Dead Poets Society: Teaching Strategies and Film Analysis

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In 1989, the film Dead Poets Society was released in the United States starring Robin Williams; this cinematographic production’s intention was to make people reflect upon the different ways of teaching particular subjects. Thus, this leads to wonder about the various teaching strategies that can be useful and adequate in education, specially those which involve motivation and inspiration. That being said, the project will consist of a theoretical part, which attempts to explore possible effective methodologies in education and an illustrative part, which presents an example of an alternative technique to teach a specific subject in the film. Hence, a question to bear in mind throughout the paper is: how important are motivation and inspiration in the effectiveness of teaching and, therefore, learning, as showed in the film? Moreover, some of the sources used include the “Top 5 strategies for motivating students” by Wilcox, “Effective teaching strategies” by the University of Leicester, “Method of Teaching English Literature” by Lewis and personal experience in educational contexts. In its whole, the paper aims to present the variety of strategies that can be applied in education, providing an example by means of a cinematographic production, leading to the conclusion that inspiration and motivation are key factors in education.

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There is an increasingly widespread opinion nowadays that the role played by motivation and inspiration in the majority of educational contexts is secondary. Thus, it is urgent to start appreciating teaching strategies that involve the aforementioned characteristics in order to apply them to real educational contexts. Obviously, although not exclusively, these non-traditional methods would be highly useful for subjects that are generally thought to be more complicated to understand. In order to show a practical example of a possible effective method of teaching poetry, an analysis of the film Dead Poets Society will be carried out. Current methodologies of teaching are lacking effective strategies to make a beneficial impact on students and therefore, it is required to incorporate new inspirational and motivational strategies in all education systems; this will be exemplified by the analysis of the sophisticated techniques that are presented in the cinematographic production Dead Poets Society, allowing to acknowledge the need of innovative methods in order to make teaching effective and improve students’ engagement in the learning of varied subjects.

There still exist many difficulties and traditional methodologies that hinder the possibility to accomplish an effective and valuable/profitable education. Even from an early age, children are taught more methods to improve their memorisation (short-term memory emphasis) than to hold relevant information (long-term memory emphasis). On the basis of experience as a trained student, it is crucial to reflect upon the inner self and the concepts and ideas that one has learnt, thinking about their usefulness and if they are going to remain as part of our knowledge. The fact that many education systems still promote and foster memorisation as the perfect method to learn something has to be taken seriously; it might lead to the thought that the capacities or abilities that define one person are conditioned by a mark, and therefore, students go to school to pass subjects and not to learn and although it seems hard to express, it is unpleasantly true. In this aspect, the role played by vocation is to be taken into account since it influences students and the environment that is created in the class; the teacher, as well as the students, are going to be uncomfortable and eager to finish classes since the only motivation of the teacher is earn money and the students end up not learning properly because they are not inspired by the teacher.

Remarkably, it is important to emphasise the fact that there exist innovative strategies that lead to motivation, which can be perceived as essential to increase student’s interest in different subjects, and inspiration, by which the teacher is likely to become a role model for students. These factors bring richness or make the difference to the classes in which they are involved, leading students towards a stimulating environment. Therefore, the increase of their interest and curiosity in those subjects whose first impression is not favourable and that they may find tedious to follow is going to play a crucial role. Among the techniques that help improve teaching in general, there are the exaltation of improvement through arduous work by congratulating students and providing them with evaluation; the development of a harmonious and close relationships between students and teachers by getting to know them personally and sharing experiences with each other; the promotion of collaboration between learners by improving their sense of community through group work; the pursuit of specific goals by supporting them even if they are struggling; and finally, teachers becoming an inspiration figure by making a long-term impact on student’s lives, motivating them and representing a successful role model. Nonetheless, there are effective strategies that could be even more specific; the University of Leicester (n.d.) provides quite a great number of examples on how teachers could make their classes useful and interesting, among these there are included dynamic learning, which consists of “learning and teaching methods which put the student in charge of their own learning through meaningful activities”; combined learning, that is mixture of conventional and online learning, which allows “the student to have more control over the time, pace and style of their learning”; or autonomous learning, in which “students themselves facilitate their learning.” And what will be the response of students to this kind of strategies that are original and creative? Mostly, they will notice that these approaches attempt to boost their confidence in all fields of study, to have a peaceful and respectful environment in class and to promote a close relationship between teacher and students.

Simultaneously, so as to show a visual example of how motivation and inspiration contribute to an all-round education, the film Dead Poets Society will be examined minutely. In general, one of the areas of study that students find notoriously difficult and hard to master and that is included within the field of literature, is poetry. Hence, the teaching methodology presented in this film provides a fascinating example on how a complicated area, as it is poetry, could be taught and also, the difference that the figure of a vocational teacher can make. Consequently, it is virtually essential to begin the analysis with the presentation of teachers from other subjects to contrast them with the teacher of literature and highlight the poor example they are setting. The very first day of class, the teacher of chemistry demands the students for homework right away, the same way as the teacher of trigonometry begins the class talking about penalisations: the role of these characters, along with some claims throughout the film, tell us that the most important things in education are tradition and discipline, nothing else matters for them, they just impose strict rules not taking into account if students are learning or not. Nonetheless, as Charlton M. Lewis (1903) stated in his article titled “Method of Teaching English literature”, “the quality of our knowledge is more important to us than the quantity” and this is a statement that all people who educate should bear in mind in order not to act like some of the characters portrayed on the film.

