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Teaching Styles in the Movies #2: Mary Poppins and the Montessori Method

‘Where are those kids?’

Like most people, I don’t often watch BBC3. It appears to be a Madame Tussaud’s waxwork imitation of ITV4+1, without the charming adverts and endoscopic examinations of Katie Price’s entrails. Never mind: at least it served up a decent New Year’s film without adverts yesterday. Can there be a teacher more emblematic, more beloved than Mary Poppins, the eponymous heroine of what is, let’s face it, the universe’s most charming  movie? Apart from Mr Sands in Alan Clarke’s 1979 masterpiece Scum, possibly. So how does her teaching measure up with the baseline of ideal practise, the OfSTED inspection? Here are a few highlights of her observed lesson.

1. She practises the Montessori Method. Obviously as a home tutor (or ‘Nanny’ as they call her; perhaps ‘Governess’ sounded too formal) she can’t be scrutinised in a whole class environment, but some things are still glaringly obvious. For a start, she believes that children are the best guides to their own education; we learn this when she responds to the children’s’ (Jane and Michael, two haunted looking wraiths who appear to be forty year-old dwarfs) job specification (which is, somewhat unconventionally torn in pieces and sent up the chimney. Or is that chim-chim-eney? Perhaps the TES jobs pages were full). They apply for, and get what they want, rather than the more formal, didactic requirements of their father, the wonderfully repressed Mr Banks. He works in a Bank, you see. Dickens couldn’t have named him more clearly. I’m surprised Mary Poppins wasn’t called Mary Teacher or something.

This clearly shows that she believes that children should be at the centre of their own education, or as Maria Montessori puts it, ‘the child …[has]… an inner natural guidance for his or her own perfect self-directed development’. In other words, children know best how they learn, and need only be left alone to do so, which is so fabulously, demonstrably wrong, I’m amazed that Mary Poppins isn’t Tazered and left in a dumpster by her pupils. However, once accepting that, amongst other requirements, a teacher should be what the children want her to be (including the rather worrying specification that she should be ‘rosy cheeked- never cross’, which the last time I checked, wasn’t on the entrance requirements for the Institute of Education. Yet.), she then performs a classic teacher switch, and proceeds to hustle them relentlessly. Which indicates that perhaps her whole Progressive Education shtick is just a ruse to get them on side. Go Mary!

2. She’s a master of interview techniques. For a start, she manages to convince Mr Banks that she’s indispensable, even to the point of getting him to believe he’s already hired her when in fact, all he’s done is wipe his forehead with a hanky for five minutes, look up the chimney, and question his own existence. Brilliant. Best of all, when asked for references, she just says, ‘I never provide references.’ Even more brilliant! Doesn’t bode well for her Criminal Records Bureau check, though. What’s she hiding? Probably the fact that she evened the odds in her favour a bit with the mysterious aid of an East wind that dramatically blows her rival candidates away, although it does so in a charming and painless manner. Well, they did look old and cross. Not a rosy cheek between them, unless they were hiding something in their pantaloons.

3. She’s industrious. She has LITERALLY walked in the door and bamboozled old Banks, when she marches up to the children’s breakout area (‘bedroom’ they used to call it) and starts with the first lesson; tidying up. Is this a starter? Probably not- it sounds like a main lesson activity, although she has the decency to preface it with an aim: once you find the fun in any job, the work’s a game! It would be better if she displayed it on a whiteboard throughout, but we can’t have everything. And of course by the end of the first lesson the children are so enamoured of tidying up, that little boy/ man Michael wants to keep doing it. Perhaps he wouldn’t be so keen if tidying up involved more than clicking your bloody fingers, but there we go: clear evidence of learning. Outstanding progress, certainly.

