Piman himself, Mr. Marc Garneau wrote a short blog article entitled “TLAJ: Teach Like a Jedi – do NOT!” In this article, as the name suggests, Marc argues that the Jedi may not be as proficient with sound pedagogical practices as they are in the ways of the Force. It got a number of colleagues and I discussing: how do the Jedi instruct their young Padawans and do the Sith and the dark side of the Force use a more effective instructional philosophy? We quickly decided that more research was needed – and so began our investigation into the merits and shortcomings of the instructional strategies prevalent a long time ago in a galaxy far far away.
Stay on Target
Upon commencing the investigation, it quickly became obvious that a defined scope was needed. Between the novels, comics, fan fiction, and extended lore that exists in the Star Wars universe, it would be an impossible (or at least impractical) endeavor to cover it all. Instead, this analysis focuses solely on the movies that make up the core Star Wars saga. In other words, if the title is not “Star Wars Episode [1-8]” (as Episode 9 has not been released at this time) it is outside of the scope of this analysis. So, to any Star Wars fans out there thinking, “what about how Darth Maul taught Savage Opress or how Anakin taught Ahsoka Tano,” I encourage you to leave your thoughts in the comments, but they will not be addressed in this analysis. Even with this narrowed scope, there are many nuances that simply cannot be included for the sake of brevity.
Padawan + Pedagogy = Padagogy
Now that the groans from that terrible joke have settled down, let’s introduce the Jedi’s teaching faculty. Qui Gon Jinn, Obi Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Luke Skywalker are the mystical ‘padagogues’ that fit inside the scope of our analysis with Yoda and Obi Wan seeing the most instructional screen-time.
The Sith are the antagonists of the Star Wars franchise and they tend to be presented as more one-dimensional characters (with some exceptions). In this core saga, our predominant Sith educator is Darth Sidious (aka Emperor Palpatine). Darth Vader and Darth Maul are apprentices during their on-screen tenure and Supreme Leader Snoke is technically not Sith. Hence, we have much less data to pull from which puts them at a bit of a handicap. We shall see if this hinders them in this epic pedagogical showdown.
With our framework and fighters defined, let’s get ready for the main event: Jedi vs. Sith in a pedagogical duel of the fates. Fighters to your corners. DING DING!
Round 1: May The Force Be With You…But Not Them
First, let’s look at how both sides treat access to education. Both sides of the Force appear to only be accessible to those who are biologically suited to its study. “The force is strong with this one” is a phrase that is uttered in various iterations throughout the entire saga. It suggests that only those who have a natural inclination or talent for a subject are able to learn and/or are worth being taught. Now, replace “the Force” with “Math” and we quickly see that this pedagogy is something that would not fly in our galaxy.
After one round, it appears the match remains scoreless.
Round 2: Story-Based Learning
When Luke first meets Obi Wan, he provides some introductory knowledge about the Force. This develops his foundational literacy of the Jedi, the dark side, and the Force. This is a conservative approach to instruction that some may argue is necessary for outcomes so low on Bloom’s taxonomy. However, there are better approaches to impart base level information including Socratic questioning.
Lecturing is an old habit of Obi Wan’s. One of the factors that contributed to Anakin Skywalker’s conversion to the dark side was how overbearing and relentless Obi Wan was in his instructional style. For example, Obi Wan routinely reminds Anakin to, “be mindful of your thoughts, Anakin. They betray you.” In fact, their dialogue in much of Episodes II and III is dominated by arguments that sound like they were written for a demanding father and his angsty teenager. As an educator, it’s painful to watch sometimes.
Master Kenobi is not the only one who lectures the Skywalkers. Yoda is also guilty of chirping a string of facts into Luke’s ear while literally riding his back. Luke asks if the dark side is stronger and how he will know the difference between the two sides. Yoda responds, “You will know when you are at peace. Passive.” However, when Luke asks him why, Yoda responds with “There is no why,” and promptly ends the lesson for the day and tells him to clear his mind of questions. A progressive teacher would leverage a student’s curiosity and use it as a foot-hold for deeper understanding of the content at hand. “Why?” is perhaps the greatest question a teacher can hear from a student. However, Yoda simply dismisses it.
