What Slumdog Teaches Us About Education

04/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Few people who saw Slumdog Millionaire were surprised when it swept the Academy Awards, winning eight Oscars including Best Picture. The inspiring and profitable rags-to-riches tale is now a bonafide phenomenon, one of the few independent movies to zoom past the $200 million mark at the worldwide box office.

The film is brilliantly executed, with some of the most popular cinematic plots -- a moving love story and a tense gangster drama. I also saw another scenario, one that reminded me of my classroom experiences, while I watched Slumdog Millionaire. That was the story about how different people learn things in different ways.

The hero of the film, 18-year-old orphan Jamal Malik, grew up in the slums and has little formal education. He manages to get on a game show, where he successfully answers questions so arcane that the producers and police suspect he is cheating. Dragged to the police station and tortured after the show breaks for the day, he explains his correct answers by telling his life story.

Like all people everywhere, Jamal has learned from his own experiences. He knows obscure facts about a wide variety of subjects because those facts are related to events that were meaningful in his life. He has acquired knowledge through experience, and by the end of the film we realize that he has also acquired something even more important: the ability to think critically and creatively. It is this talent that literally saves his life and changes it for the better.

One of the greatest challenges we face as educators is making the curriculum exciting and relevant to students. To do this, we must understand how they live and tap into their own experiences. Many students from poor backgrounds like Jamal fare poorly on standardized tests, but that doesn't mean they aren't intelligent. We must find the intelligence in each child, and engage him or her in a way that promotes creative thinking.

Every student must learn math and reading, science and history. But that's not enough. Today's students need to develop skills that enable them to sift through massive amounts of available information and recognize what might be useful in solving problems we cannot predict, and perform jobs that have not yet been invented. Sir Ken Robinson, an internationally-recognized author and expert on creativity, warns that we are failing to prepare our young people for this kind of thinking. Our obsession with standardized tests leads to "drill and kill" teaching that can stifle curiosity and take the fun out of learning.

Maybe we're not asking the right questions. Instead of asking students "How intelligent are you?" Robinson says the correct question is, "How are you intelligent?" As Jamal Malik showed us, the answer to that question is often surprising. Jamal was tortured because he had learned in ways the authorities couldn't understand. We must not make the same mistake of punishing students because their minds follow an unconventional path. Instead, we must engage, nurture and challenge students to ask questions and think for themselves, so they never stop learning.