The Secret Power of the Starman

Last October, I was wrapping up my tenure with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Teacher Advisory Council, and I had the chance to visit the MoPop museum in Seattle, Washington, where the Foundation was hosting a cohort farewell dinner. As soon as I walked into the MoPop foyer, I was blown away by this massive, 40-foot tall piece of wall art, which led visitors up two flights of stairs towards the museum’s David Bowie exhibit.
I’ll let the Starman himself tell you why:

Iconoclastic, innovative, and infinitely quotable — David Bowie became the prototype of a game-changing performer for a very good reason: for as wild, outrageous, and unexpected as each new stage of his career may have been, Bowie had an uncanny ability for human connection, a fundamental knack for empowering audiences to believe that they were a part of something larger-than-life simply by witnessing his performances firsthand. And once these fans became “rock stars” in the world that Bowie had created, they followed him with pride and confidence for more than four decades.

Did this mean that David Bowie or his audience had everything figured out from the start of the journey? Hardly. Bowie’s career was a study of perpetual motion, constant reinvention, and unpredictable theatrics. To borrow another oft-repeated Bowie-ism: “I don’t know where I’m going from here, but I promise it won’t be boring.” Or, to echo the words of R. Buckminster Fuller — noted futurist, philosopher, and architectural forefather of the geodesic sphere concept that would go on to become the famed Spaceship Earth icon of Disney’s Epcot — “I seem to be a verb.” 

David Bowie wasn’t “a runner.” 

David Bowie was run.

And even if he had no idea where he was running to, his audience felt empowered to run right there along with him.

In the Mario franchise, the Starman power-up gives users a limited-time boost of invulnerability. Grab the star, and Mario flashes bright colors, increasing in speed while the music kicks in to an energetic double-time — empowering players to race forward through the level with the full confidence that, even if only for a short while, they too have become a video game “rock star” impervious to enemy attack. 

So how can we apply this same power-up to our teaching pedagogy? How can we harness the power of audience engagement to become the “Starman” of our classroom instruction? Whether your classroom is fully gamified or not: beyond points scored or grades earned — how does your instructional design: 

  • Propel students towards exploration through academic risk-taking? 
  • Encourage innovation with Buckminster Fuller-like forward thinking? 
  • Empower learners to become education rock stars with David Bowie-esque creative expression? 

More questions than answers today. So perhaps I’ll just let one last quote from Bowie take us home:

“I’m an instant star. Just add water and stir.” 

Next step: find the water.

Author: John

John Meehan (@MeehanEDU) is an English teacher and school instructional coach at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia. He began his teaching career in 2010 as a career switcher through The New Teacher Project, after spending five years working in social media and event marketing. He is a 2017 ASCD Emerging Leader, and an alumnus of the 2016-2018 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council. In 2016, he was named one of Arlington, Virginia’s “40 Under 40” by the Leadership Center for Excellence. He is a past presenter and regular attendee at educational conferences throughout the United States, including the annual conference for National Catholic Education Association, ASCD Empower19, and the Play Like a Champion Today: Character Education Through Sports summer conference at the University of Notre Dame. He’s an avid runner who’s completed more than three dozen marathons, half marathons, long-distance road relays, mud runs, and obstacle course races. John lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.

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