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Fantastic Beasts! A Review!

fantastic-beasts-big-posterIt’s here! It’s here! Fantastic Beasts is here! But does it hold up to the exceptional standards of creativity Potter fans crave?

Yes and no.

As a die-hard Harry Potter Fan, my hopes were high with this prequel series. My overall takeaway is that Fantastic Beasts is a good—not great—film that sets up sequential films and plot lines nicely.

As it is difficult to speak about this film without giving away spoilers, I will share the non-spoiling bits first, and then alert those of you who haven’t seen it yet before launching into specific plot points.

NON SPOILER REVIEW

Fantastic Beasts takes place in 1920’s New York and, boy, does that come across well. I love the grunge and the cramped spaces and the hard times mingled with a sense of possibility. The look-and-feel of the film pulls you in from the start. You want to soak up the period atmosphere and all that comes with it. It really is a shame that the camera moves so quickly; you barely get to see any of the detail in each shot. For example, the opening montage of newspapers flies by so fast you can barely read the headlines—and you may even get nauseous in the attempt. Even so, my imagination was pricked by what I caught, and I grew even more curious about what the Wizarding world in America had in store.

The film follows the path of Newt Scamander, an English ex-Hogwarts student who arrives via steamship with a mysterious suitcase containing a wide collection of magical creatures. Almost immediately, chaos ensues, beginning with the escape of the wily niffler which, as we learn from Hagrid’s Care of Magical Creatures class in the Harry books, is attracted to shiny, valuable objects. The audience giggled along with the niffler’s antics, watching it stuff the contents of a bank safe into its little pouch. I approve of the niffler design, a distinction I take seriously being married to a character designer. I likewise approve of many of the other creatures in design, though their CG animation often seemed forced and cheap. You’d think after all of the disastrous Star Wars prequels that Hollywood would have learned not to forgo props and puppets in lieu of pure CG, but alas. Many of the interactions with the fantastic beasts looked off, lacking in texture and weight, a shiny creature juxtaposed with the gritty city background. When the actors “touched” the creatures, it simply failed to look at all real. It’s like watching TV dramas where people hand each other coffee cups that are clearly empty: we knew the Fantastic Beasts actors weren’t really holding anything, let alone funky bird snake things.

To speak generally of the story, I most appreciated the suspense created; I definitely needed to find out what and/or who the mysterious “Obscurus” was. Many of the characters, especially Newt and Graves, had a mystique that drew me in. That said, many of the other characters could have been better developed, particularly Tina, Queenie, and Jacob. Like many of the later, original Harry Potter films, subtlety of character, plot, and what I will call “world establishing” is lost to action sequences and flashy special effects. This is a shame, as anyone who enjoys the books knows that it is the characters who drive the story, not the flash-bang magic they produce. I would have liked very much to know more about all of the characters in Fantastic Beasts, find out what motivates or frightens them, see them struggle to work together, and be in on their inside jokes. These are the nuanced choices filmmakers can make (though they rarely do these days) that mean the difference between a World War II flick and Casablanca. Hopefully the next films in the series will do more to establish character motivation and stimulate audience empathy.

SPOILER CONTENT: DO NOT CONTINUE IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM OR READ THE HARRY BOOKS!

Ok, so for viewers who have already seen the film, let’s get into the nitty gritty.

My absolute favorite thing about this movie is the concept of the Obscurus. This is because, or so I deduce, it is a subtle allusion to Albus Dumbledore’s back story and the tragedy that eclipsed his childhood. As the story goes, Dumbledore’s younger sister Ariana was driven insane by muggle boys who taunted her, leaving her unable to control her immense magical power. Dumbledore’s brief friendship with Gallert Grindelwald ended in a disagreement about Ariana, and their ensuing duel resulted in Ariana’s death. Fantastic Beasts names Ariana’s condition and describes it as a kind of possession by a creature called an Obscurus, known affect children forced to subdue their magical powers instead of learn to control them. To use this source of power as a motivation for the Grindelwald character was brilliant. It ties in the Dumbledore/Grindelwald history to this budding American story with nuance and intrigue.

As strong as that plot device was, however, the film suffered from many missed opportunities. For starters, I had hoped there would be elements of the American magical world that were, well, more American. The totalitarian structure of the Magical Congress of the United States (MACUSA) simply mimicked the Ministry of Magic. There could have been more of an emphasis on individual liberties and identities, or even a “screw you” attitude among American wizards that, for better or worse, would make an American wizard feel like an American. There could also have been different spells used or more discussion of the American wizarding education and the way it influences the culture. In other words, an extension of the wizarding world into other other countries could be fascinating, but there just wasn’t enough to satisfy. That said, it would take a lot for that to happen with me.

Another small criticism involves the use of the memory charm at the end. It made no sense. For one thing, movie fans and book fans alike remember that the charm works on wizards just as well as muggles, so why aren’t the local wizards forgetting everything? Second, is it only working on people who get wet in the “obliviating” rain? If so, that causes many problems, as most New Yorkers would have been indoors. Third, why does Newt have this potion in his pocket and why can that bird thing release it perfectly to enchant the rain? Too deus ex machina for me. Surely we can come up with something better.

