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When Schools and Pixar Collide: The Value of a Postmortem

November 9, 2021

I picked up Ed Catmull’s 2014 book, Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. Catmull, who is the President and CEO of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, uses stories of Pixar projects to reveal what he’s learned about managing a company, and its creative talent; and throughout, I couldn’t help but think about education.

Catmull mentions a task his Pixar teams undergo after every project–The Postmortem, a time of prepared reflection. I chuckled at the euphemism, but immediately thought, We should do this in schools. Here’s the excerpt I blame:

 

"Most feel that they've learned what they could during the execution of the project, so they'd just as soon move on. Problems that arose are frequently personal, so most are eager to avoid revisiting them. Who looks forward to a forum for being second-guessed?"

 

Teaching is a personal endeavor. The design of activities and tasks I ask of students, the work flow and aesthetic of the classroom–that is me. If a lesson went well… that’s me. If a lesson went sideways, sliding into an abyss of darkness I’d just as soon never revisit… that’s me, too.

I like this idea of finding a way to avoid future slides into that abyss. The Postmortem makes sense. Catmull implores us not to miss this moment, giving us reasons to commit to postmortems. 

Consolidate What’s Been Learned

“Sitting down afterward is a way of consolidating all that you’ve learned–before you forget it…to do analysis that simply wasn’t possible in the heat of the project.”

Of course, Pixar projects are their films. But for education, that could be a lesson, unit, or ideas implemented during the year. Did projects go as planned? Were the students involved? What was the struggle in this class? Was this the right idea for this class? 

Teach Others Who Weren’t There 

“So much of what we do is not obvious–the result of hard-won experience…The postmortem provides a forum for others to learn or challenge the logic behind certain decisions.”

I love the idea of people who weren’t part of the project, process, and decisions are also in the room to learn from the experience. Allowing me to talk through a Project-Based Learning task would not only help me reveal some flaws, triumphs, and redos; but others can learn from my mistakes or learn what to definitely include if they were to give it a go.

Don’t Let Resentments Fester

“But if people are given a forum in which to express their frustrations about the screw-ups in a respectful manner, then they are better able to let them go and move on.”

It’s that idea of letting go and moving on, right? I may disagree with a common assessment or course description; I may disagree with a task or scaffolding of a particular skill; I may insist on more creativity and a chance for students to get messy and produce. And it may not go my way. But, here, I can voice my frustration, say my piece, and move on. 

Pay It Forward

“A good postmortem arms people with the right questions to ask going forward.”

The whole goal is to venture forward. How can we help teachers feel good about moving on and preparing them for another year just around the corner? How can I make this class relevant to my students? Does this class reflect their world? How do we allow students to navigate politics, social injustices, media literacy and healthy skepticism of information? Is it time to surrender this material and design something relevant and for now?

The Takeaway

From Catmull, I learned the phrase “successful struggle.” The Postmortem is that chance to  reflect on your teaching practice, your lesson design, your interaction and delivery in the classroom–this should be standard in our profession. There may be hard truths in this moment, but we need our successes and faults out in the open. Then we should want to examine them and move forward before we feel lost, stagnant, and overwhelmed. Every school year needs a postmortem; needs a chance to mourn and shake our heads; needs a chance to mine the precious moments that worked.

Danny Hollweg, NBCT

Danny Hollweg is a National Board Certified Teacher and author/producer of the Teaching Flashpoint blog and podcast. He has spent his career teaching English Language Arts in northern Colorado where he is currently designing a Media Literacy and Publication track for students interested in journalism, navigating propaganda, podcast scripting and production. He has facilitated a Genius Hour which established a school podcast studio--The PEAK; as well as the school’s podcast show--The Peak of Existence. He holds a Masters degree from Arizona State University in English Literature and Language, kayaks, hikes, plays fantasy baseball, and is the proud father of two daughters.