Teaching styles in the movies #1: Mr Han, The Karate Kid (2010 remake)

'True wisdom...comes from LEA, not from within.'
I've been meaning to write about the diverse ways in which teaching is presented in popular media. How better to combine two of my passions: films and pedagogy? Apart from playing films in classes (or 'multimedia texts' as my lesson plans refer to them) of course. And what better place to start than with Jackie Chan's crowd-pleasing turn as the Mr Miyagi for the Bieber generation? Harold Zwart's franchise reboot moves the coming-of-age fairy tale from California to China, and replaces Ralph Macchio's buck-toothed American everyteen with Will Smith's terrifyingly precocious Mini-me, Jaden. But the teaching premise remains the same: unskilled innocent with a heart learns martial arts in order to smash evil, win a girl's heart, and along the way discovers that in order to become a man, the first person you have to conquer is yourself. You know; that sort of thing. The update keeps its cool, preserves the main motifs that made the original a success, and doesn't fumble the casting, giving us a child star who succeeds in not looking like a hateful brat, and a Sensei father figure, nailed by the inimitable Chan.

The relationship between the two is the heart of this film: the cocky, wilful, egoistic child (Dre) who thinks he knows Kung-Fu, and the inscrutable (yeah, I said it) Obi-Wan who offers to show him the path to killer combos and death blows (Mr Han). So what kind of teacher is he?

'Still want to text your mum?'
Well let's look at the evidence, as an Ofsted inspector might say. We first see him as a maintenance man, and in fact when Dre meets him for the first time he's eating his noodles, looking miserable and refusing to answer a kid knocking on his door. Much like any other teacher at lunch time. When he finally comes round to fix the hot water (perhaps supply work was a bit thin on the ground, and he was moonlighting in between contacts), he watches Dre feebly imitating the Karate moves he sees on TV; like any teacher unable to bear watching some snotty eleven year old dance about like an idiot and think he's the bee's knees, he calls to him. And when he predictably gets ignored by the bossy man-child, he does what every real teacher can only dream of: he throws something at him. Granted, it's just a toothpaste tube lid, but can there be a teacher in the land who watched this and didn't, at least in their hearts, punch the air and go, 'Yes!' then wiping away a tear of joy? Better still, Dre rubs his neck and says, 'Did you just throw this at me?' Which in a UK classroom would be the first step on a long and torturous road that led to an expulsion meeting with a GTC disciplinary panel. Here, Han just ignores him and tells him how to use the hot water. We already know this guy is going to be like Rocky, and I'm screen printing T-shirts with his face on the front like Che Guevara.

And we haven't even got to the teaching yet. Dre, realising that his girlish capoeira will just get him spannered by the local hoodlums, appeals to Han for lessons. You heard me. The kid asked the teacher to teach him. The motivation couldn't be clearer: don't get spannered. It is unlikely that any of your students will ever see differential calculus in  the same light, unless the bad lads in your manor are considerably more mathematical than normal. When Mr Han takes him to the Dojo to resolve his bullying problem peacefully, he fails spectacularly, to the point that Dre is now committed to entering an amateur ass-kicking tournament, so he can be systematically bullied in public by a queue of kids from the LSU, voluntarily. The motivation to learn Kung-Fu has now become considerably more acute. Could any reward system of merit stickers and stars provide quite such an incentive?

Better still, Han says, 'No'. The right to refuse to teach is one that only exists in British teachers' fantasies; for very good reasons, too, otherwise about a third of the population would find themselves with a lot more time on their hands between the ages of 4 and 16. But this is China. And also Han doesn't work for anyone. No, he's more of a self-employed tutor, operating out of his house/ car shop. It is unlikely that Mr Han has ever seen a memo from the DfES, let alone sat in on an INSET and wept as somebody with a Power point banged on about Learning Hats. It is also unlikely that Ofsted would smile on the teacher repairing a car in the same classroom as the students.
'Bad news, kid: the Student Council's been disbanded.'

