Being an air-traffic controller is not easy. At the heart of the job is a cognitive ability called ‘situational awareness’ that involves ‘the continuous extraction of environmental information [and the] integration of this information with prior knowledge to form a coherent mental picture’. Vast amounts of fluid information must be held in the mind and, under extreme pressure, life-or-death decisions are made across rotating 24-hour work schedules. So stressful and mentally demanding is the job that, in most countries, air-traffic controllers are eligible for early retirement. In the United States, they must retire at 56 without exception.
In the 1960s, an interesting series of experiments was done on air-traffic controllers’ mental capacities. Researchers wanted to explore if they had a general enhanced ability to ‘keep track of a number of things at once’ and whether that skill could be applied to other situations. After observing them at their work, researchers gave the air-traffic controllers a set of generic memory-based tasks with shapes and colours. The extraordinary thing was that, when tested on these skills outside their own area of expertise, the air-traffic controllers did no better than anyone else. Their remarkably sophisticated cognitive abilities did not translate beyond their professional area.
Since the early 1980s, however, schools have become ever more captivated by the idea that students must learn a set of generalised thinking skills to flourish in the contemporary world – and especially in the contemporary job market. Variously called ‘21st-century learning skills’ or ‘critical thinking’, the aim is to equip students with a set of general problem-solving approaches that can be applied to any given domain; these are lauded by business leaders as an essential set of dispositions for the 21st century. Naturally, we want children and graduates to have a set of all-purpose cognitive tools with which to navigate their way through the world. It’s a shame, then, that we’ve failed to apply any critical thinking to the question of whether any such thing can be taught.
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As the 1960s studies on air-traffic controllers suggested, to be good in a specific domain you need to know a lot about it: it’s not easy to translate those skills to other areas. This is even more so with the kinds of complex and specialised knowledge that accompanies much professional expertise: as later studies found, the more complex the domain, the more important domain-specific knowledge. This non-translatability of cognitive skill is well-established in psychological research and has been replicated many times. Other studies, for example, have shown that the ability to remember long strings of digits doesn’t transfer to the ability to remember long strings of letters. Surely we’re not surprised to hear this, for we all know people who are ‘clever’ in their professional lives yet who often seem to make stupid decisions in their personal lives.
In almost every arena, the higher the skill level, the more specific the expertise is likely to become. In a football team, for example, there are different ‘domains’ or positions: goalkeeper, defender, attacker. Within those, there are further categories: centre-back, full-back, attacking midfielder, holding midfielder, attacking player. Now, it might be fine for a bunch of amateurs, playing a friendly game, to move positions. But, at a professional level, if you put a left-back in a striker’s position or a central midfielder in goal, the players would be lost. For them to make excellent, split-second decisions, and to enact robust and effective strategies, they need thousands of specific mental models – and thousands of hours of practice to create those models – all of which are specific and exclusive to a position.
Of course, critical thinking is an essential part of a student’s mental equipment. However, it cannot be detached from context. Teaching students generic ‘thinking skills’ separate from the rest of their curriculum is meaningless and ineffective. As the American educationalist Daniel Willingham puts it:
[I]f you remind a student to ‘look at an issue from multiple perspectives’ often enough, he will learn that he ought to do so, but if he doesn’t know much about an issue, he can’t think about it from multiple perspectives … critical thinking (as well as scientific thinking and other domain-based thinking) is not a skill. There is not a set of critical thinking skills that can be acquired and deployed regardless of context.
This detachment of cognitive ideals from contextual knowledge is not confined to the learning of critical thinking. Some schools laud themselves for placing ‘21st-century learning skills’ at the heart of their mission. It’s even been suggested that some of these nebulous skills are now as important as literacy and should be afforded the same status. An example of this is brain-training games that claim to help kids become smarter, more alert and able to learn faster. However, recent research has shown that brain-training games are really only good for one thing – getting good a brain-training games. The claim that they offer students a general set of problem-solving skills was recently debunked by a study that reviewed more than 130 papers, which concluded:
[W]e know of no evidence for broad-based improvement in cognition, academic achievement, professional performance, and/or social competencies that derives from decontextualised practice of cognitive skills devoid of domain-specific content.
