Friday, February 24, 2012

The Pixar Story's Lessons for Education

If you haven't seen The Pixar Story, make sure you catch it.  It's on Netflix from now until the end of this month.

The film is wonderful for showing the birth of a new art form, the perseverance of artists like John Lasseter and entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs, the importance of knowing your market (can you imagine if Woody had been a total jerk?), and the marriage of technology and art.  Lasseter says, "the art challenges technology, and the technology inspires the art."  What's most intriguing to me, however, are the strong parallels to education throughout the film.

Curiosity and Passion
John Lasseter describes when he was happiest, during his time at CalArts.  Accepted into the first year of a new program (along with peers like Tim Burton, John Musker, and Brad Bird), John was excited to study under Disney's Nine Old Men, brought out of retirement to run the new character animation program.  Bird says that everyone was "on fire about animation.  We didn't want to leave it at the end of the day.  When the teachers went home, we taught ourselves. "  Musker says, "we all learned as much from each other as we learned from our instructors."  It is clear that the excitement and the passion came from the instructors.  Bird says, "these guys were unbelievable masters of this art form, and yet every single one of them had the attitude of a student."  Is it coincidence that a group of talented, passionate, life-long learners inspired another generation of great artists and inventors, or is it because of their passion, the collaboration, and the inquisitive spirit that we have films like Up and Toy Story today?  Passionate students, involved in inquiry-based learning using new technologies, developed their creativity and higher-order Bloom's skills; this is exactly what I want for our students today.

Photo from
Lasseter loved Disney.  He interned at their theme parks during his summers off and got his first job working for Disney Animation out of college.  He quickly became frustrated after budgets were slashed for his first project, The Fox and the Hound, because it affected the storytelling; there was no money to use the multi-plane dimensional features that made Disney's films successful in previous decades.  The animation department was "stagnant."  John and Glen Keane, were inspired by 1982's Tron, also produced at Disney, which was the first film to use computer-generated special effects.  Lasseter and Keane sat around the latter's apartment dreaming, "what if?"  What if they could produce a film that married the power of the new technology to create three-dimensional environments with the emotion and warmth of hand-drawn characters and movement?

Fear and Tradition
Lasseter pitched and won approval to start work on a film to demonstrate the concept, titled The Brave Little Toaster.  After 8 months, Lasseter was told to present the concept to the head of the studio.  "He walked in with a scowl on his face," John remembers.  "The only reason to do computer animation is if we can do it faster, or cheaper," Lasseter was told.  He was fired virtually on the spot.  "He got let go, he got fired, because honestly the studio didn't know what to do with him."  How many students are frustrated by the artificial constraints put upon them during secondary education, like which resources they are allowed to use for research or in what format their presentations must be?  How many students are discouraged, or underperform, because we don't recognize the value of technology to enable their creativity, to capture their passion, to feed their curiosity?

The new technology was immediately seen as a threat.  "During a lot of the early days, artists were frightened of the computer," remarks Alvy Ray Smith, "because they were under the impression that somehow it was going to take their jobs away.  We spent a lot of time telling people, 'no, it's just a tool.  It doesn't do the creativity.'  There was this fear, it was everywhere."  Disney allowed an incredible talent and groundbreaking artist to leave (kicked him out, really) because they were afraid of the consequences of his vision.  How many of our faculty are afraid (unjustifiably) that they will be replaced by computers?  How many fear being unable to keep up, and allow their fear to close their minds about the power of technology?  I was told recently by a colleague whom I respect, after a demonstration about the power of Twitter and Diigo for professional development, that she was "not interested, for any purpose."  I've heard of faculty who ban eReaders from their classrooms because they aren't made of paper.  More constraints, more fear.

Creativity and Flexibility
Meanwhile, Ed Catmull, after acquiring a Ph.D. in computer graphics, was hired by the New York Institute of Technology to "make computer graphics usable in film making."  Alex Schure, the president of New York Tech, said "we were creating a revolution, and the older techniques were really going to [become] passé.  We were impacting the conventional industry."  Schure could see the power of Catmull's disruption, and gave him the freedom and support to turn his ideas into reality.  Catmull began working with Industrial Light and Magic, and after Lasseter was let go by Disney, Catmull hired him to work with the technology folks at ILM.  This team later became Pixar (with some funding from Steve Jobs) and went on to revolutionize the industry.  Will our schools be like Disney, afraid to embrace change and subsequently be left behind when the rug is pulled out from under us?  Or will we be like New York Tech, adapting to the times in which we live and riding a wave of innovation and promise?

Change came to Disney in the end, despite the early protestations of the technophobes.  However, by the time Disney bought Pixar in 2006, it was Disney Animation that was in trouble and Pixar that was the star.  As the saying goes, "first they ignore you, then they mock you, then they fight you, and then you win."  Wouldn't it be great if edtech could skip the middle?  I'd rather not rage a war with my colleagues over the demonstrated, well-researched benefits of teaching with technology.  Instead, I'd like to figure out how to open their minds to the possibilites.

One bonus story: Andrew Stanton (writer/director of WALL-E among others) tells a story about how he was unprepared for the new technological age into which he landed coming right out of college.  "I had never used a computer, never even done any word processing."  Are we graduating students who will spend their time with us learning to use outdated tools (pencil, paper, encyclopedias) only to enter the "real world" unprepared for the jobs that await them?

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