Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Last Mimzy--Message from the future

I love well-made kids' movies (Toy Story, A Little Princess, The Incredibles, Wallace & Gromit) and hate bad ones (Shark Tales, Madagascar). My daughter and I saw The Last Mimzy today, and it gave me a surprising amount of food for thought. I really didn't know what it was about other than that it had a sci-fi/fantasy element to it and it co-starred one of our household's favorite actors, Rainn Wilson, aka Dwight Scrute from The Office. In Mimzy I was expecting E. T. and it was a bit of that, with thematic "save the planet" echoes of Happy Feet and The Terminator (but much more kid-friendly), and a surprising Alice in Wonderland-inspired storyline. The film was based on the 1943 science fiction story Mimsy Were the Borogoves which I am going to give a read next week. It doesn't sound like my usual cup of tea but I am intrigued.

The film version of The Last Mimzy presented a big New Age-y message that I loved for the most part--some of the details were overblown--but I am just waiting for the conservative backlash to begin, a la Happy Feet. You know you aren't just in a typical kids' movie when the film's original song is written by Roger Waters of Pink Floyd and at times Mimzy's special effects reminded me of the Pink Floyd Laserium show!

But I digress. If you don't want to know any more about the movie, stop reading, but I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that the movie revolves around people from the future reaching back into the past for help. What I loved is that it made me think about the importance of my mission as a mother. Today's parents are sending leaders into the 22nd century. Literally, not figuratively. I have to double-check this statistic, but around the time my daughter was born, I remember reading that an American girl born in the year 2000 has about a 50% chance of living to be 100 years old. Our children will be the leaders of the 21st century and will share their knowlege first-hand with the leaders of the 22nd century. When I think about problems like global warming and our society's looming financial crises, it is discouraging to think that these challenges will take generations of work. It also highlights the importance of education and support for today's children and families.

We aren't doing that well in these areas, which is why I put my efforts into advocacy groups that work toward raising the profile of these issues, and insisting on a better outcome. I've talked at length about The Last Mimzy brought to mind Montessori education. In the film, the kids play with toys that open their minds to a totally new way of learning. Montessori education incorporates a large number of manipulative teaching tools, like the kids encounter in the movie. Montessori education is a 100-year old system of teaching that was truly ahead of its time--successful in Europe but initally shunned by early 20th-century educational theorists in America, Montessori was revived in the US starting in the 1960's and has grown from this rebirth.

The Montessori method "focused on the early stimulation and sharpening of the senses, the development of independence in motor tasks and the care of the self, and the child's naturally high motivation to learn about the world as a means of gaining mastery over himself and his environment."(1) All of these things happen in The Last Mimzy as the kids interact with "otherworldly" teaching technology. I would love to ask the filmmakers whether they had a specific Montessori inspiration or relationship, because in addition to the thematic elements, in the last brief scene that shows the heroine's kindergarten class, the setting looks very much like a Montessori classroom.

My daughter is in her 5th year of Montessori education. We choose her school because it was a good preschool, and we stayed for elementary education because we can't imagine her anywhere else now. I am especially intrigued with the Montessori approach to math education. It is truly a different mind-expanding experience than the way I was taught in traditional public school. I recently attended a parent education night that explained the math curriculum and allowed parents to experience a brief math lesson. One of our Upper Elementary teachers spent about 15 minutes demonstrating a lesson about "powers of 2" using the manipulative teaching materials, and much to my suprise, it truly elicited a new mental model of exponents. If 15 minutes could change my math thinking, at age 38, what insights will 12 years of this system (ages 3-14) give my daughter? It made me wish I were still an active neuroscientist, as I would love to do a functional MRI study of Montessori-educated students mentally solving math problems, to see whether they engage a wider range of brain areas in their math processing than non-Montessori students. I predict that Montessori students would engage their visual cortex to a much greater extent in match conceptualization and problem-solving. I have just been reading Sharon Begley's book Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, which inspired the idea for this experiment. I hope such a study will be done some day.

Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius author Dr. Angeline Stoll Lillard criticizes our dominant American educational system as being based on two poor models for children's learning: the school as a factory, and the child as a blank slate. Montessori proposes a very different system, which was empirically based on Dr. Montessori's observations of how children naturally learn.

I would love to find a way to become an advocate for expanded, public Montessori education. I firmly believe this educational model is well-suited to teach our children the skills they will need to face the challenges of the 21st century and beyond. I don't have a firm plan yet to determine how I will be part of this process, but like The Last Mimzy, I am sending my intentions out to the universe and waiting for a response. One of the questions that the movie proposes is, "What is the universe trying to tell you that you aren't listening to?" I feel the call to work to support Montessori education on a broad level, and I am willing to be patient to discover how I can help.

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