Can We Learn to Teach the ‘Kung Fu Panda’ Way?

Mark Osborne and John Stevenson’s 2008 animation film Kung Fu Panda had created quite a stir after its release and won several accolades too. This was to be followed by sequels. But none of those sequels perhaps came close to the first part – one brimming with the ‘awesomeness’ that Po so inevitably emanated. Many listed it among ‘feel good’ movies – those which affirm the ‘good will win over evil’ kind of logic. For others, it was a children’s animation film with a didactic message – “to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield”.

I returned to Kung Fu Panda amidst a pandemic-ridden world that is on its way to a new normal, with tech-enabled teaching and learning models carving a space in the digital landscape. To me, Kung Fu Panda made different sense now. It opened up possibilities and readings that would probably have seemed far-fetched back at the time of the film’s release. As a student and teacher of literature, it has always fascinated me to trace how a changed context often enables new readings.

Revisiting Kung Fu Panda was no different.

Kung Fu Panda is about a student-teacher bond; a bond between the seeker and his goal – but a bond that requires constant effort from both ends. The film is as much about Po’s genuine quest as it is about master Shifu’s tireless efforts at revising his own teaching techniques. The scene where grand master Oogway insists master Shifu to believe in his student’s ability alludes to the need to bring a shift in practices of pedagogy.

Oogway suggests that it is not just a student’s ability – in terms of their background, physical appearance and the degree of prior knowledge on the subject – but also a teacher’s ability to accept the student the way he, she or they are, that leads to a successful teaching-learning process.

Also read: What ‘The Lion King’ Teaches Us About Children’s Grief

This, later, forms the cornerstone of master Shifu’s training techniques for Po.

Master Shifu revises his techniques to suit the temperament of his new student. He had to unlearn his traditional methods to accept and engage with his new pupil, a kind he had not encountered before. He identifies Po’s immense love for food and incorporates it in the training techniques. Hence, Shifu turns Po’s weakness into his strength by improvising his own techniques all along.

And in that process, Po changes too: that remarkable scene where the always hungry Po refuses his hard earned dumplings after putting up a tough fight with master Shifu!

Of course, the film is about training Po to become the dragon warrior, with an element of fantasy in the anthromorphic world, and yet the film is not about any magical transformations. It is the sheer grit, honesty, tenacity and meticulousness that pay off at the end. The focus, however, is on the ‘how’ of it and this how involves both the student and the teacher along with the innovations in pedagogy that ultimately turn Po into the most able disciples of Master Shifu. Po is different and it is this that makes him awesome, with the efforts of a teacher like master Shifu.

The vagaries of the pandemic, the lockdown and the ensuing discussion, debate and anxiety around education, the how and why of it – led me to revisit the film from the perspective of the teaching-learning process that the film explores. Was this already there in the film and I had not noticed it before? Or, was it the ‘unwritten’ in the film, which the pandemic helped me re-imagine?

Also read: Teaching in the Times of Coronavirus

Changing contexts often enable new readings and help us understand the porous nature of works of art. Works of art flow and reconfigure themselves in varied situations anew. The reader/viewer plays a vital role in such re-contextualisations bringing to bear on the work of art his/her location in time and space. Works of art continue to acquire new meanings, new significances and a new life every time it is re-contextualised.

This also accounts for the life of a work of art years and centuries after its ‘author’s’ death. It is the reader/viewer who creates the work anew thus lending it with an ‘afterlife’. It is this collaborative nature of the production, dissemination and reception of works of art that have kept alive a William Shakespeare, Munshi Premchand, Sadat Hasan Manto, Virginia Woolf, or Ismat Chugtai, to name just a few, years after the author’s demise.

Kung Fu Panda acquired a new meaning for me in the pandemic-induced crisis in the field of education. As a teacher, I returned to the film and found keys to re-vitalising our pedagogical practices, in not evening it out or making it uniform, but rather paying attention to those minute details and individual stories that made master Shifu revise his training techniques for Po. There are so many Pos waiting for a teacher to recognise their awesomeness! Can we learn how to teach the Kung Fu Panda way?

Chandrani Chatterjee teaches English Studies at Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune.