Dealing with the fear of being a boring teacher.


Motivationally Speaking: Star Wars

Putting the cart before the horse. Or, when my friends and I sit around talking about all things nerd: learning the order that they visit the planets in Star Wars before actually ever watching the movies.

This quote precipitated from the eloquently worded question: “Why does school suck so much?” To which the Star Wars quote was the answer.

Image credit: Cake & Comics.

I thought about this longer than I probably should have, but it really makes sense to me. Why do I have the order of the planets in Star Wars memorized?

Why, for that matter, do I know the names of all the Imperial officers that Darth Vader strangles?

While we’re at it, why the hockey sticks do I know that the B-Wing was developed with its rotating cockpit in order to facilitate Mon Calamari pilots who had need to maintain a constant sense of up and down in order to remain oriented during battle due to their unque evolution on a water planet?

Finally, how is it possible that I am married?

The point is that I really really like Star Wars. My trivia knowledge has come from an initial love of the media and then subsequent decades of obsession.

Star Wars has a plot, and, oh, is it well done. Star Wars has it all: mysteries, continuity, and an ingenious use of the heroic epic form.

So, why is it that my students can’t remember how, when, or why we would ever want to set an equation equal to zero?

I think the answer is obvious, don’t you? And (since I’m in the business of starting sentences with conjunctions today) I’m happy to note that the curricular implementation of the answer isn’t that far off.

[If you don’t feel like taking this down an educational road, please just leave your most obscure Star Wars trivia in the comments. I love you, in advance.]

Shawn Cornally • February 13, 2011

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  1. Eric February 19, 2011 - 9:26 pm

    My 10 yr old is obsessed with all the Star Wars movies. He can even recognize the (in)famous “Wilhelm Scream” from the original Star Wars. The “Wilhelm Scream” was first used in 1951 and has been used in many movies since then. And when I say he can recognize it, I mean that he can hear it in other movies and knows it. I still can’t recognize it. He knows all the actors from all the movies and recognizes them in other movies and I wouldn’t be surprised if he can tell you some of the more obscure trivia from it. Drives me batty actually.

  2. Jeremy February 16, 2011 - 12:40 pm

    I try to always show students this image when we start talking about solving for zeros. It gets them in the discussion without really talking about solving anything at all:

  3. Z. Shiner February 14, 2011 - 10:34 pm

    Sorry, sometimes I get so deep into my own thoughts that I forget what I was saying in the first place. The point I was trying to make before I forgot the point I was trying to make was this:

    You say, “My trivia knowledge has come from an initial love of the media and then subsequent decades of obsession.” When we teach mathematics from a traditional pedagogy (or any subject for that matter), we are merely teaching the trivia. It’s the equivalent of teaching students the order that Luke visits the planets and the mechanics of the B-wing. (This is where I started the comment about me not liking Star Wars and not knowing anything about it without explanation).

    I don’t like math because y=mx+b – that’s just a byproduct. Without an appreciation of the beauty of what we teach in school, all of it merely sounds like a bunch of words in a specific (incomprehensible?) order. By teaching the trivia we miss the forest for the trees (or when my friends and I sit around talking about all things nerd, we are putting Descartes in front of de horses).

    It’s nothing new – Lockhart’s said it infinitely better than I ever can. But to put it mathematically, let “X” be an element of the set {star wars, school). If we spend our time teaching the trivia of X, the students are bound to hate X. On the other hand, if we successfully teach the beauty of X then students will gobble up the trivia.

    • Shawn February 15, 2011 - 7:02 am

      @Zach: Understood, and well put.

  4. Z. Shiner February 14, 2011 - 6:35 pm

    I don’t care about Star Wars. It’s old and outdated and The Matrix was way better. You may be interested in the order of the planets, but they all just sound like a bunch of random meaningless words to me. I don’t even know what an imperial officer or a B-wing is. Why is it even called a B-wing… and on that note, why should I care about Mon Calamari pilots when you lost me on B-wing?

    But let me tell you about zeros, intercepts, aysmptotes and holes… now that is something I can get interested in.

    • Shawn February 14, 2011 - 9:30 pm

      @Zach: I appreciate your love of math, but I can’t help but feel you missed the point. Maybe I’m missing the sarcasm here…

  5. Sam February 14, 2011 - 7:32 am

    Shawn, if you haven’t seen or heard of it, I think you would thoroughly enjoy the movie Fanboys.

    • Shawn February 14, 2011 - 11:49 am

      It would be criminal for me not to admit how deep Star Wars trivia love goes: Star Wars Jeopardy and Star Wars Double Jeopardy. These were developed for an all-day, Episodes I-VI marathon. I gave away toy light sabers to the winners.

  6. Patti February 14, 2011 - 6:52 am

    I was wondering why my 9-year-old can memorize crazy small details about Star Wars conflicts but can’t seem to learn his multiplication facts (despite my recasting them as an interstellar, generations-long battle between the 7s and 9s) or any historical details that actually happened on our planet. I can’t convince him that the Force can help him with his actual schoolwork. I kid you not, we just had a discussion with him about it this weekend. Nutty.

  7. Ian H. February 14, 2011 - 12:01 am

    Until the election of Leia Organa, Mon Mothma was the youngest person to serve as a senator.

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  9. Hillby February 13, 2011 - 11:42 pm

    Great plot, yes. Passable dialog? Barely!

  10. Matthew Bardoe February 13, 2011 - 11:29 pm

    Well one reason is that they don’t create little stories for themselves as they solve problems. They don’t strip away the clothing off of a variable. They don’t imagine ways that the mathematics could actually be useful. They don’t actively engage it. You actively engage star wars, but their are those that for reasons that are lost on me, don’t care about star wars. They are out there. They probably don’t read this blog.

  11. John Golden February 13, 2011 - 10:08 pm

    Carrie Fisher tells a story where Alec Guinness finally offered to give Mark Hamill an autograph to stop following him around, and signed a $20 bill. Hamill was delighted.

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