The Sith tend towards a different approach. In Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, we see Darth Sidious use his pedagogical prowess to successfully convert Anakin to the dark side of the Force and (spoiler alert) eventually become Darth Vader. One of the main turning points for this transformation was when Palpatine responded to Anakin’s claim that the Jedi are selfless, and only care about others. Palpatine leverages the power of storytelling to drive his point home, telling the tale of Darth Plagueis: the Wise.
The moral of Palpatine’s story is that Plagueis, “could save others from death but not himself.” Palpatine takes something his would-be apprentice says and believes and leads him to a different conclusion through narrative and appealing to his interests. Had this been presented in the Jedi-style of lecturing I doubt it would have had the same effect on Anakin’s later decisions. Curricular outcomes askide, this scene ought to be as revered by educators as selected scenes from “Lean On Me” and “Dead Poets Society” as a great example of how to reach students.
After round two, Sith – 1; Jedi – 0.
Round 3: Growth Mindset
One of Yoda’s most famous quotes comes from his training of Luke on Dagobah in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, “Do or do not. There is no try.” This line has been met with a great deal of controversy in the world of education where students are always encouraged to do their best. On one hand, I believe that Yoda is referencing the idea that your mindset determines your fate – if you think you cannot, you will not; if you think you can, you will. This is reinforced by his response to Luke’s disbelief when Yoda pulls the X-Wing out of the swamp. Luke says, “I don’t believe it,” to which Yoda respondes, “and that is why you fail.” Both Luke and Yoda would benefit from a growth mindset in this scenario.
On the other hand, his statement discourages student effort: if a challenge seems insurmountable a student should expect failure. Yoda’s statement completely discounts the idea that one must fail dozens of times before accomplishing a task or acquiring a new skill. However, in Episode VIII: The Last Jedi”, the ghost of Yoda contradicts his former self by saying “The best teacher, failure is,” and goes on to encourage Luke to burn the ancient texts on which the Jedi was founded. Yoda appears to have seen the follies of his old teaching style – it’s too bad that he was long since retired at this point. No points awarded.
The Sith also have a noted aversion to failure. Darth Vader develops a reputation for “dismissing” senior empirical officers that fall short of expectations throughout Episodes IV through VI. However, failure in education is not the expectation but rather a consequence of trying new things and a learner constructing their own understanding to the world around them.
The first time we see Palpatine and Anakin on screen alone together, Palpatine tells him that he, “does not need guidance…soon you will learn to trust your feelings and then you will be invincible.” The “guidance” he is referring to is Jedi’s strict rules, rituals, and restrictions. Palpatine wishes to celebrate Anakin’s natural talents and encourages him to trust his intuition.
This notion aligns with some of the most progressive minds in education today including Sir Ken Robinson who is renowned for his opinions and ideas on creativity and self expression in one’s education. This can only mean one of two things: either Darth Sidious is a progressive educator, or Sir Ken is a diabolical Sith lord.
In either case, Sith – 2; Jedi – 0.
Round 4: Game-Based and Problem-Based Learning
The first time we see Yoda teaching (chronologically speaking) is in the Jedi Academy in Episode II: Attack of the Clones. In this scene, “lost a planet, Master Obi Wan has,” (how embarrassing). Yoda decides to use this as a problem-based learning opportunity for his class. Yoda outlines the details of the situation and leaves it to the class to come up with an answer. A great instructional strategy, this is.
On Dagobah in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda sends Luke into an experiential lesson to encounter the dark side of the Force. When Luke asks what’s in the cave, Yoda cryptically answers, “Only that which you bring with you.” Inside, Luke confronts an illusion of Darth Vader and strikes him down. This is a veiled example of game-based learning in which Luke is given the opportunity to fail safely in a simulated scenario – and fail he does.
