What Educators Can Learn from Patton Oswalt

Comedian Patton Oswalt recently delivered the keynote address at Montreal’s Just for Laughs Festival 2012. He framed his comments as two letters, one to “all of the comedians in the room” and one to “all the gatekeepers” of the comedy business.

Both letters make ample use of the F-word, so I’ll refrain from reposting them here.  (You can read the full context in all of its Oswaltian glory here on The Comic’s Comic blog.  If you are familiar with his comedy, you’ll likely find this quite restrained,  his pop cultural references less hyper-kinetic than usual.)  Still, there’s sage wisdom in these remarks and inspiration for students and educators as well.

“When I say everything I know about succeeding a comedian is worthless, I know what I’m talking about because everything I know became worthless twice in my lifetime.” — Patton Oswalt

Oswalt explains that what he learned about how the comedy business works stopped being what works in the comedy business.  The landscape changed.  The power dynamics changed.  The world changed.

And isn’t that true for any educator who has been at the game for more than five years?  I’ve a filing cabinet full of binders from this state initiative and that district professional development session.  I only just tossed out Maine Educational Assessment writing prompt anchor packets from 1999, even though the 11th grade MEA has been extinct for years now, replaced by the SAT and a science augmentation.  The Maine Learning Results have gone through two iterations and now give way to the Common Core.  Promising Futures looked to be living up to its name, until it disappeared five years or so ago.

And now we are digging into mass customized learning (MCL), continue to struggle with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), enhance our students’ experiences with project based learning (PBL), and look forward to more acronyms down the road.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Brain development, motivation, and systems research give us more and more insight into the best ways to improve understanding.  As the world around us changes, so must how we prepare people to wrangle with it and succeed within it — or despite it.  Change is constant and change is good and change is scary.

“I need to decide more career stuff for myself and make it happen for myself, and I need to stop waiting to luck out and be given. I need to unlearn those muscles.” — Patton Oswalt

Oswalt speaks at length about comedians of the 1980s and 90s thriving upon luck and opportunities handed to them, and how those  failing to succeed were able to attribute it to a lack of luck and a dearth of benefactors.

That’s no longer the case.  Sitcoms aren’t handed out after a couch appearance on Johnny Carson.  And headlining gigs don’t equal HBO specials.  Comedians have got to get out there and work at it, make their own paths, create their own careers.  They cannot rely upon luck and glad handing.

And it’s no longer the case that educators can say, “Well, the system is the system and there isn’t much I can do about it,” or “I have no say over the kids I’m given,” or, “I’d be doing more interesting stuff if it wasn’t for my course load.”   Ridiculous.  Of course we can do things about it.  Of course we work with the kids we are given.  Of course we can do interesting stuff.  No matter what the circumstances. We just need to make it happen.

Easier said than done, right?  That’s where that “unlearning” comes into play in such a powerful, meaningful way.

I’ve been reading Carol Dweck’s Mindset, a book forcing me to examine how I approach problem solving and adversity in my own life.  For being such a concept guy, I’ve a crazy fixed mindset.  I see myself as being of a particular personality, particular skill set, and taking big risks outside my comfort zone is actually incredibly difficult for me.  That’s when I look to my spheres of influence, places where I feel more comfortable and more open to the sort of growth mindset Dweck describes, and to which I imagine Oswalt subscribes.

Spheres of influence.  We all have them.  Some of us have larger ones than others, and they are very context dependent.  (I’ve managed to get quite a bit of pull in the local theater world; not so much on the playing fields.)   For me, my greatest sphere of influence is my classroom, where I have worked hard to prove myself and earn the trust necessary to give me an autonomy I know may not be shared by all teachers.  I can make things happen there — I don’t have to hope everything works out.   I can plan and design and create my own luck through preparation.

For others, it may be the school, the community, the football field, the orchestra rehearsal, the school board, the main office, who knows?  Identify the places where you have the capacity to make an impact and focus your energies there.   You’ll spend more time creating and moving toward your goals and less time complaining and wringing your hands.  The point is more simple than all that: Do something. Make something. Change something.

“And if in the opportunities you give me, you try to cram all this wildness and risk-taking back in to the crappy mimeographic worksheet form of middle school, we’re just going to walk away. We’re not going to work together. No harm no foul. We can just walk away.

You know why we can do that now? Because of these. (Holds up an iPhone)” — Patton Oswalt

Oswalt directs these comments toward the gatekeepers of the comedy and entertainment industries, letting them know that the old model of doing funny business is over.  Technology allows comedians to create pathways to their own success, via podcasting, online video, social media, and DIY marketing.  They can create their own sitcoms and films, record and distribute their own comedy specials, and build a complete brand identity.

Folks, students and teachers can do the same thing.  We can build classrooms and schools that reflect our values, we can create learning experiences that appeal to our curiousities and passions, we can get the word out about amazing things happening in our schools.  And we don’t need someone else to do it for us.  We can do it ourselves.  We can make products that show just how much we actually know — not just how much we crammed into our heads last night.  We can solve complex, challenging problems, not just answer twenty multiple choice and match the definitions on the left to the words on the right.  And we can do it today.

Thanks, Patton Oswalt.  You got me thinking.





About Dan Ryder

Dan Ryder & Jeff Bailey, co-founders of Wicked Decent Learning, a blog, podcast, Twitter feed and who-knows-what-all-else devoted to teaching and learning in Vacationland and beyond. Teachers, dads, actors, writers, geeks, buds.

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