But then, there's a lot that Ofsted might frown upon with Han's pedagogy. Let's cut past the obvious lack of professional credentials, the implicit unavailability of his Criminal Records Bureau check (which, given his record of careless driving and manslaughter could complicate his recruitment into the state sector), and go straight to his teaching. This is where he really puts gas in the engine.

Not for Mr Han the petty three-part lesson, no-sir. The classic 'Wipe on/ wipe off' motif has been replaced by a far more modern, 'Take your jacket off/ put your jacket on' mantra. That's it: straight into a main lesson activity. Where, you might ask, are the lesson aims? Where is the title of the lesson? How is the student supposed to put the lesson into context with the rest of his learning? Answers there are none. Pick the bloody jacket up. Put it on. Repeat. I'm off for some noodles and a fag, keep it up. Even when Dre challenges the teacher to explain why he's doing it, all that Mr Han says is, 'Hmm, something missing. Attitude.' The poor boy is clearly unable to develop his current content into a cohesive educational entity. How on Earth can he be learning?

Ah, that's because Mr Han is a sneaky one. Like Miyagi before him, he's been getting Dre to rehearse Kung-Fu until it becomes part of his muscle memory; at least he's paying attention to the Kinaesthetic part of Visual/ Auditory/ Kinaesthetic learning. But wait a minute, our internal  Ofsted inspector says, this is repetition! This is rote learning! Mr Han has been forcing poor Dre into mindless, boring drilling and practise, which is clearly contrary to the theme of enjoying every lesson, and engaging students in their learning activities. It is, therefore, clearly not good teaching, despite the fact that it has done exactly what it was intended to do and transformed him into a pint-sized Bruce Lee. Oh dear, that's his first 'Unsatisfactory'. It's not looking good. Perhaps he should have got Dre to work in groups with someone of the same ability, and written a poem about how they felt about Kung-Fu, before demonstrating learning using traffic light cards and lollipops? That would have encouraged independent learning, and also ticked a few boxes for SEAL along the way.

It gets  worse, or better depending on your attitude to educational philosophy. Mr Han takes Dre to a monastery where all kinds of crazy cats are getting their groove on, doing the splits over waterfalls and balancing on vertiginous gargoyles on one leg while snake charming turgid Cobras (because, you know, just doing it on the ground wasn't quite dangerous and special enough). Wait a minute: a trip? Was a Risk Assessment done? I'd like to see you get 'balancing on vertiginous gargoyles on one leg while snake charming turgid Cobras' down to 'Low Risk'. Risk assess that.

'No, you can't have your mobile back.'
And of course, there's the delicate issue of the pupil teacher ratio. 1:1 is an excellent situation to have, of course, but is it cost effective? And shouldn't there be some kind of redundancy system, where an exra teacher comes along in case a pupil has to be taken home, or a teacher falls ill? Sorry, Mr Han, but you just haven't thought this through. And I won't even mention the train ride home when Dre falls asleep on your lap and you pat him affectionately on the shoulkder blades, because frankly this is an observation, not an expose.

Safety issues continue to feature prominently: the teacher cancels the lessons because 'too much of a good thing is a bad thing,' or something; so Dre bunks off to the arcades, taking a G&T student with him. Now that's the kind of school I want to work in. 'Sorry kids, but you know what? I'm a bit tired. Half-day.' Of course, the G&T love interest nearly misses her once-in-a-lifetime chance to get into the Beijing Academy of Music, but that's what happens when you let kids of mixed ability hang out in a co-educational environment.

(On a side note, her own teachers are remarkably unsympathetic; they appear aloof and tyrannical. They too force drill her remorselessly, although without the charm of Mr Han. Mind you, she does appear to be an Olympic level violinist, so swings and roundabouts really. She really should have been allowed to pick her own instrument, practise when she felt like it, and be allowed to discuss in pairs if there was a better shape for a violin. Now that would have been real learning).