Again, overall, the film holds up well, and can entertain anyone from wizarding newbies to raving fanatics like me with its lovely visuals, suspense, and occasional jokes. That said, being entertained is not the same as being moved, and I think the film could have done the latter with a bit more polish and exposition and fewer flash-bang action sequences. Hopefully, though, this first film will serve as a platform for great things to come. Fingers crossed.

 

 

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Follow Your Passion, and Other Fallacies of Vocation

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What do you want to be when you grow up? And how do you know?

I asked these questions of my small group this week. My motive was a selfish one: I wanted to know how other people approached this challenge of structuring life, making plans, pursuing ambitions, and finding fulfillment—assuming it’s possible.

Half of the room stared back at me with dumbfounded expressions. I assume they, like me, hadn’t been asked that question since they were very young. At some point in our adolescence the question shifts from “What do you WANT to do” to “What ARE you going to do,” which is a very different question. The former question is open-ended and provocative, as it calls us to imagine a happier (though sometimes riskier) vocational reality. The latter query implies that you have the answers, that you know who who are, what your passions are, and how the puzzle pieces will fit together. That’s a lot of pressure.

The funny thing is that, as a culture, we shroud both questions with flawed thinking. We approach the problem of vocation linearly: You like XYZ, so you go to school, learn how to do XYZ, and get a job doing XYZ. But what if you don’t know what you like? What if you don’t know what to study to best achieve your goals? What if there aren’t job descriptions that match your passion? Here are three fallacies blocking us from discovering and defining our vocation, as well as the video that prompted this blog post.

Fallacy #1: That we should have a passion we know we want to pursue. 
For years I thought something was wrong with me. I have always craved diverse experiences to help myself grow, an approach to life which many might argue is healthy. Nevertheless I watched in envy as others focused their efforts and enthusiasm toward mastery of individual skill. I neither knew how to do this nor could imagine limiting myself to a single discipline. Apparently, though, I’m not alone. William Damon in The Path to Purpose says that only 20% of people know the passions they want to pursue from an early age. This means that the other 80% of us spend a lot of time thinking we should be in the 20%, racking our brains for the single passion that supposedly will guide our lives. But why should we limit ourselves? We live in a world where individuals increasingly switch careers, sometimes multiple times. More people are pursuing different interests simultaneously, helped along by technology. Opportunities abound for learning new skills, largely thanks to the internet, where we see Youtube turning cooking newbies into culinary masters, Lynda.com turning Luddites into Adobe aficionados, and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) offering college-level instruction at no cost. In other words, there is no need to pressure ourselves into a single passion to pursue.

Fallacy #2: Believing our BA determines vocation. 
I will never forget the night when my high school guidance councilor asked a group of 50 parents how many of them were working in the same field as their college majors. Only two of them raised their hands. Why then, given this telling display, do we put so much emphasis on college major decisions? The only constant is change, after all. And how are students supposed to know what they want unless they get to taste the real world, wrestle with its ups and downs, and structure their education accordingly? We have it backwards: students instead spend all their time in high school jumping through hoops and taking tests just to get into good colleges, but all without any idea of what their education is for or how it will be applied in their lives. Then they are told to focus their interests into a course of study to prepare for work which most of them have never experienced. Why do we do this, especially if we are going to change our career trajectories anyway? Like the councilor said, everyone can just relax about majors.

Fallacy #3: Believing that school makes us experts.
Many people rely solely on formal learning environments for gaining the necessary expertise to approach their vocation. But as with the first fallacy, too many students cannot structure their education around passions they don’t have, and as with the second, students rarely can rely on their major to guide their career choices. Sarah Stein Greenberg puts the problem this way in this great video from Wired:

If I told you that if you exercised every day for the next four years so that you would stay fit and healthy for life, you’d think I was crazy; but this is exactly how we approach learning in college.

We think that four years of college is sufficient education to get us through life. But why four years? It’s arbitrary when you think about it. More than this, learning through experience is, in many ways, much more powerful than classroom lessons. We need to see ourselves as life-long learners, willing to experiment and fail, wherein we learn best. “Expert” is a relative term anyway, so does it help to assume we will ever become experts, constantly judging ourselves by nebulous standards and an antiquated educational model?

Breaking free of these fallacies will likely take some time. As individuals, this involves upsetting misconceptions; unlearning can often be harder than learning. It means a paradigm shift, a reorientation of how we see ourselves as learners and workers. As communities, it means asking questions like, “How might we help people find their vocations through experience as well as school?” and “How might we re-imagine school and workplaces so that they better foster learning and passion development?” The answers to these questions are complex and will likely be fraught with concerns over cost, efficacy, and fear of change. But imagine a world in which students try their hands at real world work, understand how their education is preparing them to solve problems, and structure their own learning around a mission, instead of a major

The Stanford d.School is currently asking many of these questions. Here is a video of two of the d.School leaders discussing the question: How might we design our lives? I really appreciate their posture toward the problem, and I gained some good insights from their conversation. Please share your thoughts on the video and the post below.

