July 27th, 2009

Media Mondays: How Learning Happens

Learning Matters Managing Producer David Wald tries to keep on the cutting edge of documentary films, and education. In his new web mini-series, ‘How Learning Happens,’ which is exploring the role learning plays in success, he was able to combine both interests when he got lucky enough to snag some quality time with acclaimed documentarian Albert Maysles. We talked with him about his project and process.

Watch the video below and read on to learn more about the project.

What was your motivation for the series?

I’ve always been interested in how successful people got where they are. Especially those who went after some personal dream and achieved it, or built on something they were particularly well suited for. I’m sure going to school is a factor for many, but I’m also curious about high achievers who dropped out, or never started, or credit something other than school with their success.

Recently, I was excited to discover a new book by Daniel Wolff called “How Abraham Lincoln Learned to Read.” The book is about, as the subtitle says, “Twelve Great Americans and the Educations That Made Them.” The Americans range from Lincoln to Elvis, from Jack Kennedy to Sojourner Truth. In some cases classroom education was key, particularly for early Americans like Ben Franklin, but often it’s the school of hard knocks that’s responsible for helping to bring about their success.

This got me thinking. What would successful people today have to say about how they made it?

Why Albert Maysles?

It was pure coincidence. My Aunt Judy lives here in New York. One day she called to invite me to meet Maysles, who like her is an alumnus of Syracuse University. I figured this would be a good opportunity to ask him a question or two about how he ticked.

What interested me was the fact that when the Maysles started making their films in the 60’s no one else in the country was working this way. For the most part documentaries were very orchestrated when they were shot. The final films consisted of a lot of narration covered with “B-roll,” visual wallpaper, interrupted only occasionally by a character’s comment. The Maysles’ work was completely different – they never directed the action or even asked a question. When they put the films together they didn’t use narration. I wondered how the brothers had innovated such a radical new form of filmmaking. What lead them to do it like that?

Armed with a Flip camera, a video camera the size of a cell phone, I headed up to meet Albert in his Harlem office. What I would learn certainly surprised me. I don’t want to give it away, but I will say that if Albert was going to school today, the world might have been denied a whole new form of filmmaking.

What’s next with your ‘Learning Happens’ series? Will you continue to experiment with the flip camera format?

I am going to ask some more people what they credit with helping them make it and see what I find out. If I get good stuff I’ll keep doing it. As far as continuing with the Flip camera… as you probably noticed, my footage is a little bit shaky and the sound’s less than perfect, so I’m going to try to use more professional equipment when I can. But the Flip is very unobtrusive, and it’s easy to carry around, so I’m sure I’ll use it again. And by the way, I’m interested in hearing from anyone who might have a good story about how they learn. They can send it to me at dwald@learningmatters.tv.

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