Escalante & The Learning Wedge
It’s not that they’re stupid; it’s just that they don’t know anything!
This is just one of the memorable lines from the 1988 movie Stand & Deliver during an Oscar – nominated performance by Edward James Olmos, playing the role of LA Math teacher Jaime Escalante. In a remarkable career, Escalante took issue with one of the most popular misconceptions about learning, and in doing so developed an approach to teaching that Andy Homden has come to describe as “The Learning Wedge”
David & Goliath
Stand and Deliver – is based on the true story of how one teacher and his students took on the might of the Educational Establishment personified by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and the College Board. It is quite simply the best film about education that I have ever seen. As fresh now as when it was released nearly 30 years ago, it questions some commonly accepted truths about education.
Brilliantly scripted and played, it is a classic David and Goliath story. A group of students from a deprived area of Los Angeles perform unexpectedly well in their AP Calculus exam, after being taught by an inspired teacher – Jaime Escalante. They are accused of conspiring to cheat – and then cheating in the exam. Put under the microscope by ETS investigators, they are able to show that they deserved their high grades. Classic Hollywood, perhaps. But there’s more to it than that.
Looking back at Escalante’s classic one liner, I now hear a profound truth rather than something that is superficially amusing. Not knowing things and not being able to know things (“stupid”) are, of course, simply not the same, and this is the whole point the Escalante character was making. The trouble is, the assumption that they are one and the same thing is still all too common. For Escalante, however, more people can do greater things than they realise, because they are not “stupid”:
Escalante: Students will rise to the level of expectation, Senor Molina
Talent or practice?
Escalante’s real – life work and the primary message of the movie are reflected in current writers such as Matthew Sayed (Bounce) and Carol Dweck (Mindset) who argue that the concept of “talent” in explaining success is overrated. For Syed, a journalist and former Olympic Table Tennis player, people who are regarded as “talented” owe more to their hours of “purposeful practice” under the supervision of great coaches than to their innate abilities. Psychologist Dweck thinks shifting one’s mindset from “fixed” to “open” is equally important.
Escolante’s students developed a wide body of knowledge, learned how to do things, practised what they were learning and ultimately succeeded. Escolante coached them to become independent.
From dependence to independence
Mastering a skill needs a teacher’s guidance, support and belief, a belief which is ultimately awakened in their students. Escalante’s students, as portrayed in the film, were dependent on him at the start of his Calculus class. By the end, however, they knew what to do – not only in the exam hall, but also under the close scrutiny of the ETS investigators. They had become totally independent of their teacher. They were able to demonstrate their ability, because they had been taught how to do things and because their teacher had been able to persuade them that there was a body of knowledge worth acquiring.
The Learning Wedge
Escalante’s work demonstrates perfectly the concept of what I call The Learning Wedge, which shows how a teacher modifies an initially teacher – centred pedagogy in response to student development. In the film, the Escalante figure supports, persuades, and cajoles each student, but above all else he coaches the skills they need to master. As they start to acquire the essential skills, his teaching style changes and his ever present support gives way to the expectation that they will ask their own questions, find their own answers and start applying the skills independently:
Escalante: Do you want me to do it for you?
Escalante: You’re supposed to say no!
Although the early phase of the teacher and learner relationship may be highly interventionist according to the Learning Wedge, the ultimate aim is always to ask a student to take personal responsibility for learning. It’s not an easy task. There will be setbacks, and constant adjustments to take them into account, but the image is a powerful one and shows how students can become self-reliant.
The Learning Wedge and emotional development
Success, however gradual and incremental, begets success and gives students the confidence they need as more demanding concepts are introduced. The process facilitated by the Learning Wedge is therefore of considerable social and emotional importance. Understanding that student indifference – or even hostility – will give way to acceptance and enthusiasm as skills grow, is also essential to good teaching. This is especially important for newly qualified teachers to understand.
The Leaning Wedge and continuity in Education
As students move towards greater confidence and self – reliance, we need to ask ourselves: “independent enough – for what?” My own answer has always been – “to deal with what comes next”. The Learning Wedge idea identifies and develops the skills that will enable students to break free. The concept can be applied to any phase of learning and helps prepare the way for a successful transition from Primary to Secondary and from Secondary to Higher Education. Once students feel in control of their work, they are just more likely to be able to cope with anything that may come their way – on their own.
The movie is of course a Hollywood adaptation, and you can argue that it sentimentalises a difficult reality. Perhaps – but I don’t think that it ignores some the challenges we all experience in teaching. The Learning Wedge does not make teaching easy, but in a very simple way helps us to understand what is going on, and therefore to plan accordingly.
Stand & Deliver Trailer:
All quotes are taken from the film, Stand and Deliver, as assembled in Wikiquotes:
Homden, Andy, Review of Bounce, International Teacher Magazine, 2015 https://consiliumeducation.com/itm/2015/08/20/bounce/