Derek Zoolander and the World’s End

I realize that the intersection of entertainment and education is kind of an overdone theme around here. I keep flogging it, though, even past the point of flatlining, because, well, I dunno, everyone’s gotta have a niche, right? I mean, what’s yours? The successful and satisfying implementation of twenty-first-century technology in the classroom? Ha! Sorry, pal. I know these people and that’ll never fly around here.

So anyway, I was watching Zoolander the other day for reasons I’d rather not get into or even recall but I knew afterwards I had to share something that Hollywood gets so very right about education.

I wish I had a clip for this.

It’s the opener. Christine Taylor’s TIME reporter interviews Ben Stiller for a cover story on male models. Throughout questions on child labor and his childhood, his back is to her and to us while his assistants circle him, buffing his face and teasing his hair.

He describes his signature look, “Magnum.”

Taylor asks if she can see it.

And it’s there, after all that build up, delayed gratification, and heightened expectation, that he spins around, flashes a pair of diamond-sharp cheekbones, and we meet Derek Zoolander.

It’s the same in every movie. The principal character introduction is a BIG moment – and so it oughtta be with our principal instructional objective every day.

Zoolander is an intellectually undemanding affair and with all my spare mental resources I started thinking back to lessons that ended well and it struck me that all of them opened BIG.As opposed to: “Alright guys we’ve got some cool stuff happening today so go ahead pull out your notes.”

A big question. A big picture. A big idea.

And I deliver them big. I let the question / picture / idea hang out there long enough to perplex and engage them and then, just before informational anorexia sets in, I anchor it with some numbers, something that they, in all their curiosity, can use to pin it down and cut it open.

Once you’ve got your engaging content it’s just a matter of finding the right hook, the best entry and exit points, two beats: when it feels right to get into and out of a moment.

A year ago it would’ve bugged me if you told me I had to come up with engaging content and present it in a way that sucked students in. Now it’s just another slice of a great job.

And then there’s this interview with actor Orlando Bloom, director Gore Verbinski, and writer Ted Rossio, some of the creatives behind the last-in-the-series-if-there-is-any-justice-in-the-world Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End:

Says Bloom, “Someone asked me, ‘So tell us about your character’s arc in the third movie.’ I said, ‘Dude, the writers can’t even explain the third movie.‘”

Verbinski defends the more-is-more approach to storytelling: “I don’t mind if people find it confusing. I don’t want to dumb it down to where it’s just processed cheese and you’re not thinking about it afterwards.” He and the screenwriters insist nothing was done to take the criticisms of Dead Man’s Chest into account when production resumed on At World’s End. The films had been “designed for multiple viewings,” says Rossio. “You couldn’t do a course correction. That presumes that the course was off.” [emph. added]

Which strikes me as a lousy way to teach: hazy objectives, unclear technique only comprehensible after multiple passes through the material. Not exactly your ideal backwards planning.

Three hours of matinee research reveals it’s also a lousy way to make a movie: storylines dangling like tendons, motivations unclear, an alienating approach to story development where only the director, with his expansive view of the production, knows what the hell is going on. (And, apparently, he isn’t telling.)

Should it surprise us that good entertainment technique transfers to good education or that the inverse is also true? We’re all telling stories here.

I'm Dan and this is my blog. I'm a former high school math teacher and current head of teaching at Desmos. He / him. More here.


  1. My girlfriend has threatened to leave me on several occasions because I have not cared for the second two installments of Pirates. The first movie was clear and clean, with iconic characters and good storytelling. The rest had been a muddled catastrophe, and even if you can parse out the story-arc, who wants to? It is true that a good lesson should mirror a good story.

    Sadly, Disney hasn’t learned this. They have already started negotiating another two movies.

  2. The successful and satisfying implementation of twenty-first-century technology in the classroom?

    Daaaaaaaaaaang. ZING!

