Adult learning

Lessons from Mary Poppins

We walked out of Mary Poppins Returns singing “Let’s Go Fly a Kite.” Five minutes after hearing “Nowhere to go but up,” the flying-through-the-sky song from Returns, we were remembering the elevation song from this movie’s precursor, the original Mary Poppins from 1964.

Why is that? How is it possible that we couldn’t remember a single song from Mary Poppins Returns,even five minutes after the credits rolled?

With this research question in front of us, my daughter and I set about listening to Mary Poppins and Mary Poppins Returns songs back-to-back. As the younger of us pointed out, the music in Returns mirrors the original. There is a song for when the kids don’t want to do something, one that involves people floating to the top of a room, and of course the requisite computer-animated scene of children dropping into an inanimate object.

Our conclusion: Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins is as much a teacher as she is a nanny. She invites us and the children into the sung lesson. Here’s an example:

Spoonful of sugar (1964)
Sung by Julie Andrews
Can you imagine that (2018)
Sung by Emily Blunt
Mary speaks the words. ·  
    
She explains why a spoonful of
sugar works.

With the children watching, she
demonstrates the magic that cleans
the room.

Jane tries and succeeds.

Michael tries and struggles. She lets him struggle and figure it out until he succeeds.
Mary starts singing. Her first words questions John’s intellect and
ability to “give in to imagination.”

It would be a discussion for another day to examine who is to blame: the writer, performer, director, or anyone else. However this came to be, the difference between these movies gives us lessons in learning:

Mary, in “Spoonful of Sugar” reminds us to:

  • Tell people what you are going to share in clear, spoken language. Bonus points if you sound as smooth as Julie Andrews.
  • Explain why it matters. We are asking adults to do things that may seem as fun as taking medicine. It has to be worth it!
  • Demonstrate what you want them to do. Whether it is a click of the fingers or something much more complex, show them what good looks like.
  • Let them do it, even if they don’t succeed at first. Stand to the side, and step in only if things get out of control. Like a toy cabinet that won’t stop opening and shutting.

Of course a lot of credit goes to the songwriters. The Sherman Brothers wrote lyrics that masterfully fit into our contextual experience. I can understand “let’s go fly a kite” and “love to laugh” without trying hard. “Turning turtle?” Not so much. Effective teaching is a magical combination of content and delivery. And that’s no tommy rot.

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