3. She uses a variety of teaching methods and styles; for a start, she practises a mixed (balanced?) curriculum that involves trips to the Park, although as with Jackie Chan before her, there is little evidence of a Risk Assessment, so it’s impossible to say if she’s properly considered the perils of, say, jumping into a magical chalk drawing with a strange man, while taking the children around what appears to be an unmanned (and unfenced) petting zoo. The situation becomes even more serious when we see that she takes them from a white knuckle ride carousel (Risk Factor 4: Very Low- some danger of minor bumps and nausea) straight to…er, a race track and a fox hunt (Risk Factor…about a hundred). There isn’t a seat belt or safety measure in the world that would get that one past a middle leader’s desk. Unless you wrote a very convincing proposal.

‘I’m orf. Tuesday, innit?’

The final nail in the coffin is the fact that, immediately upon entering the pavement-jolly, she seems to abandon the kids in favour of flirting with dear old Bert. Poor, poor Bert. Not only does he seem to be the victim of some kind of oesophageal spasm whenever he talks, but his ardour is endlessly thwarted by the perpetually pious and virginal Ms Poppins, who crushes his advances with cold-comfort compliments. ‘You’d never press your advantage, Bert,’ she says, as Bert realises he’s entered the Hellish world of the Friend-Zone. Bert’s wondering when Truly Scrumptious is going to come along and let him do some chim-chim’nying of his own.

So overall, the trip, while supporting the Children’s enjoyment (after all, Every Child Matters. Thank God they wrote a directive to tell us that: previously we’d imagined they were only good for baiting wolf-traps), she didn’t pay sufficient attention to their safety, which after all is priority number one in the classroom and beyond. Along with all the other number one priorities, like ‘Rapport, ‘Fun’, ‘Engagement’, and apparently ‘Passion.’ ‘Learning’ is bound to be in there somewhere. I hope.

4. She writes her own contract. ‘I’ll stay until the wind changes,’ she tells them. Which she does. Unconventional; a fixed period of set terms is more usual, but a contract can take almost any form, I suppose.

5. She teaches them the real value of tuppence. By appealing to their tender emotions, she persuades them that money, rather than being invested (‘frugally’, remember) should be given to homeless people who ambiguously, want to ‘feed the birds’, in an apparently endless regression of infinite kindness. Perhaps the pigeons then help out the fleas, or something. This of course flies in the face of Banks’ wishes, who unsurprisingly (and in a somewhat unsavoury manner) takes them to his bank (her idea again) in order to curry favour with his bosses and simultaneously get them to join the miserable, endless line of cynical, penny-pinching misers who live for material accumulation, i.e. like him. What a b*stard. Serves him right that they predictably show him up in royal style, and cause a run on the Bank of England (accompanied by much red-faced coppers blowing whistles and shouting ‘ordah!’). Where’s Mary Poppins in the middle of this maelstrom that she created? Day off, guv. Tuesday, innit?

I particuarly enjoyed the fact that, when they get lost, they end up in the bowels of the East End of London, surely the last word in depravity and innocence lost. There’s a dog, you see. A big barking dog. Actually, it looks quite charming. Luckily, Old Bert, a man they’ve met once, and an itinerant jack-of-all-trades, catches them and takes them home. Upon which their mother, who by this point is clearly going for the Mother of the Year award, asks Bert (or ‘You, Sir’ as she calls him) to look after them for a bit, because she has ‘a meeting’. She certainly does- in a pub, with a man called Jack Daniels. Poor kids. Where’s their live-in tutor? Ah yes. Tuesday.

6. Ultimately, she supports the parents. When she realises that her canny meddling has led to the re-establishment of family bonds (and worryingly, a temporary loss of the main breadwinner’s livelihood- it would have been interesting to see how Mrs Banks, the apparently absentee mother- i.e. she’s a drinker- and her husband would pay for that lovely Regency House. Or nannies, for that matter. I sense the green shoots of another children’s classic: Oliver) she leaves. The wind changes, you see. Of course the wind’s volition had been anticipated by old Admiral Boom and his undisclosed live-in Cabin Boy. They were simpler times, and presumably they just both missed curling up in Hammocks together.

‘Er…I saved yer some chalk.’

