I have Star Wars on the brain, and this afternoon doing some reading, viewing, and thinking about Star Wars gave me a new insight about education.
I recently finished drawing comic strip parodies of Star Wars in my comic strip; I've gone to see Episode 7 twice (opening night and the day after Christmas); and today I had a chance to read the Time Magazine article about Episode 7 ("A New Hope: How J.J. Abrams Brought Back Star Wars Using Puppets, Greebles, and Yak Hair:). I read this article in the oral surgeon's office while our daughter was having her wisdom teeth out, and we even had a nice chat about episode 7 with the surgeon himself while our daughter was "going under."
After we got home, my wife printed out an article for me to read: "Students Call me the 'Technosaur'" wherein Alan Singer questions the current obsession with technology as a panacea that will solve all our educational woes.
This afternoon my daughter is recovering, and wanted to watch movies. First we watched School of Rock (which I will write about in a later post because I think it is, perhaps, the best teacher movie ever). Then, out of curiosity, our daughter asked to watch the much-maligned Episode I of Star Wars, The Phantom Menace.
As we watched it, that Time article about the making of Episode 7 came back to mind. The Phantom Menace certainly has its problems, but what struck me most about watching it again when how it seems oddly un-grounded in reality. Nearly every special effect, and many of the settings, were accomplished using CGI, and at times it almost feels as though live-action actors are floating through a sea of digital images. And the overemphasis on those non-physical effects led, I think, to an under-emphasis on the human elements of the prequel movies: the characters, dialogue, and acting.
The Time magazine article emphasized how J.J. Abrams tried to go "old school" for Episode 7. They attempted to use as little CGI as possible, instead focusing on "practical effects": puppets and props and real-life settings rather than digital ones. These effects are a throw back to the original trilogy, especially the first movie. George Lucas wasn't happy with how many of the effects were done, feeling that he hadn't had the resources he needed to make them as sophisticated as he would have liked. Yet the very limitations of his budget and technology were part of what made the original movies feel so "real." With the new movie, Abrams says in the Time article, "...the decision was made early on to build as much as we can and actually film it. And what that would do is obviate the need to try to make people believe it was really happening. Because it simply would be happening." BB-8, the new movie's star droid, was sketched on scrap paper by Abrams himself, and performed mainly as a real puppet, not as a CGI image.
And so this was my insight, for what it's worth. An over-reliance on technology made the prequels less-real, less grounded in reality, while the original trilogy and Episode 7 used a limited amount of technology, which grounded them in reality and also made the human elements stand out. George Lucas thought that CGI would solve all his movie-making problems, but the technology ultimately hurt believeability because they movies were no longer grounded in reality. The same can be said of education. An over-reliance on technology in education leads to school being a place where the human elements are under-emphasized, and students and teachers alike can end up floating in a sea of digital gadgets that are flashy, but somehow lack substance. When we think technology will solve all our problems, we are in danger of no longer being grounded in reality. My district recently released its new strategic plan, and one if its plans is to use technology to "personalize" learning. Truly personalizing learning, it seems to me, can only be done by a person.
Episode 7 seems to provide a solution. It goes "old school" where it matters to making the illusion seem more real. But it also uses technology judiciously, not as the cure-all approach for every effects shot in the movie, but when it will make possible what isn't possible by using practical effects. This approach puts technology in its proper place, grounds the movie in reality, and doesn't overwhelm the human elements.
A case in point is the character of Maz Kanata (played by Lupita Nyong'o) the bar-tender/wise-woman alien of the movie's middle act. She is motion-capture CGI, a character whose performance by the real-life actress is captured by a computer and transferred onto the template of her CGI character. Maz's character is based on J.J. Abram's English teacher, Rose Gilbert, who taught in the same classroom for 51 years, until her retirement at age 94.
I doubt the character of Maz would have been inspired by a piece of technology instead of a real live teacher. I doubt Rose Gilbert would have found technology was essential to her teaching. She was, I suspect, most decidedly old-school.
Technology has a place in education, but thinking it is the cure-all solution to all our problems leads to a disconnect from reality. Human teaching and the personal touch are the best ways to achieve... special effects.