Lessons From Captain Kirk
Movies like Dead Poets Society, Stand and Deliver, and Mr. Holland’s Opus definitely deliver in their attempts to provide inspiration and encouragement for teachers looking to be bold, out-of-the-box thinkers who will do anything for their students. But have you ever watched a TV show or movie that had nothing to do with education, yet it taught you a lesson or completely resonated with you as a teacher or administrator? This recently happened to me when I watched an oldie but a goodie, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
Wait, what? Star Trek? Seriously?
Stay with me. You don’t have to be a Trekkie to appreciate this.
Most of us, even if not fans of Star Trek, are familiar with or have at least heard of Captain Kirk. Kirk was the captain of the Starship Enterprise, leading his crew on countless adventures to explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no man had gone before. He was creative, confident (some would say arrogant), and didn’t always follow orders. But he got results.
A little background before showing you the clip from the movie that got my attention. Before becoming a captain, Kirk was given a training exercise while in Starfleet Academy called the Kobayashi Maru. The Kobayashi Maru was given to all Starfleet cadets to test them in a no-win scenario, to see how they would react in a problem situation where there was no solution. It was a test that couldn’t be passed, a game one couldn’t win. Except Kirk did. Watch the clip below.
As educators, I think we all need to be more like Captain Kirk. In the simulation, Kirk changed the conditions of the test because he didn’t like to lose. He wasn’t content with being told he couldn’t win. He didn’t accept the fact that he had to lose.
Here’s my point -- In this portion of dialogue, what if we equated losing to students not learning? Watch the clip again, but this time, when Kirk says he doesn’t like to lose, replace it in your mind with the phrase “I don’t like it when students don’t learn.” When he says he doesn’t believe in a no-win scenario, replace that with “I don’t believe students can’t learn.” Take a moment to rewatch the clip through this lens.
If students aren’t learning, we need to change the conditions of the “test.” That’s not cheating. That’s doing what’s best for kids. For our students’ sake, we can’t afford to keep teaching or leading a certain way simply because that’s the way it’s always been done or that’s what the Teacher’s Edition suggests. If it’s not working for all students, we need borrow a few words from Dr. Phil and ask ourselves, “How’s that working for ya?” Accepting parameters that limit student learning is not acceptable. We need to be willing to think outside the box, to do whatever it takes to ensure all students learn. We can’t be afraid to change the conditions of the test.
So what might changing “test” conditions look like?
Maybe it looks like not giving the same assignment to every student.
Maybe it looks like asking yourself the question, “Why am I even giving this assignment?”
Maybe it looks like allowing students to take an actual test more than once, giving them the ability to learn from and fix their mistakes.
Maybe it looks like providing students with the opportunity to demonstrate learning in new and engaging ways (e.g. creating a video with iMovie or Adobe Spark, building a model in Minecraft) rather than a traditional test, quiz, or term paper.
Maybe it starts with simply asking students what helps them learn best.
What if teachers and administrators embraced the mindset of Kirk and made his three statements their mantra?
“I don’t like to lose.”
Translation: I hate it when students don’t learn.
“I don’t believe in a no-win scenario.”
Translation: I won’t accept the notion that all students can’t learn.
“I changed the conditions of the test.”
Translation: I’ll do whatever it takes for students to learn.
Let’s be like Captain Kirk and boldly take our students where they’ve never gone before.
Like the idea of relating entertainment to education? Be sure to check out Weston Kieschnick’s podcast Teaching Keating as Weston and his wife, Molly, use your favorite movies and TV shows as a vehicle to reflect on instructional practice. It's a great listen!
Brent has worked in the field of education as a teacher and administrator for 25 years. He is currently Principal of Alta Murrieta Elementary School in Murrieta, California. Read more about Brent here.
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