July 12, 2021

No. 7 — Teaching like Scorsese

“The number one thing that characterizes any director, any good director, is that he has to make people feel that they can try anything”. This is a quote by Robert de Niro about what it's like to work with Martin Scorsese. As I fell into the internet rabbit hole of movies, stories, directors, and techniques, I learned that there’s something about film directors (particularly about good directors ) that we can apply to education. 

There are many things that make Martin Scorsese one of the greatest directors in the history of film. The way he builds flawed characters, links camera movement to emotion, makes energetic editing decisions…  But there’s something in particular that he does that separates him from many others. 

Someone who spent two days working on The Wolf Of Wall Street reported that: The strangest part of working on the film was seeing Scorsese do his thing. For the most part, Scorsese is not on set, preferring to watch the footage from an undisclosed location far removed from the shoot. This somehow sums up what the role of a good director is: even though they may not appear in front of the camera, they determine the creative vision of the film and make sure all the other variables are in place to build something transformative. The director assembles the team, communicates its vision to the crew, guides the actors, and builds an atmosphere where they can succeed, and then (and here’s the good part), then, he steps back. He removes himself from the shoot. 

Teachers as performers and entertainers

Recently, some of the most recognized cohort-based course instructors have talked about the future of education and about how great teachers should be entertainers. 

They’ll create distinguished, one-of-a-kind personal brands, fueled by intense fandom. They’ll speak with chromatic energy [...] and they’ll be prolific, polarizing, and personal. (David Perell)

[...] teachers are "multi-talented entertainers": they invest huge amounts in production values, coaches and stylists, multimedia content production, studios and props. As I've said elsewhere, teaching is a performance medium. (Tiago Forte)

You are 50% instructor, 50% entertainer. You are performing for a group. You might need to exaggerate some elements to make sure they translate onto the screen. This is similar to public speaking advice about moving your body and using the full stage [...] (Wes Kao). 

It’s true, teachers have the challenge of tapping into students’ interests, and to keep them awake and engaged. But they are not actors running a show. The problem of thinking that way is that it assumes that learning is about the teacher and not the students. 

What matters isn’t how well a teacher holds students’ attention; it's whether a teacher knows enough about how learning happens to stop being the center of attention. - Alfie Kohn

Why does being in the spotlight does not work

“Putting on a show” fails because “telling” is ineffective at producing significant change in human behavior. According to John Dewey (who wrote Democracy and Education), this has two explanations:
  1. Usually teachers presume experience in their students that the students have not actually had. Most lectures attempt to organize, draw conclusions from, make connections within, and in general reflect upon some body of experience. The problem is, these lectures do not provide that experience.
  2. The “reflecting” is done by the lecturer, not by the student. 
Picture Scorsese giving teenager Leonardo DiCaprio a lesson on how to act. He can step in front of the cameras with his awe-inspiring command of the history of acting and film (while the whole crew stares, astonished), but 1) he can’t presume that Leo knows how to step into character or how to do something similar to x actor in x role. And 2) Leo won’t be able to reflect or improve upon it, if he doesn’t do it himself. 
What Scorsese does (and what more teachers should do), is having heart-to-hearts with his actors and really getting at who they are and how he can help them bring their best to the piece. He builds a foundation from which both plot and character can spring. In other words, he creates a framework where actors can flourish by themselves, and then he removes himself from the picture. And he does all this in closed-door rehearsals; never by standing in the spotlight and putting on a show. 
In the words of Leo himself: “Marty is an incredible collaborator. Is incredible how much he respects the process with other actors… Your performance is paramount to him and the film is ultimately structured around what you do as an actor and what he brings out. He keeps talking about plot being insufficient to him when he does a movie. It’s about the characters, it’s about the people... and that’s a process that needs to be nurtured. It’s a talent in itself because it’s difficult to get us as performers to feel comfortable on set and be our best..” 

Teachers as Directors

Good teachers are not good actors and great teaching does not entail putting on a great performance. Good teachers are more like good directors: they prepare a space where students can thrive. After all, they’re the ones who should be running the show. For the experienced ones, you'll notice this is an act of destroying your ego. By removing yourself from the center stage, students develop a capacity to inquire as a group without relying on your authority. They become independent and autonomous thinkers. And most importantly, they make discoveries on their own, which boosts their own confidence. (I've written about this before here).

Jack Black in School of Rock, literally at the back of the classroom (not the front). 

Becoming a good Director

As a teacher, the alternative to having the spotlight is to 1) avoid the natural temptation to teach through telling, and b) provide students with instructive experiences  and provoke them to reflect on those experiences. But how do you do it? There are three things that Scorsese can teach us about that:

1. Build Trust
The massive trust Scorsese's actors place in him, and the level of enjoyment they get out of working with him, is a result of the director offering them his own trust and creating an environment where they can trust themselves.

You can build trust within your students by setting apart intentional time for conversation, being open and vulnerable, forming “out-of-classroom” connections, and letting them know that you, too, are in the process of learning.

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Build trust within your students and guide them to trust the process.

2. Facilitate risk-taking and experimentation 
Much of what makes movies what they are comes from the actors and Scorsese knows that pretty well. According to Sarah Chandler, he’s aware that revelation, surprise and risk come from the complexities of people and that’s why he would never lift the weight off an actor's shoulders and place it on flashy costumes, firefights, or CGI. Carrying that weight is the only superhuman feat he's really interested in.

Let your students know that they’re allowed (even encouraged) to fail. This teacher has a large quote on the wall above the whiteboard that says: “In this class, failure is not an option. It’s a requirement.” You can also model failure, provide immediate feedback, and use a growth mindset.

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Students are most likely to think when an obstacle arises. Let them find their way around the obstacle and continue toward their goal.  

3. Welcome improvisation
Scorsese loves in-the-moment discovery and experimentation. “More important than acting is the ability of actors to "live in" the process of existing. They can be comfortable doing what feels right” (De Niro, again, who acted out an iconic line in Taxi Driver that wasn't even in the script). 

When offering a learning experience, leave space for improvisation. You’d be surprised by what your students are able to do when they gather the courage to be off-script.

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After sharing a clear objective for a project, listen more than you speak, ask more than you suggest, and welcome doubt and uncertainty.

Teaching is not about what we teach

Teaching is not about what we teach. It's about what students learn. Like Scorsese, who trusts his actors as confidantes in the execution of the film, trust your students in the execution of their projects. Communicate your vision, guide them, and remove yourself from the shoot. 

I'm Stefy. I write a newsletter about designing and facilitating learning experiences. Have some thoughts on this? I’d love to hear from you – ✉️drop me a note!

About Stefy

✨Hi! I'm Stefy. Here's where I follow my curiosities and write mostly about learning. Have some thoughts on this? I’d love to hear from you – ✉️ drop me a note or DM me on Twitter