Paulo Freire vs. Mister Softee: Two Major Flaws in Waiting for “Superman”

As an educator, I was especially curious to see Waiting for “Superman” and, despite the criticism the documentary garnered from many of my colleagues, was pleased when the movie finally came off the “Very Long Wait” list on my Netflix queue and found its way to my doorstep. Before settling in to view the DVD last night, my wife (who is also a teacher) and I joked that it would make us hate ourselves and each other for the terrible things that we’re doing to the future of America on a daily basis. And while director and co-writer Davis Guggenheim takes great pains throughout the movie to imply that it’s not necessarily teachers that are the problem with American education but the unions to which those teachers belong, the ultimate message I (and presumably many of my colleagues) came away with was one that is clearly anti-school and only slightly less anti-teacher. The problem with the documentary lies with two related issues: a false choice and a misunderstanding of how education works.

The false choice that the movie sets up is best voiced by Geoffrey Canada, an education reformer who appears throughout the film. According to Canada, “Either the kids are getting stupider every year or something is wrong in the education system.” Since it’s unlikely that anyone with a stake in the education debate would argue that “kids are getting stupider,” Canada is only really giving us one option — that something is wrong with the education system.

The trouble with Canada’s argument is that it ignores all of the other factors — some obvious, some less so — that allow for learning to take place: parental engagement and cultural values to name just two. The film sidesteps the first of these issues by following the lives of several students whose parents do, in fact, take an active interest in the education of their children; what the film doesn’t adequately address is the fact that many, many parents lack any combination of the wherewithal, the will, or even the requisite knowledge to participate effectively in their children’s education. All of this, moreover, is a symptom of a larger problem in the United States. Despite all of the lip service we pay to the value of a good education, our actions and patterns of consumption suggest that our real interest is in entertainment.

To put it bluntly, we prefer fun to the hard work involved in becoming educated. As a result, students find themselves in an environment in which they are surrounded by all manner of distraction: television, video games, the internet and its myriad forms of social media. Indeed, one telling scene of the documentary depicts a young student named Anthony lamenting the fact that he’ll need to give up video games if he is lucky enough to get into a public boarding school, for video games are apparently banned at the school. That we see Anthony playing a video game in a subsequent scene draws attention to the fact that a major difference between what he’ll experience if he gets into the school and what he’ll experience if he doesn’t has nothing to do with teachers or what goes on in the classroom. Rather, it has to do with his environment. He needs, among other things, to eliminate the kinds of distractions that video games provide. What’s left unsaid, of course, is that he doesn’t need a boarding school to make him stop playing video games. He needs an adult who is willing to unplug his game system and make him work.

The cultural issues we have with respect to education, however, are not limited to our fascination with amusement. We also have a fundamental misunderstanding of what education is and what it means to be educated. In fact, this fundamental misunderstanding is what causes the second major flaw in Waiting for “Superman.”

Towards the middle of the documentary, we’re told that providing a quality education should be easy: all we need to do is fill classrooms with teachers who can fill their students’ heads with knowledge. While this concept is being explained, what we see onscreen is a cartoon of a teacher opening the skulls of her students and filling them with a substance that’s meant to represent knowledge. Although this vision of how education works might appear to make sense on the surface, it’s actually highly misleading with respect to what education is and how teaching works.

In my experience — and in the experience of many of my colleagues — education is not merely a matter of filling empty heads with knowledge. It’s a matter of engaging students in dialogue — inviting them to come to the table with their own vast stores of experience and their own innate senses of curiosity and to actively take part in their own intellectual growth.

The education theorist Paulo Freire explains this approach to education particularly well in his landmark volume Pedagogy of the Oppressed by making a distinction between what he calls the banking model of education and the problem-posing model. Teachers who “bank” information into their students’ heads are merely loading those students with information, argues Freire; teachers who pose problems allow students to make connections and to understand both the uses and usefulness of what they are learning. This model of learning, of course, is nothing new; the Socratic method offers a variation on this approach.

What’s especially disturbing about the notion that teaching simply involves filling students’ heads with knowledge, however, is that it reflects a consumerist understanding of education, the idea that an education is something to be purchased the same way one might purchase a television or a car. Indeed, the imagery used to explain how easy it should be to educate students suggests that in the public imagination (or at least in the imagination of Waiting for “Superman” animator Sean Donnelly) teachers are interchangeable with Mister Softee drivers: they just pull a lever and fill the heads of their students as if information were as passive and lifeless as frozen custard.

When we view education from this perspective, it only makes sense to (at worst) blame the teachers or (at best) blame the school system. An education, however, is not a consumer good; it’s not just something that one can purchase, and it’s also not something that one can send back. Education demands involvement on the part of teachers, students, and parents, and it also involves a massive investment of time, effort, and resources from everyone involved. The failure of education in America is not, as Waiting for “Superman” would have us believe, simply a failure of our school system. It’s a failure of our culture as a whole to understand and value what it actually means to be educated.

2 thoughts on “Paulo Freire vs. Mister Softee: Two Major Flaws in Waiting for “Superman”

  1. I avoided the flick for the sake of my blood pressure, so I feel a bit foolish about asking this question: they actually used the very model that Freire condemned as a positive representation of education? The graphic really flipped open kids heads like they were containers waiting to be filled? AAARGGGGHHH!

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