  3. Let me say that I’m down. I’m down for technology, am pushing myself to get more into, move beyond the model where the teachers are the only ones who get to play with the toys (the heros-and-holidays approach to technological instruction), all this is good. And I’m down for the effective hook and introduction, the constant push to make things diverse and meaningful and interesting. Yup.

    That said, there’s something implicit in the modeling of the 5-stepper with the big ol’ hook that frontloads all the good stuff in the very beginning, often with a tangental connection to what comes after. I’m not pointing fingers in any way, but you see a lot of beginning teachers (and yup, I was one) spending big ol time-heaps on the 3-minute intro, and doing so in a way that absolves them of the necessity of maintaining high interest throughout. There’s also something here that can devalue what comes next. Here’s your 3-minute groovy intro, now we get into the real stuff, and now it’s boring (and yeah, the transcendental hook would carry through, but…). The devaluing comes also if all the neat-o tech stuff happens early, and then we get back to reading in our books.

    I tend toward the big intro with every reading selection. Grammar/ writing don’t get it on the front end, but later, in the selection of activities and final outcomes.

  4. Well this is gonna seem defensive. If this were a standalone post on your blog I’d be tossing either a tacit or explicit amen your way. It’s real, this thing where the opener is aimed so high that everything past those first few minutes feels more deflating than if the entire lesson had been pitched at somewhere a little above the average interest level.

    Double with tech, where after the initial exposure to some social networking software, if innovation hasn’t been applied straight through from skin to core, it becomes evident this is still the same old.

    But this isn’t that and I’m anything but a School 2.0 tech zealot. This post presumes you’ve got engaging content, exercises, and follow-up and then says, okay, fine, now make sure you’ve got the initial entry point right.

    “Did you guys know that math figures huge into hangings?!”


    “Yesterday, they hanged Saddam Hussein’s brother and his head snapped off. How did that happen?”

    Movies get this right, in large part, because the stakes are so high. When you only greenlight sixteen movies per fiscal year, you make sure that everything is pitched right at that entry point. Teachers, essentially, greenlight 180 lessons per year and it’s that many times easier not to search for that entry point.

  5. Naw, not defensive at all.

    I just think about balance, and also time alotment, because we all gotta move, move, move. How much output of increased attention and engagement do I get for x-input of big time entry? How much do I want to build up front, rather than get back at the end? How much of my demonstration of outcome is the big entry point?

    [An aside: That last one doesn’t work with my kids. It scares them to death. “Here’s what you’ll be able to do in x-weeks.” They freak out and shut down. noican’t. noican’t.]

    And how is my balance of entry and exit?

    That’s what I’m thinking about.

  6. As if I needed another reason to like you, Dan, I find out you’re also a Zoolnader fan… For reasons unexplained, that is a favorite flick in our home.

    The “meet Derek” scene in the beginning is so dramatically and satirically overdone that it illustrates perfectly the importance of having some kind of entry hook. I may “borrow” that clip for some staff development in the fall.

    As for knowing when to “exit,” isn’t there a Seinfeld ep where George is obsessed with leaving on a high note? He adopted the “always leave them wanting more” attitude and would get up and leave his business meeting after throwing out a well-received idea…

    I like your niche. “Dan Meyer at the intersection of education and pop culture!”

  7. Ok, this is going to sound morbid, but while I see your point on the “mathematics of hangings”, I could not bring myself to use something like that in the classroom. From a data analysis standpoint, its a great dataset, but from a personal standpoint, having lost a dear family member to suicide by hanging, I simply could not use something like that in case there are students in my classroom with similar backgrounds. In my Statistics classes, we deal with data every day, but I am very careful to screen the data as to have as little potential conflict as possible. Just food for thought…

  8. Yeah, good point. Mighta been a whoopsie on my part, though it wouldn’t have been for obliviousness. I aimed to couch everything in very dispassionate terms, talking about the need for a dignified, quick death without any glee or sensationalism. This is serious stuff, worth discussing in the classroom, though it definitely rides some fine line of acceptability.