The same goes for teaching ‘dispositions’ such as the ‘growth mindset’ (focusing on will and effort as opposed to inherent talent) or ‘grit’ (determination in the face of obstacles). It’s not clear that these dispositions can be taught, and there’s no evidence that teaching them outside a specific subject matter has any effect.
Instead of teachinggenericcritical-thinking skills, we ought to focus onsubject-specificcritical-thinking skills that seek to broaden a student’s individual subject knowledge and unlock the unique, intricate mysteries of each subject. For example, if a student of literature knows that Mary Shelley’s mother died shortly after Mary was born and that Shelley herself lost a number of children in infancy, that student’s appreciation of Victor Frankenstein’s obsession with creating life from death, and the language used to describe it, is more enhanced than approaching the text without this knowledge. A physics student investigating why two planes behave differently in flight might know how to ‘think critically’ through the scientific method but, without solid knowledge of contingent factors such as outside air temperature and a bank of previous case studies to draw upon, the student will struggle to know which hypothesis to focus on and which variables to discount.
As Willingham writes: ‘Thought processes are intertwined with what is being thought about.’ Students need to be given real and significant things from the world to think with and about, if teachers want to influence how they do that thinking.
EducationCognition & IntelligenceKnowledgeAll topics →
is head of learning and research at Wellington College in Berkshire. He is also an English teacher completing a PhD in English education at King’s College London. He lives in London.
What Did I Think?
The Vatican Tapes has exactly one good shot in it, and no, it’s not the header image above of star Olivia Dudley blowing the entire costume budget on a pair of melted contacts. Are you ready? It’s this one:
The rest of the film is completely blown out, light sources completely fuzzing their subjects’ outlines at best, or shining straight into the lens and entirely blinding the audience at worst. Those subjects, by the way, more often than not, keep getting the tops of their heads chopped off by a frantically shaking camera that can never stay still long enough to show us an actor’s entire face at once, refusing to allow us the opportunity to interpret whatever flickers of emotion the actors may desperately be trying to convey.
But, this particular shot, which comes toward the end of the film, as a possessed Angela leaps into the rafters mid-exorcism, feels comparatively like a breath of fresh air. She’s framed by a pentagon of rafters, and the way she blocks the light from the window silhouettes her in the center of a tumble of triangles and rays that… ever… so… slightly… suggest a radiant halo at first glance, or maybe even a pentagram if you’re reaching. It’s a shot that took more than ten seconds to set up, proof that there was someone behind the camera who did something other than toss a camera blindly into a room and say, “Okay, let’s shoot the scene from there.”
And then, just as quickly as it shows up, the shot is over, and we’re back to things framed like this:
When it was originally a script on the Black List in 2009, The Vatican Tapes was intended to be structured like a found-footage film. Would that it were! The amateur camera-wielding characters of films like The Gallows and The Possession of Michael King have more of a sense of where to place their cameras than do the professional filmmakers who made The Vatican Tapes. Those two examples, by the way, are in my opinion among the worst found-footage offerings in existence. The Vatican Tapes is worse.
Instead of an actual found-footage horror movie, what we have here is something different, but sort of related. The plot somewhat loosely revolves around cardinals at the Vatican keeping a secret trove of tapes related to demonic possession, and when they catch wind of Angela’s case, they request to have all available security camera footage of her sent to them so they can review it. But that’s not all we see; the film is more than just an assemblage of this footage. We do watch some of the creepier moments through a security cam quad-view, but when it suits the movie to cut to a closeup not motivated by an in-world camera, it does so. However, unlike subgenre highlight Chronicleor even the underrated Into the Storm, both of which had some intentionality behind how and when they broke from found-footage convention at key moments — actually commenting on the genre — The Vatican Tapes seems completely random in how, why, and when it edits in some in-world film clips. Do we really need to jump between “found” footage of Angela Facetiming her father, and a shot from the other side of the room where we can see her on her computer, half hidden behind an indistinguishable, fuzzy object in the foreground? It’s jarring, confusing, and annoying instead of being the faintest bit intellectually engaging.