Another example of game-based learning that we see among the Jedi is their lightsaber training. On their way to Alderaan in Episode IV: A New Hope, Obi Wan trains Luke with a hovering simulation droid that tries to blast him with low power lasers. Again, Luke is able to fail safely within a simulation. The instruction and learning follows the “circuit of reflective action” as described by James Paul Gee (p.53). It looks like the Jedi are finally on the board!
For the Sith, there is little evidence of game-based learning or allowing for opportunities to fail safely within simulations. Instead, it appears that Sith apprentices experience a lot of high-stakes on-the-job training and learning by doing. Darth Maul, Darth Vader, and Kylo Ren are all entrusted with military leadership and missions that are vital to larger long-term goals. Although on-the-job training is an effective immersion approach to learning, this high-stakes approach is akin to putting a work-term student in a vice president’s role. It creates a high levels of anxiety since failure has dire consequences for the entire organization. In the case of Darth Maul, failure results in his own demise. No points awarded.
The score is now Sith – 2; Jedi – 1.
Round 5: Demonstrating Relevance
In this final round, we address a pervasive problem students often have with their education: the relevance it holds in the real world. In one of his last lessons on Dagobah, Yoda has Luke complete the laughable task of stacking rocks while standing on his head. Luke was getting frustrated with the disconnection between what he was learning and how he was to function as a Jedi in real-life. Later on, when Luke fails to levitate his X-Wing out of a swamp he becomes discouraged by his apparent lack of progress and skill. Yoda defends the idea that there is no difference between moving the rocks and moving a spacecraft. Unfortunately, Luke was unable to recognize these parallels.
As for the Sith, practical applications of curricular outcomes always appear to be at the heart of their instruction. We have already addressed two prime examples of this: the on-the-job training the Sith apprentices are immersed in, and the teachable moment Palpatine leverages with his story about Darth Plagueis. Furthermore, the Sith appear to very pragmatic and agile in light of new information whereas the Jedi are laiden with traditions, rituals, and rigid policies.
In Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Sidious tells Darth Vader that, “the son of Skywalker must not become a Jedi.” Vader, though, makes a convincing counterargument, “if he could be turned, he would be a powerful ally.” Sidious immediately sees the validity of his argument and adjusts his plans accordingly. Would the Jedi Council have been so easily swayed? I think not.
Chalk another win up for the Sith.
Bringing Balance to The Force
After five rounds, we have a score of 3-1 in favour of the Sith.
Although they appear to be altruistic in nature, it turns out that the Jedi are not always the most shining example of effective pedagogy. They are conservative traditionalists who value their dogma more than the effects their instructional practices have on their students. Although there are some exceptions, it was their ‘sage-on-stage’ approach to education that drove Anakin away and into the arms of the Sith who adopt a more ‘guide-on-the-side’ approach.
The Sith (particularly Palpatine or Darth Sidious) are cunning and effective educators. Through their use of storytelling, leveraging student strengths and interests, and adopting a growth mindset, the masters of the dark side appear to also be masters of effective teaching practices.
Although this is a fun analysis of fictional characters that were developed primarily for entertainment purposes, on a practical level, there are many lessons regarding teaching that we can learn from these movies. The funny thing is that these lessons appear to come from the antagonists which is an unusual place to find such meritorious examples of pedagogical prowess. I am not proposing that teachers follow the Sith’s curricular objectives, to tell their students to “give in to their anger” or that fear mongering is a good way to influence others, but I have to admit, the Sith appear to have a stronger and more effective educational paradigm than the dogmatic Jedi.
Inspiration can come from the strangest places sometimes. In what movies have you found unexpected teaching lessons? Leave your ideas in the comments and may the force be with you.
1. Gee, James P. Good Video Games + Good Learning: Collected Essays on Video Games, Learning and Literacy. New York: Peter Lang, 2013
2. Although Supreme Leader Snoke and Kylo Ren are not technically Sith, they are philosophical descendants of the Sith and are the antagonists of the final three chapters of the saga. As such, we will group them in with the likes of Maul, Vader, and Sidious.