The danger with this kind of inspirational, personality driven teacher, is that they are often very hard acts to follow. Not only that, but they usually flagrantly flout whole school policies in such a way as to erode the pupil’s respect for other teachers that do employ such well-worn methods. Systems are there for a reason, I’m told, and for that reason, Mary Poppins will have to be asked to leave. Send for the line of crowish shrews that the East Wind blew away in the first act; there’s a job vacancy.

Except that she’s already gone: left before she was pushed, I suspect, or at least before the GTC could get their teeth into her. Meanwhile, poor Bert’s strapped himself into the One Man Band suit again.

Mary Poppins- Heroes of Education #2. We salute you.

*No Cockneys were harmed in the writing of this blog. Or indeed, used in the making of the film.

Teaching styles in the movies #1: Mr Han, The Karate Kid (2010 remake)

‘True wisdom…comes from LEA, not from within.’

I’ve been meaning to write about the diverse ways in which teaching is presented in popular media. How better to combine two of my passions: films and pedagogy? Apart from playing films in classes (or ‘multimedia texts’ as my lesson plans refer to them) of course. And what better place to start than with Jackie Chan’s crowd-pleasing turn as the Mr Miyagi for the Bieber generation? Harold Zwart’s franchise reboot moves the coming-of-age fairy tale from California to China, and replaces Ralph Macchio’s buck-toothed American everyteen with Will Smith’s terrifyingly precocious Mini-me, Jaden. But the teaching premise remains the same: unskilled innocent with a heart learns martial arts in order to smash evil, win a girl’s heart, and along the way discovers that in order to become a man, the first person you have to conquer is yourself. You know; that sort of thing. The update keeps its cool, preserves the main motifs that made the original a success, and doesn’t fumble the casting, giving us a child star who succeeds in not looking like a hateful brat, and a Sensei father figure, nailed by the inimitable Chan.

The relationship between the two is the heart of this film: the cocky, wilful, egoistic child (Dre) who thinks he knows Kung-Fu, and the inscrutable (yeah, I said it) Obi-Wan who offers to show him the path to killer combos and death blows (Mr Han). So what kind of teacher is he?

‘Still want to text your mum?’

Well let’s look at the evidence, as an Ofsted inspector might say. We first see him as a maintenance man, and in fact when Dre meets him for the first time he’s eating his noodles, looking miserable and refusing to answer a kid knocking on his door. Much like any other teacher at lunch time. When he finally comes round to fix the hot water (perhaps supply work was a bit thin on the ground, and he was moonlighting in between contacts), he watches Dre feebly imitating the Karate moves he sees on TV; like any teacher unable to bear watching some snotty eleven year old dance about like an idiot and think he’s the bee’s knees, he calls to him. And when he predictably gets ignored by the bossy man-child, he does what every real teacher can only dream of: he throws something at him. Granted, it’s just a toothpaste tube lid, but can there be a teacher in the land who watched this and didn’t, at least in their hearts, punch the air and go, ‘Yes!’ then wiping away a tear of joy? Better still, Dre rubs his neck and says, ‘Did you just throw this at me?’ Which in a UK classroom would be the first step on a long and torturous road that led to an expulsion meeting with a GTC disciplinary panel. Here, Han just ignores him and tells him how to use the hot water. We already know this guy is going to be like Rocky, and I’m screen printing T-shirts with his face on the front like Che Guevara.

And we haven’t even got to the teaching yet. Dre, realising that his girlish capoeira will just get him spannered by the local hoodlums, appeals to Han for lessons. You heard me. The kid asked the teacher to teach him. The motivation couldn’t be clearer: don’t get spannered. It is unlikely that any of your students will ever see differential calculus in  the same light, unless the bad lads in your manor are considerably more mathematical than normal. When Mr Han takes him to the Dojo to resolve his bullying problem peacefully, he fails spectacularly, to the point that Dre is now committed to entering an amateur ass-kicking tournament, so he can be systematically bullied in public by a queue of kids from the LSU, voluntarily. The motivation to learn Kung-Fu has now become considerably more acute. Could any reward system of merit stickers and stars provide quite such an incentive?

