Don’t think, just do: Why Maverick is a bad teacher

Yes, I’ve been sent across the ocean once again, this time to ISA in Montreal.

We’ll be talking about teaching here (although not as much as planned after the cancellation of the pre-conference day) so I thought I should use the flight over to bone up on my movie representations of teaching.

As I’ve previously discussed, good teaching is apparently beyond any film producer, so I didn’t approach Top Gun: Maverick with much confidence. The film has already stimulated a pile of thought pieces about what it says about the US’s confidence in global leadership (spolier: not much positive), but no one has recognised the insights that Maverick has to convey about the practice of pedagogy.

[We’ll pause here to say that I probably have lots of spoilers hereafter, but frankly, if you didn’t already see the film, then you’re not going to now, so tough]

At first blush, this is a movie all about active, experiential learning: the team have to discover for themselves how to perform the seemingly impossible task, with Mav as some kind of sage mentor to help them believe in themselves. There are threshold learning moments, as pilots find out what more is possible when they do things like, um, go faster or, err, disobey orders. Hence the recurring motif of ‘don’t think, just do’.

There’s also a heterodox spin here: rule-breaking here is the goal, to help get inside the enemy’s OODA loop. ‘It’s not the plane, it’s the pilot’ comes up quite a lot and the unpredictability of the latter is the key to defeating SAMs and 5th-Gen fighters.

But all this falls down on the conceit that Maverick himself is the best there is: his excellence is the key to unlocking his students’ potential.

He is the one who has to show that the timed bombing run can be done within the time, that the g-forces can be withstood, that the fractious individuals can be knitted into a team through a session of beach ‘football’.

Yes, this is a very particular kind of teaching situation, with a very specific learning objective, but leaves us with the trope of teaching-as-performance, where students are to be stunned into learning by the sheer majesty of what they see before them.

If nothing else, most of us aren’t those kinds of people.

And nor should we be.

Active learning is about helping students to see the doors to learning and getting them to open those doors and walk through: not smashing them down then showing students the limits of what can be done beyond them.

The objective is not to be the hero of the classroom, but its facilitator, because the classroom is about the learners, not the teacher.

Which is why I always like coming to conferences like these, where I can learn from others who’ve done stuff that I haven’t and we can reflect on how to move things forward.

[I also watched Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow on the flight, which I now realise also involves a lot of teaching, but you really don’t want my opinions on that one]

One Reply to “Don’t think, just do: Why Maverick is a bad teacher”

  1. This is a great insight that I hadn’t considered during my viewing of the second Top Gun film.

    I saw more positives in Cruise’s teaching style during the film as he was modeling the behavior he wanted from his students. He did a fantastic job of building camaraderie among his team with the beach scene football (something we really don’t get much of in higher education classrooms), and he constantly pushed his students beyond their own limits.

    I think the key here is the context. The mission was a military one. Also, these pilots he was training were already the best the Navy had to offer, so it would be more equivalent to a conference of PhD’s coming together for a super conference rather than a general education college course.

    Either way, each teaching style is different. Maverick’s worked well for who he was. A teacher should always teach to who they are.

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