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3 Lessons in How People Learn

There is a funny paradox in education: teachers can teach their hearts out, but it doesn’t mean that anyone is learning.

Even with the best of intentions and Herculean efforts, teachers cannot guarantee that the information they’re transmitting is being received. Teaching and Learning are separate processes; their overlap may not be as wide as we might think. This paradox is particularly pertinent today, as headlines regularly bombard us with the question:

Are American schools failing our students?

It’s a legitimate question. As my father always likes to say, we live in a world with exponential rates of change. The pace of innovation is accelerating. Are new generations learning what they need to keep up and, most importantly, HOW to adapt, problem-solve, and excel?

So what are we to do with this paradox? Do teachers teach in vain? Not at all. But it does imply that the best teaching carefully mirrors how people learn, increasing the overlap in the Venn diagram between learning and teaching. Therefore, a closer look at how people learn should point us in the direction of disruptive innovation desperately needed in our educational systems.

With this in mind, I’ve been doing some reading into how people learn. I am reading about formal learning environments like school as well as about learning outside of school, including in museums, in work environments, and the ways in which we teach ourselves. So far, I have gleaned several fascinating concepts:

  1. Learners, not teachers, make their own meaning. 
    Back when I used to teach people how to facilitate small groups, I frequently had to correct people (gently) who wanted to force their beliefs on other people. “People need to learn at their own pace,” I would say. “No one tells us what to believe except us. People need to come to conclusions on their own.” The more I read about learning, and especially in museums, the more I realize how widely this principle applies. Meaning-making, apparently a technical term, is when people construct their own understanding and narratives through combining new information and concepts with their own knowledge and experiences. As Deborah Perry says in her book, What Makes Learning Fun, “museums as institutions are becoming increasingly constructivist environments, places where visitors construct their own meanings by actively engaging with exhibits, programs, objects, and phenomena.” This suggests that learning is indeed the responsibility  of the learner, not the teacher, and that the opportunity to interact with—instead of passively receive—new information and ideas is key to making meaning. An environment emphasizing active engagement allows learners to challenge their presuppositions, question what they don’t understand, and shape the meaning for themselves.calvin-and-hobbes-fundamental-rights-small
  2. Conversation is one of the most essential tools for learning. 
    I read an article recently (which I regret to say I can no longer find) talking about how children today are growing up without engaging in meaningful conversations with either adults or peers. The article cited a decrease in interactive play (especially between parents and children), the rise in media, and the ever-increasing demands for testing in schools as the culprits of this negligence. The consequences of limiting human to human interaction are easy to predict: children grow up not knowing how to express themselves, without having their ideas challenged, and without the ability to ask questions. Without learning to communicate, the resulting “grown-ups” become poor spouses, difficult teammates, and even worse parents. Conversation from the early ages, then, is essential; it is not something we do after we gain knowledge and wisdom, but what we do to become knowledgeable and wise. It makes sense: When communicating ideas to someone else, we are actively shaping those ideas to be received by that person. This active manipulation of thoughts does not happen when we passively receive information from a lecturer or a screen. Learners need to speak and share and question, as well as listen, in order for new concepts to sink in. As Perry says, “By talking with their companions, museum visitors make sense of their experiences and create deeper understanding, and by engaging with the stuff of museums, they talk more with their companions (Silverman 1990). It’s a two-way street. In this sense, learning is conversation, and conversation is learning. ‘What a group talks about, it thinks about; . . . talking is a tool for socially constructed thought, not just evidence of it; and . . . talk supports the gradual alteration and development of goals during the course of a visit’ (Leinhardt and Knutson 2004, 159).”ch-21
  3. Learners have prerequisite conditions for learning to be effective.
    I have long felt, and occasionally written, that formal education, and especially high school, needs to do a better job of communicating the purpose of education to students. In this article, the author cites William Damon, leading expert in human development and author of The Path to Purpose, as saying “that students today may be high achievers but they have no idea what for. He believes that this sense of meaninglessness is one of the main contributors to the skyrocketing suicide and depression rates among our youth… the American College Health Association reported in 2011 that 30 percent of undergraduates were so depressed they could hardly function.” This article in the same vein says, “students need to be clear why they are learning what they are learning. If they do not understand why, schoolwork will either be boring or meaningless to them, causing tons of worry and stress. They will be doing it simply to advance through the next hoop—high school graduation or college admission—not for its own inherent value.” Schools, museums, and other learning institutions would do well to connect the curriculum to the learners’ big picture sense of purpose. Adding to this, Perry in her book on museums that learners need to be sufficiently motivated in order to learn anything:”museum visitors will be more likely to have satisfying, intrinsically motivating experiences when their engagements with exhibits meet their needs to
    (a) be part of a communication process,
    (b) have their curiosity piqued,
    (c) feel safe and smart,
    (d) be challenged,
    (e) be in charge of their learning, and
    (f) be playful.”
    This idea that learners need to meet these criteria suggests that teachers and designers should shape the learning environment accordingly. Consider this video showing New Orleans High School students are asked what would make their education more meaningful. Their answers are profound and point to a deep need to rethink school. 

 

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