Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Answering a Quest Versus Just Answering Questions

Much of education today is too concerned with gauging the quality of a student’s experience with a test. I know firsthand how much pressure is put on students, teachers and parents about that brief period of isolation when the child or teenager has to answer questions about their whole time of learning up to that point.  It is rather silly to think that this artificial experience (testing), can give us a thorough idea of what a student has gained and accomplished from school.

I know we need to have a measurable way to judge things, so I’m not saying to do away with testing. But I believe that things are off balance. In a way, we have come to rely so much on data to guide the science of our teaching that we’ve taken the art of teaching out of the picture.

Now here’s the danger that I see in all this. It is like we offer a student a vast landscape of knowledge to explore. We tell them there is so much to learn and how exciting it can be. Then we say they can only go on the path we have laid out for them. And to make sure they stick to the path we will test them regularly and rigorously to see if they have done so. In short we have promised a Quest for them to embark on, but only deliver a set of Questions for them to answer.

Thankfully, I know many teachers who still deliver the Quest even while preparing their students for the Questions. They create a sense of fascination and promote curiosity in their classrooms, but it is getting harder and harder to do that. It isn’t my goal to go on a rant about this, but I do want to highlight the problem with some emotion. If this imbalance goes too far I believe we will begin to lose something that has made this nation what it is. We will lose the desire to explore.

The ability to do well on a test is a weak substitute for a drive to explore the world around us – to make discoveries in places that no one else has had the courage to go, or to create that thing which no one else has had the ingenuity to create.

Now what does this have to do with me as a filmmaker? In the materials that my brother and I produce we work very hard to create that sense of exploration. We are both life-long learners and still get the biggest kick out of finding out something new. As an example – in the film UG3 we are teaching about Space Exploration, but we go into the subject from every angle we can. We approach it from the science, the history, the mythology, the literature and the art of how humans have approached outer space.  We look for those gems in the subject matter – those stories, odd facts, weird details – that will make a nine-year-old say, “Cool!”  In doing this we hope to help create a joyful approach to learning that will make them see knowledge as a Quest and not just something they must memorize in order to pass a test.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Do They See A Cave of Wonders or Just Another Hole In The Ground?

I’ve taught every age group from Kindergarten to College and know firsthand the effect that good media can have in getting a student excited about learning. I’m also aware of the fear that many people have about letting a movie, TV show or video game serve as a weak substitute for quality instruction. But if a teacher or parent chooses and uses their educational media well then it becomes a powerful tool.

I believe the most effective place for educational media is in the initial entry into a subject matter. The analogy I like to use is the one you see in the title of this post. When a subject is presented using the best techniques offered by entertainment media then it entices the student to explore the riches that are waiting. And the opposite is true - if a subject matter is not presented well it loses any attractiveness and looks like something just to get lost in.

As a classroom teacher I enjoyed every chance to use good educational media to help draw students into the subject I was covering, most often creating that media myself. As a filmmaker it is my goal to produce the most engaging and entertaining educational experience possible. I think the best argument I can offer is this. We have had storytellers (entertainers) since the beginning. These gifted people have always had our eyes, ears and hearts. Why not use the same tools and talents to give our children the things we believe is most important – a good education?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Award Winning Bugs

Our last film was a half hour educational comedy called BugWorld. Like UG3 it was a blend of 2D, Stop-Motion, and 3D animation, along with traditional puppetry; and it covered the realm of insects, arachnids and other creepy crawlies. BugWorld made its premier at the Los Angeles International Children’s Film Festival and won a Best Film Award from Kids First – the largest film organization in the world for children and teens.  Below are a couple of segments from the film.