And what happens on the impromptu snow day (although there wasn't any snow, of course; Mr Han just felt like bashing his car up a bit with a mallet. Who hasn't?)? Well, he gets smashed and goes postal in his workshop. I think every teacher can recognise the value of letting off some steam from time to time, although most of them keep the sake rampages confined to staff parties and leaving speeches. Then, in perhaps the most touching and also touching unbelievable moments in the movie, Dre, the student, coaxes Mr Han, the teacher, out of his car, his depression and misery using a couple of bamboo poles and the invitation to shadow-box in the yard outside. I can't imagine something I'd rather do less in the middle of a booze-induced episode of self-hatred and angst, but whatever presses your buttons.

'Have you been fighting with that nice drunk teacher again?'
Best of all, Dre's mother, properly worried that her son hasn't returned home by stupid o'clock, peeks round the corner, sees that her only offspring is tied to a drunk man by two poles, apparently fighting each other, and she smiles, making  a face that I can only describe as 'Bless them.' I would have called Child Services on her, if it wasn't for the fact that she's a fictional character, and I'm not sure that a country with a huge child labour problem has a lot of call for Social Services.

Eventually Dre makes it, of course (I was going to say SPOILER ALERT! but you'd have to be a bit of a vegetable not to see where the film's going. But if you're still struggling, may I suggest a small wager on the bad guy to win?). He enters the tournament- which is essentially an enormous exam-based assessment, with no elements of coursework, which surely discriminates against girls, group workers and more consistent, methodical learners- and slugs his way to the final. But before he does, disaster strikes: he's nearly crippled by a student from an even more teacher-led school (if you can imagine), and it looks like he'll have to withdraw from the last match. He begs Mr Han to apply Chinese First Aid to relieve the pain. Perhaps amazingly, Mr Han says, 'Why do you want to continue? You have nothing more to prove?' Mr Han is clearly thinking about his A*-C pass rate- his students need to either enter the exams and pass, or be removed entirely in case they damage the statistics. Mr Han is wise, in his way. But Dre convinces him that he'll do buck the national average and bring home the points for the old school. What a hero of formative assessment.

Satisfying teacher moments in Karate Kid 2010 #322: the ending, where the students of the nasty dojo unanimously leave their unscrupulous, victory obsessed Head Master (he's even more concerned about league tables. 'No mercy!' he makes them scream) and decide to line up in deference to Mr Han, in an outstanding display of Student Voice and tacitly, customer choice. As Michael Gove says, families will send their children to popular schools, institutions will compete, and improve thereby. Evil dojo man will no doubt be reflecting upon that as he counts the loss of student premiums due to the downturn of applicants to his school.

Suggest Mr Han goes into Special Measures.
Mr Han ends the movie with an Ofsted grading of Unsatisfactory. No structure, no aims, no plenary, no agreed classroom rules, no lesson plans, no schemes of work, no visible means of defining progress achieved during lessons...quite frankly, I'd be surprised if he was even allowed to step foot in a British school. He is, however, a world class expert in Kung-Fu, has transformed a skinny runt into the Hero of the Beach, and turned a boy into a young man in the process. I guess he'll just have to console himself with that, and hope that one day, if he's lucky, he might be able to scrape a '3' in an observation.

Mr Han: Legends of Teaching #1


  1. Brilliant! One of the film reviews that just makes you laugh but also makes you realise that teaching shoud be real and passionate. Controversial as it is, the rules are there to be broken (sometimes).

  2. Really good writing and observations! You reminded me of a conversation with a friend about Hogwarts, in which we realised it has literally NO behaviour issues. Apart from kids falling out with each other, or bunking off to save the world from a dark lord (which is fair enough, really)there isn't anything. No one ever refuses to work or defies a teacher, there's no inclusion room and no-one seems to have 'anger management'. Perhaps it's because it's a children's story and the average child finds poor behaviour even more boring than we do...

  3. Thanks. I might add that Draco Malfoy appears to have been a regular participant in the machinations of the Dark One, and yet seems to escape with little more than being put on class report. Perhaps Dumbledore had inclusion targets too...

    Merry Christmas.


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