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ballMilton Chen
Executive Director
George Lucas Educational Foundation

Dr. Milton Chen is executive director of The George Lucas Educational Foundation located in the San Francisco Bay Area. GLEF produces a multimedia website ( showcasing 21st Century schools, as well as Edutopia magazine and documentary films. Dr. Chen was education director at KQED-San Francisco (PBS), research director at Sesame Workshop, and an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In 2007-2008, he will be a Fulbright New Century Scholar at the University of Edinburgh.

Dr. Chen discusses how these multimedia exhibits enable a new form of discourse about teaching, valuing visual images and dialogue of teachers and students working in classrooms along with written commentary. These classroom case studies present a new form of instructional storytelling, as teachers reveal their efforts to make sense of and guide their students’ learning processes. Dr. Chen recommends improvements to the “information design” of the exhibits, and points out the irony of using multimedia technology and the Internet to produce these exhibits, while the classrooms profiled do not have access to these same tools.

The Power of Image, The Vitality of Voice

My lens for viewing these exhibits is somewhat unusual. My work at The George Lucas Educational Foundation (GLEF; involves making media in many forms (documentaries, a multimedia website,, and a magazine, Edutopia: The New World of Learning) about innovative teaching and learning in our nation’s schools. GLEF’s media focus on themes such as project-based learning, cooperative learning, technology integration, and community-based schools. So I have a keen interest in how visual media, such as documentary film, and new Web-based technologies can help audiences “see” into interesting classrooms and better understand the complex issues of curriculum, instruction, assessment, and policy. However, on issues of pedagogy in literacy or subject matter specialties, I am a generalist, not an expert.

The experience of viewing these exhibits felt more like visiting a good museum than reading journal articles about teaching. Given a free Saturday afternoon, which would even the most dedicated educators and researchers choose? There is something compelling and powerfully communicative about seeing students and teachers in a classroom, struggling with the complex issues of how to teach and learn, up close and personal, with the teacher’s rationale, lesson plans, and reflections as supporting materials. By living on the Web, this exhibition does indeed “make teaching public” and marks an important step forward in educating the public, and educators, about public education.

This exhibition reminded me of a revealing anecdote told to me by Dr. Roger Nichols, then director of the Boston Museum of Science, more than 20 years ago. He left a tenured position at the Harvard Medical School to devote the final chapter of his career to informal science education. I wish he were around today to weigh in on what’s needed to address the continuing crisis of science education in this country.

Nichols asked me to imagine parents at the dinner table asking their young son or daughter that frequently asked question, “What did you learn in school today?” The child shrugs, as they often do, and says, “We learned to play basketball.” The parents then ask, “How did you do that?” The child answers, “Well, we sat in the gym and the teacher passed out these books and we turned to chapter one, about passing the basketball, and we learned there are three types of passes–the bounce pass, the chest pass, and the one-handed pass.”

“OK,” parents would say, wanting to know more, “What happened next?”  The child continues, “We read the next chapter about dribbling. And another chapter on shooting. We learned there’s the set shot, the bank shot, and the jump shot.” After a few minutes of this recitation, the parents, increasingly exasperated, would challenge: “But did the teacher ever give you a basketball and let you get on the court and play?” “No,” the child sighs. “We just read the book until the bell rang.”

Nichols said that no parent in America would stand to have sports taught through reading. Sports require performance, watching others perform, and observing oneself performing. Coaches and athletes routinely make use of videotape analysis of games to improve performance. Yet millions of parents settle for science, mathematics, history, and other subjects taught as rote memorization from textbooks, while students are denied the chance to actively do and “perform” real science or history.

This mentality of performance is now coming to the art of teaching. Teacher education has long suffered from the belief that the discourse of teaching should be conducted largely through text and words, often very long treatises in textbooks and journal articles. We are now acknowledging that teacher education should likewise involve less time in passive reading and listening to lectures and more time actually learning to perform in a classroom, together with opportunities to observe master teachers and oneself.

These exhibits demonstrate how the terms of that discourse can be dramatically changed and improved. They are a shot over the bow of the old school of thought, where only the word mattered. The exhibits show how images of teachers and students engaged in the daily business of teaching and learning can be very compelling, drawing the user in and inviting deeper analysis and reflection.

Consider the cases of two teachers of first- and second-graders on opposite coasts, Sarah Capitelli in Oakland and Melissa Pedraza in New York City. Their enthusiasm for teaching and commitment to constant improvement cannot be fully captured on the written page but are resoundingly clear on film. We see it in their interactions with students, hear it in their voices, and read it in their reflections.

