Real Steel in the classroom: how we need to be more than robots to be teachers.

Machine versus humans
Real Steel: boxing robots as a metaphor for teaching

For those of you who haven't, or will never, see it, Real Steel is a film aimed at the family market. It's set in the near-future, where boxing has been replaced with robot boxing.

Bear with me.

Hugh Jackman plays Charlie, an ex-boxer/ loser who bums around from fight to fight with an assortment of junk robots, always one step away from the gutter. Through an improbable twist, he gets temporary custody of his estranged 11 year old son; they start the film hating each other, and if you can't see the plot/ character arc sweeping down on you like the Valkyries then you need better narrative radar. It's a kids/ family movie, and I thought it was rather wonderful, but that's not the point.


Now that I've chased off the last few of you, it's just you and me. Either you've seen it, or you don't intend to, or you don't care. Either way, take a ring-side seat with me for the finale. Like a deathless Rocky meme, Charlie and his son have restored a beaten-up Atari of a robot and got him through unlicensed fights until he's up against Zeus, the World Champion, a gleaming, sinister, black Ferrari of a tank with fists. Programmed with an onboard fight simulator that can anticipate millions of combat options, he is unbeatable.

Contrast Zeus with Atom, Charlie's reconditioned junk heap; he's a ruin, he's old, he's built from scraps and spares. But he can take punishment, and most importantly, he's got the ability to learn to fight from humans, as Charlie reluctantly demonstrates when he agrees to teach the robot his old boxing moves. Also, Charlie tends to take remote control of the robot for some fights. If you haven't spotted the 'tin man with a heart' symbolism by this point, I don't know what. The heavy implication is that Atom, the ruined loser on a comeback, is the simulacrum of Charlie; both are lost and broken; both restored by the faith of a child (which was also the name of Celine Dion's last Grammy-repellant, I believe).

This is what gives Atom the edge; Charlie's experience and skill, transmitted through Atom, makes him see how the fight needs to be fought. There's even a nice touch when, as part of a pre-fight ritual, his son makes Atom dance before he gets in the ring (and at one point he even makes the the ROBOT. I hugged myself with joy).

In the final match, Charlie/ Atom puts up a good fight, but Zeus is too quick and strong. On the bell of the fourth, Atom slumps down, his voice command and online computer fried by the battering. As a last resort, Charlie switches Atom to 'Shadow' mode; Atom (an ex-sparring droid) will simply copy every move that Charlie makes from the ringside. He is quite literally, fighting Atom's fight. The last few scenes as Charlie's son glows with pride to see his old dad making a comeback in the ring are surprisingly touching, and I'm surprised Disney didn't nail this one years ago. I won't give the fight away to you, but as Barry Norman once said reviewing Rocky IV, 'If you can find someone to bet on the Russian, hold on to him.'

And I realised what was nagging away at me as I watched this fine piece of inoffensive entertainment. The boxer in the ring, Atom/ Charlie, is the teacher in the classroom. Zeus is the avatar of best practise, the recommended recipe. On paper, Zeus is unstoppable, just as on paper, the formal requirements for a good lesson should result in a good- sorry metasatisfactory- lesson. This guidance comes from educational research, from ministerial dogma, from ideologues and academics who have barely set foot in the ring- sorry, the classroom. We are told constantly how to teach by people who have never taught. Their only evidence base is the Mystic Meg method of research that clearly shows whatever it was they wanted it to show. I don't mind ministers and concerned parties telling me what we, society should teach children- that's their elected prerogative. But I massively, massively resent being told to follow the program when it comes to how I teach. The skeleton is there as a safety net when you begin, but after that, instinct, judgement and intuition start to take over.

We are best suited to knowing how children learn, and should be handled to do so. Other people's opinions are important, but no one is going to ask me to step into the ring and tell me how to throw or take a punch if I try it and it doesn't work. Let them step under the ropes and see how they guard, block and combo. If anyone IN the ring has advice for me, I often take it. If someone watching it in the VIP rows, or from TV has an opinion, I consider it. But I'll make the last call myself, thanks. I'm the one with the black eye and the cauliflower ear.

Atom/ Charlie won their fights because they went off the map; because they understood that boxing is an art and a craft that relies on techniques as well as the improvisation of those techniques. So is teaching. There are notes, scales and chords we need to learn from others, but if we really want to play music, we need to bring ourselves to the piece.

The Tin Man has to have a heart. That's Real Steel.



  1. Oh, I agree and I agree.... If not for the potential harm it could cause,at least a term of teaching experience should be a requirement to be any sort of education minister or other governmental officer in charge of education.


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