders, like Geoffrey Canada, Michele Rhee, and many others.

The movie makes it clear that they have to deal with a lotta crap in the form of content driven accountability policies that can potentially distract them from what matters.

But to the degree they are clear about serving a purpose that transcends the tests, then they are succeeding in spite of the testing policies, not because of them.

Waiting for Superman Review Conclusion

Waiting for Superman is a very well made film, even if they are slightly misguided about what matters for learning and teaching.

They are right that high quality instruction is important for delivering academic content, but more important than any content is the climate of the school and how effectively learners and teachers engage with each other, on purpose, in the process of making their cognitive maps for navigating the world.

Thanks for watching.

On another page on this site I take a broader view of how the delivery paradigm fits into the history of education and the story of school.