Better still, Han says, ‘No’. The right to refuse to teach is one that only exists in British teachers’ fantasies; for very good reasons, too, otherwise about a third of the population would find themselves with a lot more time on their hands between the ages of 4 and 16. But this is China. And also Han doesn’t work for anyone. No, he’s more of a self-employed tutor, operating out of his house/ car shop. It is unlikely that Mr Han has ever seen a memo from the DfES, let alone sat in on an INSET and wept as somebody with a Power point banged on about Learning Hats. It is also unlikely that Ofsted would smile on the teacher repairing a car in the same classroom as the students.

‘Bad news, kid: the Student Council’s been disbanded.’

But then, there’s a lot that Ofsted might frown upon with Han’s pedagogy. Let’s cut past the obvious lack of professional credentials, the implicit unavailability of his Criminal Records Bureau check (which, given his record of careless driving and manslaughter could complicate his recruitment into the state sector), and go straight to his teaching. This is where he really puts gas in the engine.

Not for Mr Han the petty three-part lesson, no-sir. The classic ‘Wipe on/ wipe off’ motif has been replaced by a far more modern, ‘Take your jacket off/ put your jacket on’ mantra. That’s it: straight into a main lesson activity. Where, you might ask, are the lesson aims? Where is the title of the lesson? How is the student supposed to put the lesson into context with the rest of his learning? Answers there are none. Pick the bloody jacket up. Put it on. Repeat. I’m off for some noodles and a fag, keep it up. Even when Dre challenges the teacher to explain why he’s doing it, all that Mr Han says is, ‘Hmm, something missing. Attitude.’ The poor boy is clearly unable to develop his current content into a cohesive educational entity. How on Earth can he be learning?

Ah, that’s because Mr Han is a sneaky one. Like Miyagi before him, he’s been getting Dre to rehearse Kung-Fu until it becomes part of his muscle memory; at least he’s paying attention to the Kinaesthetic part of Visual/ Auditory/ Kinaesthetic learning. But wait a minute, our internal  Ofsted inspector says, this is repetition! This is rote learning! Mr Han has been forcing poor Dre into mindless, boring drilling and practise, which is clearly contrary to the theme of enjoying every lesson, and engaging students in their learning activities. It is, therefore, clearly not good teaching, despite the fact that it has done exactly what it was intended to do and transformed him into a pint-sized Bruce Lee. Oh dear, that’s his first ‘Unsatisfactory’. It’s not looking good. Perhaps he should have got Dre to work in groups with someone of the same ability, and written a poem about how they felt about Kung-Fu, before demonstrating learning using traffic light cards and lollipops? That would have encouraged independent learning, and also ticked a few boxes for SEAL along the way.

It gets  worse, or better depending on your attitude to educational philosophy. Mr Han takes Dre to a monastery where all kinds of crazy cats are getting their groove on, doing the splits over waterfalls and balancing on vertiginous gargoyles on one leg while snake charming turgid Cobras (because, you know, just doing it on the ground wasn’t quite dangerous and special enough). Wait a minute: a trip? Was a Risk Assessment done? I’d like to see you get ‘balancing on vertiginous gargoyles on one leg while snake charming turgid Cobras’ down to ‘Low Risk’. Risk assess that.

‘No, you can’t have your mobile back.’

And of course, there’s the delicate issue of the pupil teacher ratio. 1:1 is an excellent situation to have, of course, but is it cost effective? And shouldn’t there be some kind of redundancy system, where an exra teacher comes along in case a pupil has to be taken home, or a teacher falls ill? Sorry, Mr Han, but you just haven’t thought this through. And I won’t even mention the train ride home when Dre falls asleep on your lap and you pat him affectionately on the shoulkder blades, because frankly this is an observation, not an expose.

