Film series profiles visionaries in 21st-century education

The film series highlights a dozen innovative and compelling school-reform leaders from around the world.

The nonprofit Pearson Foundation hopes to start conversations and get people thinking about educational innovation with a new film series that profiles remarkable people and their accomplishments in school reform.

“We know we aren’t going to change minds entirely, but we want minds to be changed a little bit,” said Stephen Brown, a contractor who manages and produces all the films created by the foundation.

“That’s why we say in our introduction to this [project] that we want to ‘nudge’ the conversation a little bit. And, if that’s all we do, then I think we’ve actually accomplished what we want to accomplish. Because there are a lot of people on the fence. Just a little nudge could push them over.”

The film series, called “A 21st Century Education,” highlights a dozen innovative and compelling school-reform leaders from around the world. The series was produced by the Mobile Learning Institute (MLI), a co-funded effort by Nokia and the Pearson Foundation.

MLI helps students in the United States and internationally use computers and digital-arts technologies to tell stories about themselves and their communities. The initiative also conducts professional development workshops and hosts leadership summits for school administrators.

MLI wants the audience for its “21st Century Education” film series to be inspired by stories such as that of David T.C. Ellis. He rose from the streets of St. Paul, Minn., and had a recording deal with pop-music sensation Prince, a Minneapolis native, but what Ellis really loved was helping urban youths graduate from high school. He created Hip Hop High to invite dropouts back to school to rap, write, produce, and perform.

“It’s about giving people ideas–and giving people who are successful with those ideas a chance to explain why they are successful,” Brown said of the film series.

The series builds upon other short films MLI has made at various ed-tech conferences, including “Learning to Change, Changing to Learn,” which was produced at a Consortium for School Networking event last year.

“We set up this studio. In walked all the muckity-mucks of [educational technology],” Brown said. “A lot of people came in and talked with us, and out of that came this video called ‘Learning to Change.’ If you Google it, it’ll take you right to YouTube and you’ll see it. And so far [more than] 50,000 people have looked at it. It isn’t the same as when Brad Pitt puts something on YouTube, but for educational audiences, it’s pretty big.”

The Pearson Foundation is committed to documenting exemplary educational leadership so that policy makers and school administrators can use these examples in their professional development, discussions, and outreach.

“We’ve naturally had an interest in documenting best practices. This is true of the foundation in all of our work,” said Adam Ray, director of communications and alliances for the Pearson Foundation. “We had an interest in documenting innovation in classroom practice and surfacing specific voices and leaders and the work they’ve done.”

He added: “You learn more about a subject, and are more inspired it, when you find someone who is really passionate about it and let them tell you about it.”

For the film series, Brown proposed the idea of getting innovators such as British ed-tech pioneer Stephen Heppell, Michigan State University education professor Yong Zhao, and High Tech High creator Larry Rosenstock to spend a day or two with Brown and his collaborators to produce longer, more in-depth films.

“Instead of taking their best 13 seconds, we would give them 10 minutes,” Brown said.

Choosing the subjects was pretty organic: Brown sought out the most interesting people who could talk about a range of topics relevant to 21st-century education.

“To qualify, they had to be … at or near the top of their game. They had to be interesting people–in other words, filmable. And they had to be willing to hang around me and another guy for a couple of days,” Brown said.

“It was a pretty hit-or-miss proposition. A number of people never go back to me,” he added. “I think I was lucky to get Larry Rosenstock, for example.”

The 12 participants have put their stamp on education by addressing any of three broad subject areas, Brown said: the role of technology and new devices, project-based learning, and teacher quality and school equity.

“We need more people of color and women. That’s one of the big glaring omissions on our part. When we do a second round [of films], we will try a lot harder in that respect,” he said.

The look and feel of the film series also is notable, as it marks a real departure from typical education videos.

“The idea is that we didn’t want to go and do your standard educational video, where you sit somebody down on a stool in front of a fern and have them talk for 10 minutes,” Brown said.

There’s a high-production value, like in a modern documentary. The films are shot in black and white. It’s naturalistic. You see Stephen Heppell, for example, walking around London or riding in a taxi. The visuals and locations change. The camera pans and zooms. Brown commissioned the music, which is consistent over all 12 videos.

The style makes the videos interesting to watch. It helps the audience meditate and focus on the message.

“We refer to them as films as oppose to videos, because we shot them in high definition, we are professionals, we use professional equipment, and we go at this with that in mind,” Brown said.

“The black-and-white thing, once we saw it, it seemed to kind of instantly separate them out from other videos that are about education. It wasn’t like we were Woody Allen and we had some kind of reverence for black and white; it was more we thought it drew people in; it drew attention [in a way that] might not [have happened] if they were in color.”

Color does appear in the films where it is editorially appropriate. For example, High Tech High is an extremely colorful, vibrant setting. In the film about that school, the producers introduced color to highlight the building and its artwork.

Color also appears in the film about Randall Fielding, an architect. “Here’s a man who loves color; we felt like we needed to use color at some point,” Brown explained.

“Otherwise, we didn’t use color, because we didn’t want it to detract from what [the subjects] were saying,” he said. “We want people … to think differently about [education] than they did before they saw [these films].”

Brown said he’s hoping to secure funding to produce another 12 videos next year.

“There’s no shortage of people we could focus on,” he explained.


Mobile Learning Institute’s film series, “A 21st Century Education”

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Measuring 21st-century skills resource center. Graduates who enter the workplace with a solid grasp of 21st-century skills bring value to both the workplace and global marketplace. Go to: Measuring 21st-century skills

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