Friday, March 4, 2016

Yoda was Wrong.

Even typing "Yoda was Wrong" as the title of a blog post feels wrong. I mean, he's the greatest teacher of all time, right? Well. In that faraway galaxy. And many of our childhoods. He's small and green, but wisdom flows through him like the Force itself. I agree with almost every grammatically awkward sentence he utters. And yet, with this idea, perhaps the most-quoted Yodaquote ever, he gets it wrong. Disastrously wrong in the case of teaching Luke Skywalker, and perhaps more disastrously wrong in our classrooms.

In case you haven't viewed The Empire Strikes Back in a while, here's what's up: Luke Skywalker came to the swampy world Dagobah in search of a "Jedi Master" who can continue teaching and training him. When he gets to Dagobah, his X-Wing Fighter crashes into a boggish lake where it slowly sinks over the course of a few days. Eventually it gets to the point that his spaceship is completely submerged. We'll pick up the script from there:

LUKE: Oh, no. We'll never get it out now.

YODA: So certain are you. Always with you it cannot be done. Hear you nothing that I say?

Luke looks uncertainly out at the ship.

LUKE: Master, moving stones around is one thing. This is totally different.

YODA: No! No different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.

LUKE: (focusing, quietly) All right. I'll give it a try.

YODA: No! Try not. Do. Or do not. There is no try.

Luke is frustrated. He's going into this challenge with doubts. He's levitated rocks, he's learned new strength and agility, he's learned more about the Force than he ever could have outside of that swampy classroom. But Yoda's message, "there is no try," is one that proves fatal to Luke's attempt. Then, after Luke does try (because there is trying, and there is failing, and Luke does both), Yoda dismisses his attempt, and does it for Luke. Yoda doesn't scaffold Luke and his Force Skillz, having Luke move larger and larger objects until he can handle levitating something the size of an X-Wing (roughly the size of a school bus, I'd guess); he does it for Luke. The closing words of that scene are Yoda saying to Luke "That is why you fail." So not only does Luke only get one "try," but his failure is reinforced by the teacher doing it for Luke, and then rubbing it in. If he could have reached Luke's head, he would have given him a noogie.

Obviously, as someone who loves Star Wars and specifically The Empire Strikes Back and specifically Yoda, I'm not saying he's a bad teacher. But think about all of the things Luke uses the Force for after this moment. We see him levitating R2-D2 at some point. We see him summoning his lightsaber to his hand. He may have used the Force to push himself into one of those waterslide tubes at the bottom of the shaft on Cloud City. He calls Leia with the Force at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. In Return of the Jedi, he does some mind tricks, he levitates C-3PO, he fights Darth Vader. We never see him physically do something as "big" as Yoda did for him on Dagobah. With Yoda's message "there is no try," and not allowing Luke to try again, was our young Jedi's path to learning closed for good?

Yoda's message is typically held up as one of perseverance. We can do hard things. Sometimes we ignore the barriers in our way and power through them. "Just Do It," right? But if in our classrooms we make the fear of failure bigger than it needs to be, we're doing our students a disservice. We need to help our students see the power of failure, and the greater strength in moving past it. I share my failure with students all the time. The things that I thought I couldn't do (knew I couldn't do) and then recovered from and found pleasure in. And some that I never did really enjoy, but was able to do. That's the more powerful message that Yoda could have shown Luke--that there is a try. There's a try, there's a fail, there's a try again. And eventually you can lift that X-Wing out of the swamp. Hopefully it doesn't take 900 years to get to that point. But give students the help, the support, and the confidence they need to recover from that failure. Because they can. There is a try.

And just so I can recover from saying bad things about Master Yoda, here's his greatest three minutes, which come right after the problematic quote at the heart of this blog post:

Last, if you want to find more ways to use Star Wars in the Classroom, check out my friends at Star Wars in the Classroom. They've got more ideas than you can shake a severed limb at. Since, you know. Star Wars is into that.


  1. Haha, nice stuff Quinn. I can feel your pain and sense of betrayal :)

    I never took Yoda's lines here to be about perseverance. I think he is saying that if Luke doubts himself, it ain't gonna happen. In other words don't say "I'm going to try to hit this out of the park" but just "I'm going to hit this out of the park"

  2. I absolutely agree, of course. Just playing devil's advocate. If Luke was so overwhelmed by the idea that he can't even try, and Yoda's not going to support him, it's not best practice. There would be better ways for a classroom teacher to get that same message about believing in yourself to kids. Then again, the Jedi Education System seems to have had bigger problems than a meme can solve. :)

  3. I disagree with your read on this, and you missed an extremely important quote. Luke says, "I don't believe it!" when Yoda levitates the X-wing. Yoda's reply, "That is why you fail." is about the disbelief, not Luke's failed attempt.

    His lesson and words are not about "trying". They are about committing. He is saying to commit to something all the way, or don't commit at all, just don't sit on the fence.

    "I'll try." translates for most people as "I am not sure but I can attempt it." Yoda is saying to not bother unless you are committed to it fully. The commitment carries the bigger belief that you really can do it, which then fuels the attempt to do it and succeed.

  4. I agree with David. I always took Yoda to say that you need to commit. Do or Do Not. Either you are IN or you are OUT. There is no middle. If you say "I'll try" then right away I might not think you are giving it 100%. However, if you say "I will" then I know you are giving 100% and if you don't succeed, then I know you gave all and can assist with better preparing you for another attempt.

    Do or Do Not. Commit or Don't Commit. There is no fence sitting.