Safety issues continue to feature prominently: the teacher cancels the lessons because ‘too much of a good thing is a bad thing,’ or something; so Dre bunks off to the arcades, taking a G&T student with him. Now that’s the kind of school I want to work in. ‘Sorry kids, but you know what? I’m a bit tired. Half-day.’ Of course, the G&T love interest nearly misses her once-in-a-lifetime chance to get into the Beijing Academy of Music, but that’s what happens when you let kids of mixed ability hang out in a co-educational environment.

(On a side note, her own teachers are remarkably unsympathetic; they appear aloof and tyrannical. They too force drill her remorselessly, although without the charm of Mr Han. Mind you, she does appear to be an Olympic level violinist, so swings and roundabouts really. She really should have been allowed to pick her own instrument, practise when she felt like it, and be allowed to discuss in pairs if there was a better shape for a violin. Now that would have been real learning).

And what happens on the impromptu snow day (although there wasn’t any snow, of course; Mr Han just felt like bashing his car up a bit with a mallet. Who hasn’t?)? Well, he gets smashed and goes postal in his workshop. I think every teacher can recognise the value of letting off some steam from time to time, although most of them keep the sake rampages confined to staff parties and leaving speeches. Then, in perhaps the most touching and also touching unbelievable moments in the movie, Dre, the student, coaxes Mr Han, the teacher, out of his car, his depression and misery using a couple of bamboo poles and the invitation to shadow-box in the yard outside. I can’t imagine something I’d rather do less in the middle of a booze-induced episode of self-hatred and angst, but whatever presses your buttons.

‘Have you been fighting with that nice drunk teacher again?’

Best of all, Dre’s mother, properly worried that her son hasn’t returned home by stupid o’clock, peeks round the corner, sees that her only offspring is tied to a drunk man by two poles, apparently fighting each other, and she smiles, making  a face that I can only describe as ‘Bless them.’ I would have called Child Services on her, if it wasn’t for the fact that she’s a fictional character, and I’m not sure that a country with a huge child labour problem has a lot of call for Social Services.

Eventually Dre makes it, of course (I was going to say SPOILER ALERT! but you’d have to be a bit of a vegetable not to see where the film’s going. But if you’re still struggling, may I suggest a small wager on the bad guy to win?). He enters the tournament- which is essentially an enormous exam-based assessment, with no elements of coursework, which surely discriminates against girls, group workers and more consistent, methodical learners- and slugs his way to the final. But before he does, disaster strikes: he’s nearly crippled by a student from an even more teacher-led school (if you can imagine), and it looks like he’ll have to withdraw from the last match. He begs Mr Han to apply Chinese First Aid to relieve the pain. Perhaps amazingly, Mr Han says, ‘Why do you want to continue? You have nothing more to prove?’ Mr Han is clearly thinking about his A*-C pass rate- his students need to either enter the exams and pass, or be removed entirely in case they damage the statistics. Mr Han is wise, in his way. But Dre convinces him that he’ll do buck the national average and bring home the points for the old school. What a hero of formative assessment.

Satisfying teacher moments in Karate Kid 2010 #322: the ending, where the students of the nasty dojo unanimously leave their unscrupulous, victory obsessed Head Master (he’s even more concerned about league tables. ‘No mercy!’ he makes them scream) and decide to line up in deference to Mr Han, in an outstanding display of Student Voice and tacitly, customer choice. As Michael Gove says, families will send their children to popular schools, institutions will compete, and improve thereby. Evil dojo man will no doubt be reflecting upon that as he counts the loss of student premiums due to the downturn of applicants to his school.

Suggest Mr Han goes into Special Measures.

Mr Han ends the movie with an Ofsted grading of Unsatisfactory. No structure, no aims, no plenary, no agreed classroom rules, no lesson plans, no schemes of work, no visible means of defining progress achieved during lessons…quite frankly, I’d be surprised if he was even allowed to step foot in a British school. He is, however, a world class expert in Kung-Fu, has transformed a skinny runt into the Hero of the Beach, and turned a boy into a young man in the process. I guess he’ll just have to console himself with that, and hope that one day, if he’s lucky, he might be able to scrape a ‘3’ in an observation.

Mr Han: Legends of Teaching #1