Lifeworthy Learning: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

There is a crucial scene in the Stephen Spielberg movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, where the central character, Roy Neary, played by Richard Dreyfuss, declares, with wonder: “This means something. This is important.” These words, I would suggest, are a succinct expression of the ultimate goal of learning, for our students to go through a profound engagement with an idea that fascinates, in order to reach a deeply personal, meaningful conclusion. I hadn’t thought much about Neary recently, until I came across the latest book by David Perkins.

Perkins, of Harvard Graduate School of Education, and founding member of Project Zero, has been, and continues to be, a powerful advocate for school change. His latest publication, Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World, is a comprehensive attempt to re-imagine learning and, in doing so, poses the key question, what is really worth learning in school? Perkins, quite rightly, commends the “uppity” student at the back of every classroom who likes to ask the perpetual question: “What is the point of this … why are we learning this?” The central thesis of Perkins’ work is that, in order to make learning meaningful in our schools today, the concepts and big questions that comprise our curriculum should be lifeworthy. He defines this, quite simply, as things, “likely to matter in the lives learners are likely to live.” This is a compellingly simple and at once powerful way of re-imagining our schools. While he belabors this single point, perhaps a bit too extensively, the real strength of his work lies in his consistent pragmatism, his absence of academic pretension, his acknowledgment that answering the question, “what’s worth learning? … is an impossible question”.  And he does what he sets out to do exceedingly well: he posits powerful questions that require us to revisit the nature of what we teach in our schools today.

A teaching colleague remarked to me just yesterday, at the end of a long week, that one of the frustrations of teaching is sometimes that, “everyone has an opinion on how it can be done better, but few understand the challenges involved.” This really does seem to be a phenomenon that is unique to the teaching profession. We have all encountered schooling and many of us cling to the certainties of the way we were educated ourselves as “the right way” to do so. Any deviation from the tried and trusted can elicit nervousness and uncertainty, especially – and unsurprisingly – from parents. Our faith in the tried and the trusted is a little bit like holding onto the handrails in the deep end of a swimming pool. When schools suggest that the depth of experience is more vital than just skimming the surface, we are looked at sceptically. The same does not happen with other professions, of which we seem to be far more trusting. I went to my dentist recently in a lot of pain. He suspected my problem was sinusitis and pointed out that he had just invested in a hi-tech system that used a high resonance 3D imaging model to offer a visual understanding of the nature of pain itself. Did I resist this innovation? Question the use of this new technology? Ask if he knew what he was doing? Suggest that this is not what my dentist would have done in 1976? No, of course not. This only happens in schools.

We should not, however, be unduly critical of how much parents, for instance, truly care that we are doing the right thing for their children. This level of concern and interest is to be applauded and the dialogue that it makes possible holds incredible potential. When it comes to school change, we should probably be asking ourselves and our parents the powerful question that Perkins asks: “what did you learn during your first twelve years of education that matters in your life today?” In addressing this critical question, the author concludes that: “Perhaps we need a different vision of education, a vision that foregrounds educating for the unknown as much as for the known.” Quite simply then, he contends that, in order to cast real light on this issue we should spend more time contemplating what he refers to as the relevance gap: “The achievement gap asks, ‘Are students achieving X?’ whereas the relevance gap asks, “Is X going to matter to the lives learners are likely to live?’”

This takes me back to my friend, Roy Neary, and his improbable journey in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Perkins likens the depth and life-worthiness of learning to the scale of engagement used to describe alien encounters and, in doing so, reminds us of the Spielberg movie. Protagonist, Neary, experiences a close encounter of the first kind, witnessing UFOs flying through the night sky. Meanwhile, a secretive government agency unearths evidence of a close encounter of the second kind, the discovery of physical evidence of alien life forms through a series of unusual events. Neary finds himself compelled to investigate his experience deeply, leading him to a site where he will ultimately have a close encounter of the third kind: actual contact and engagement with an alien life form. As an analogy of how learning can be superficial – of the first kind; a simple case of knowledge-finding – of the second kind; and of deep, meaningful consequence for our lives – of the third kind – this is, for me, the essence of what Perkins has to share with us.

The Spielberg movie has always resonated with me as something special and the things that make it so would also seem to apply with a great degree of pertinence to how we view learning. The germ of the movie came from a childhood experience Spielberg recalls, that literally transformed his view of the universe.

“My dad took me out to see a meteor shower when I was a little kid and it was scary for me because he woke me up in the middle of the night. My heart was beating; I didn’t know what he wanted to do. He wouldn’t tell me, and he put me in the car and we went off, and I saw all these people lying on blankets, looking up at the sky. And my dad spread out a blanket. We lay down and looked at the sky, and I saw for the first time all these meteors. … And I think from that moment on, I never looked at the sky and thought it was a bad place.”

The transformative act that rendered Spielberg’s view of the world was the unique perspective that, if “we are not alone”, there should be nothing to suggest that extraterrestrial life would necessarily be evil. It is this sense of wonderment, this desire to engage with a profound question in an entirely new way, that makes Close Encounters of the Third Kind unique for its time, and underscores the profoundly simple, yet powerful questions that Perkins compels us to consider.

There is a memorable scene of great tension in Spielberg’s movie where the authorities begin to question the reason for Neary’s obsessive engagement. At one point, he is pointedly asked, “Have you recently had a close encounter?”

I wonder if this is not a question we should routinely be asking our students?

David Perkins, Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World. September 2014, Jossey-Bass.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Written and Directed by Stephen Spielberg, 1977.

Postscript: Though not the subject of this particular post, it was pleasing to note that Perkins highlights, a “more systematic offer” of a curriculum framework in the form of “the Common Ground Collaborative, developed at The International School of Brussels.”