I’m a big fan of the found-footage genre when there’s anything remotely interesting happening at all on a metatextual level. The only moment where The Vatican Tapes has anything resembling genre commentary takes place toward the end of the film, just before the inevitable exorcism scene. Fresh off a plane from Vatican City, helping out with the exorcism mostly so he can make another video to add to the Vatican’s collection of tapes, Cardinal Bruun (Peter Andersson) secures a camera to one of the wooden posts in Angela’s bedroom.
“Why are you putting that up there?” asks Pete, Angela’s boyfriend who mostly exists to stand around silently and look concerned.
Bruun replies gruffly, “So it doesn’t get in the way.”
Aha! Something to think about! The filmmakers are well aware that it would make no sense for the priest performing the exorcism to be actively filming at the same time, so he’s tying the camera off so it doesn’t get in the way of his exorcism but also so the found-footage conceit doesn’t get in the way of us watching the exorcism!
And then during the ensuing chaos, there are about three total cuts to the footage from the camera, and they’re all about a second long, and then that’s that. So… why even include that subplot at all, if it’s in no way whatsoever thematically connected to the end result? If the camera doesn’t in some way play a role in the exorcism — as it does in better found-footage possession films like The Taking of Deborah Logan and genre standout The Last Exorcism — then why bother?
Speaking of The Last Exorcism, I couldn’t stop thinking about its sequel after The Vatican Tapes ended, the sorta-clunkily-titled The Last Exorcism Part II. That movie isn’t a found-footage movie either, eschewing the convention of its first film — that a priest was having a documentary made about his final exorcism. But even so, the sequel finds something interesting to do with the concept of found-footage. Nell Sweetzer, the now-cured — or is she — girl from the first film, winds up at a halfway house since, oops, she killed everyone last time so she has no more family members, so sad! Once there, she finds herself ostracized from the other residents, who tease her mercilessly — because the footage shot in the first movie was actually found, in-world, and tossed on YouTube. So essentially, the characters in The Last Exorcism Part II have also seen The Last Exorcism, just like we have. It’s an interesting move for the series, and it’s ultimately a lot of fun to watch a reformed horror movie villain battle other people’s perception of her, even as she’s also battling the return of her demon.
I’m hoping for a critical re-evaluation of The Last Exorcism Part II someday. Like The Vatican Tapes, it’s currently sitting at 16% on RottenTomatoes. Unlike The Vatican Tapes, it isn’t exorcism-subgenre-endingly awful. It’s not great or anything, but I think it’s doing a lot more than critics — most of whom couldn’t get past the fact that a movie with The Last in its title had a sequel — gave it credit for. After all, it was written by Damian Chazelle, who recently earned raves for writing and directing the phenomenally tense Whiplash (2014).
Anyway, I digress. The reason why I couldn’t stop thinking about The Last Exorcism Part II is that it has an ending very similar to The Vatican Tapes. Suffice it to say, both films end with their protagonists lighting a few things on fire, aiming for a wide-open ending that suggests the entire world is about to change forever. The Last Exorcism Part II is far more successful at it.
So imagine my complete and utter lack of surprise when I read this interview with Vatican Tapes director Mark Neveldine. Specifically, NYCMovieGuru asks him whether he found it challenging to try to make his movie different from other possession movies, and Neveldine responds that he didn’t even bother!
“I didn’t make a conscious decision to be different than other possession or horror films out there… I thought, ‘I’ve always loved The Exorcist and The Last Exorcism.’ I wanted to do it.” — Mark Neveldine
Well, there you have it folks… the director of the film, openly admitting he barely put any effort into the movie aside from making his own version of The Exorcist and The Last Exorcism. Don’t bother watching the result. Save yourself the 90 minutes, because literally every plot development and “twist” is in the trailer. Including the final shot, by the way, which is the final shot of the film.
Hey, by the way, do you get it? The possessed girl in this movie is named “Angela.” Do you get it now? No? Would you get it if I tell you her father literally says the line, “Angela, you look like an angel!”
More like “Antichrist-a,” am I right?