We see similarities in their approaches, for instance, in organizing their classes for small group work, and also perceive differences in their classroom contexts and students, such as Ms. Capitelli’s high percentage of English language learners. Taking a lesson from the case study method of research, there is value in cross-case analysis, which suggests a further level of development for these individual exhibits. 

Ms. Capitelli’s short film excerpts of her classrooms, such as a pair of bilingual students engaged in a peer tutoring exercise, her session analyzing these excerpts with fellow teachers, and student readings of information gleaned from interviews with family members give complementary views of student performance and her interpretation of them. The exhibit invites the user to think along with her, for instance, on how her instruction might focus on students’ use of pronouns and verb tense.
Melissa Pedraza’s three- year relationship with teacher mentor Leslie Richmond, communicated thru film segments of their mentoring sessions, shows the benefits of a longer-term mentoring relationship. They plan and critique lessons together in friendly, trusting exchanges. Teacher mentoring is shown to be a two-way street, of obvious benefit to the newer teacher but also providing veteran teachers with a new avenue for reconsidering their own practice as well. (

Both of these cases are indeed acts of storytelling. Like a good mystery novel, they draw the audience in, into the mind of a teacher and a student. We witness Ms. Capitelli’s and Ms. Pedraza’s own thought processes, and their own determination, as they persist in improving their practice and helping their students succeed. There are other learnings, as well, such as the power of placing students in peer tutoring situations, and the enthusiasm and determination of ELL students for communicating about ideas and people that matter to them–their parents, relatives, even their pet dog.
These are moving images in many senses and ask us to use our many senses to interpret them. Film can capture the “big picture” as well as key instructional moments. It can also personalize teachers and their lives as they discuss their goals, their successes, and their attempts to improve their practice. Film is the most powerful medium for conveying human emotion, since learning involves matters of the heart–persistence, conflict, joy, disappointment– as well as matters of the head. But in addition to film, we now have a multimedia palette for painting numerous aspects of teaching and learning in greater detail and with greater impact. Text can serve to explain and amplify. Graphics and diagrams can organize concepts.

Purpose and Audience

These exhibits currently seem to address educators as their primary audience, from pre-service to veterans, and appear intended for use within an education course, a professional development activity, or for research.  Like many exemplary media products, these exhibits of teachers’ work can find a broader audience, including administrators, parents, and policymakers. If school board members or state and federal policymakers spent a few hours making these virtual visits to schools, the quality of policy discussions might well improve, closing the gap between most policy-level discussions and the reality of today’s classrooms.

The exhibits could make a greater contribution to the redesign of schools if these core exhibits could be “refracted” for expanded audiences of principals, district administrators, policymakers, and parents. A section for principals could discuss how principal leadership at each site enabled these teachers to work in a collaborative learning community and how time and resources for professional development were arranged. A section for superintendents and/or legislators could describe how district, state, and federal policies supported the kinds of teaching and learning seen in the exhibits. It could also discuss policies that restrict and inhibit powerful instruction. Could any policymaker advocating an English-only classroom for English-language learners fail to be persuaded by Sarah Capitelli’s fusion of both languages in her classroom? These user-specific sections would provide a deeper layer of “how-to” information, helping users understand the policies behind the practices and how more of these classrooms can be created.

Information Design

The exhibition prompted me to think in very basic terms about media and their uses: what are words good for? Written work from students vs. commentary by teachers and their mentors? What are pictures good for? Moving pictures vs. still images? What role does audio play? The ability to hear students’ and teachers’ voices? And, in more complex terms, how are these media best assembled to tell a story, in this case, the story of how a teacher organizes instruction in a classroom?

These issues of information design are actively discussed in the worlds of website development, multimedia, and graphic design. It would be very interesting, for example, to have a skilled information designer take these exhibits and redesign them for a cleaner, more intuitive interface, to select fonts, colors, layout and other elements to promote readability, ease of use, and, in common Internet parlance, a better user experience. To use a web developer’s term, there are many “assets” used to construct these exhibits, but they could be presented, edited, and sharpened, in the same manner that a good book editor takes a writer’s first draft and shapes it at many levels, from moving chapters around to specific line editing and word choice, to create a stronger product.

For instance, in Sarah Capitelli’s exhibit, the font for much of the text is thin and small, while the substantial white space could have been devoted to more readable text. Details such as line length should be considered. The eye likes to scan shorter lines in longer columns; newspaper and magazine layouts are designed in columns for their scanability. The inclusion of a transcript accompanying the video conversation between students, is an excellent idea, to both clarify the words spoken when the audio was muffled and to enable review and analysis.

Edward Tufte, the Yale professor of statistics and graphic design, has written a provocative essay called “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint.” He makes the point that most PowerPoint users rely excessively on filling their slides with text, literally reading their presentations off their slides. His point extends to websites, as well, where insufficient attention is given to using other media to communicate. As one colleague of mine is fond of saying, “E-learning should not be limited to e-reading.”

The technology itself can help with this task. There is a growing trend to create “electronic portfolios” using pre-designed templates to enable easier production of portfolios and exhibits such as these, without the need to master underlying programming code and the finer points of graphic design. These publishing platforms enable faculty and students to upload multimedia in the form of film segments, audio files of interviews, music, documentaries, photos, and slide shows, as well as text of papers and articles.

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities is a leading consortium bringing such portfolios to scale statewide. Every Minnesota resident can use this system, called E-Folio, free of charge, to create “an electronic showcase” of their work. The site includes many other provocative examples of portfolios from university faculty and K-12 teachers, all created from the same design platform.

The Institute for Multimedia Literacy at the University of Southern California has also pioneered multimedia teaching and learning, in part led by the presence of its leading film school and support from the Annenberg Foundation.  More than 100 faculty from various departments are using multimedia in their teaching. Their students are creating websites populated with products of their knowledge, including films, animations, music, and audio slide shows. The IML has also broken new ground in publishing a multimedia academic journal.

Using a 21st Century Medium to Showcase Good 20th Century Teaching

It is ironic that these teachers and their partners have produced these websites using computer hardware and software, digital cameras, and Web authoring tools, yet their students are seen with little or no access to these tools. Many districts are now creating 21st Century schools where innovations such as project-based learning, integration of technology, and involvement of experts from the community transform the 20th Century classroom. The George Lucas Educational Foundation chronicles these types of schools via our multimedia website at
To fully realize the potential of the Web-based exhibits, future exhibits should document 21st Century teachers, students, and classrooms, where Internet access, laptop computers, and wireless connections enable a new paradigm. These technologies need not be prohibitively expensive. A teacher armed with one computer, an LCD projector, high-speed Internet access, a smartboard, and, for good measure, an inexpensive student response system (of the type now required at many universities) can change the Industrial Age classroom into an Information Age environment.
Jason Kamras, National Teacher of the Year, would make an excellent subject for an exhibit. He is a prime example of the new, younger digital educator. He has used the technology tools described above to teach mathematics to his middle-school class of largely African-American students in Washington, DC, with impressive results. He has raised math achievement from 20% of his students at grade-level to 60%.

One key to his success in creating a positive and productive culture in his classroom is his emphasis on incentives for success rather than punishment for failure. He believes many teachers spend too much class time on sanctions for misbehavior rather than rewarding students who follow the rules, treat each other with respect, and turn in work on time. He gives the example of the everyday occurrence of students lining up to leave his classroom. Instead of focusing on those who are slow to get in line, he starts at the head of the line and thanks each student for being ready.
Kamras uses his cell phone to improve the classroom climate. Whenever one of his students does something well, whether a good test or a strong presentation, he whips out his cell phone and calls their parent to let them know. That brief call does wonders for that student, with the result that every student strives to have Mr. Kamras call their parent at some time that year. How many millions of teachers have a cell phone tucked in their purse or pocket and have yet to hit upon this idea? Capturing that moment on camera in an exhibit would help to spread this and other simple, yet powerful classroom practices.

From Individual Exhibits to a Shared Community of Exhibits

2006 has become known as the year in which “Web 2.0” became widely known as the term for the next version of the Internet. The Web is now morphing beyond a network of interconnected sites where users obtain information and make transactions. Its next revision, Web 2.0, involves an Internet where users not only extract information, products, and services, but contribute their own content, as seen through the photo-sharing site Flickr or the video-sharing site YouTube.

These exhibits can benefit from this transformation of the Web and serve as models for others to create their own exhibits, share commentary, and improve each other’s work. Think about these exhibits as the beginnings of What could happen if Sarah Capitelli, Melissa Pedraza, and many other first- and second-grade teachers could share their exhibits and communicate with each other?



An exhibition slide show and accompanying discussion (pdf) address 3 questions:

  • What aspects of teaching and learning can best be represented using multimedia? 
  • How can those aspects be represented with multimedia most effectively?
  • How can multimedia representations of teaching and learning be used to support teachers’ development?


Many of the websites included in this exhibition make use of the Quicktime, Acrobat Reader, Windows Media, and Flash plugins.

This page was last updated on 3/31/07