Concerning the subject of attention, literature, it is remarkable to mention that we are going to see two contrastive roles, the good teacher in opposition to the bad teacher (John Keating versus Headmaster Gale Nolan), being the former the illustrative example that is going to be analysed in detail and the latter just another example of traditional teacher that sticks to conventional methods and that does not care about effectiveness. Therefore, the most important part of the paper is the analysis of the classes of John Keating that will be carried out along with the consideration of some of the techniques that have previosly been presented. Interestingly, the first day, he arrived whistling and encouraged students to do the same and he made reference to one of Walt Whitman’s poems stimulating students to call him Captain instead of Mister Keating, and the fact is that he is introducing indirectly a famous line from a famous poem and making students remember it by repetition allows to start appreciating how innovative his strategy is going to be. Additionally, he is starting to slowly build a harmonious and close relationship between him and his students by sharing his life experience. In the second lesson, it can be observed the importance of a peaceful environment in their process of learning: they were all outside the class and he encouraged them to read the poem “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” by Robert Herrick in that setting, surrounded by nature, and there, Keating explained the meaning of the poem and introduced concepts that it had, such as carpe diem.

Therefore, continuing with the in-depth analysis of this teacher’s method, one of the most significant moments of the film is when Keating was trying to make the students feel inspired by former students, telling them that they are their legacy and obliquely encouraging them to admire them and follow their example. Accordingly, the next class is the most illustrative one to understand the methodology used by this English Literature teacher: he did not agree with the way the book explained how to understand poetry (metre, rhyme, figures of speech) and he highlighted that they will learn to think for themselves and in this way, he is stimulating them to pursuit specific goals and increasing their interest in which may be a tedious matter. Later on in that same class, he pointed out that people do not read and write poetry just because it is attractive, but because the nature of human beings is filled with passion: by means of his discourse about poetry, he is encouraging them to be free thinkers and this moment is the depiction of the long-term impact that this figure will make on their lives.

Further, the very next day, because of the insistence of students, Keating told them that he was a member of a club to read poetry from famous authors named “Dead Poets Society” , explaining to them that they did not only met to read poems, but that they let poetry work as magic, and this sole fact is enough to grow the interest and curiosity of his students, that is to say, the teacher served as their inspiration figure to create their own “Dead Poets Society”, becoming like that Keating their role model. Moreover, unconsciously by active and autonomous learning, they were beginning to approach poetry by reading it aloud in their meetings; definitely, they were learning more about this area of literature by themselves because the teacher and his actions had encouraged their active participation. Besides, another important lesson of this teacher was that, even when they were reading something from Shakespeare, they had to remember that they must always look at things in different ways since they had to strife to find their own voice and to master this, he asked them to compose a poem, basically praising their hard work and the results that it will have.

Regarding his relationship with students, there is a scene in which their closeness becomes more apparent because he helped students build their self-confidence, explaining to them the dangers of conformity while they were taking a stroll, and telling them to trust their beliefs since these are unique with the prime purpose of boosting their confidence, as mentioned before. Ultimately, the most endearing scene, where all that have been presented is summarised, is the meeting of Keating with one of the students, where Keating stated that he loved teaching and he did not want to be anywhere else, showing that, apart from being a good advisor, his profession is vocational, and it can be concluded that there is nothing more enriching than feeling that a person who is transmitting his knowledge loves how he feels when doing it.

Taking all this information into consideration, there is always room for improvement with regard to teaching and the different methodologies that contribute to its effectiveness. Consequently, a set of distinct and useful strategies has been showed, and it has been examined to what extent motivation and inspiration are basic in the process of teaching and learning and the role that the these techniques and the teacher plays in these cases, specially focusing on complicated subjects. And in order to offer a representative example, there has been an examination of the successful film Dead Poets Society that shows how innovation and originality affect the effectiveness of education and how the role of a vocational teacher embodies the perfect example of an inspirational figure who motivates and encourages students’ engagement in the development of their knowledge.  

References

  1. Haft, S. (Producer), Witt, P.J. (Producer), Thomas, T. (Producer), & Peter Weir (Director). (1989). Dead Poets Society [Motion Picture]. United States: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution. 
  2. Lewis, C.M. (1903). Method of Teaching English Literature. The University of Chicago Press, 11(3), 187-199. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/1075357?seq=2#metadata_info_tab_contents 
  3. University of Leiscester. (n.d.). Effective Teaching Strategies. Retrieved October 10, 2019, from https://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/lli/developing-learning-and-teaching/enhance/strategies 
  4. Wilcox, L. (2014). Top 5 Strategies for Motivating Students. Retrieved October 8, 2019, from https://www.nbpts.org/top-5-strategies-for-motivating-students/ 
07 April 2022

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