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“Focus on education.” With Penny Bauder & David Donnelly

My first film, Maestro, follows Grammy award-winning conductor Paavo Järvi over a period of two years, and features performances and interviews with some of the most respected names in classical music — I wanted to connect the power of classical music to a larger audience. One time, after an educational screening of the film, an educator […]

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My first film, Maestro, follows Grammy award-winning conductor Paavo Järvi over a period of two years, and features performances and interviews with some of the most respected names in classical music — I wanted to connect the power of classical music to a larger audience. One time, after an educational screening of the film, an educator approached me and suggested that the film should be used as a supplemental curriculum for history, particularly within a Cold War module. That really opened my mind to what was possible with narrative-driven digital content and education.


As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview David Donnelly, the founder of CultureNet.

David Donnelly is an award-winning American filmmaker & entrepreneur, and the founder of CultureNet, a new organization focused on helping teachers and forward virtual education. With a specific focus on arts engagement, they work with classical musicians, Grammy winners, New York Times bestselling authors, and other artists to offer free virtual concerts and conversation. They also offer a Virtual-On-Demand subscription that includes live virtual sessions, so many of these artists are also available to appear virtually in classrooms or homes with just a few clicks. In late 2015, Donnelly released his first feature-length documentary, Maestro, starring Paavo Jarvi, Joshua Bell, Hilary Hahn, and Lang Lang.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?

For several years, we’ve been integrating live Q&As and performances into our documentary screenings. To reduce logistical hurdles, we started doing this with our educational screenings, and the feedback was encouraging. So we’ve been experimenting with virtual arts education long before this pandemic.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

My first film, Maestro, follows Grammy award-winning conductor Paavo Järvi over a period of two years, and features performances and interviews with some of the most respected names in classical music — I wanted to connect the power of classical music to a larger audience. One time, after an educational screening of the film, an educator approached me and suggested that the film should be used as a supplemental curriculum for history, particularly within a Cold War module. That really opened my mind to what was possible with narrative-driven digital content and education.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We recently started production on my fourth film, Detox, which explores the impact smartphones and social media have on our health and well being. I think it’s essential for young people to be conscious of how technology is impacting their lives versus just accepting the status quo. Technology is a powerful tool, but we need to make sure we are using technology rather than letting it use us. I hope the film starts a conversation about the good and the bad, and understand that all screen time is not created equal.

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are an authority in the virtual education field?

For nearly a decade, we have been working with educators to create unique experiences that blend narrative-driven digital content with live interaction. This foundation organically evolved into virtual offerings. We have worked with students and educators from K-12 to University, and have learned a lot along the way. We’ve seen the impact that virtual tools can have on students’ overall education experience, and why it’s important to implement virtual elements into traditional education systems so students and educators have familiarity with the concept of virtual learning before it’s the only option.

Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

Very simply, we’ve lost our edge. Regardless of what metrics we are evaluating, we’ve fallen behind the rest of the world in education. Despite all the amazing individuals and organizations who are passionately tackling the various problems with our educational system, there is a dire need to approach education as a national emergency. Let us not forget the health of our educational system is directly connected to the present and future health of our nation.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great and 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement?

Really Great:

-Passionate educators
-Athletics/Sports
-Implementation of current curriculum standards
-Stretching out existing resources
-Computers and wifi access

Can be improved:

-Personalized attention versus standardized approaches
-Reducing class size
-Multi-disciplinary approach vs.compartmanentalized, how different areas are connected
-Incentives to attract the best and brightest educators
-Integration of digital content and live virtual experiences

As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)?

When it comes to these topics we should really be asking, “What is the meaning and purpose of education in modern civilization?” The debate between STEM and STEAM wastes an amazing opportunity to discuss the dire need for a multi-disciplinary approach that shows students how to connect the dots between specialized areas of knowledge. Learning is not binary, and an open-minded, big picture approach will stimulate curiosity and maximize engagement.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Imagination is more important than knowledge”- Albert Einstein

This quote is more relevant now than ever before. We have instant access to an infinite amount of information via our smartphones, but what we do with that power through the creative application of knowledge is what will determine our future.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Melinda Gates. She has focused a lot of her energy and resources on education and I’d love to pick her brain about how widespread integration of virtual arts education can increase mental health, innovation, and critical thinking.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Instagram- @MyCultureNetwork

Facebook- /1CultureNet

Twitter- @1CultureNetwork

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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