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Reality TV Isn’t Reality; Neither is Fantasy

Though I don’t usually reach beyond the little world of teaching and learning in these postings, a recent non-teaching event attracted my blogger’s attention. I refer to the crash of the most recent X-51 “hypersonic,” i.e., supersonic, aircraft, ending the aircraft’s test flight, though probably not the program. The aircraft is hoped to fly at six times the speed of sound, but of its three tests, two ended in crashes and one in a “flight anomaly,” whatever that is.

What this aircraft has in common with No Child Left Behind is that it is built in fantasyland but crashes in reality. What it has in common with the Federal college loan program is that it is incredibly expensive and enriches those who administer it without doing what it was intended to do. What it has in common with both is that it materializes an artificial dream in the cold waking world. I almost said the unforgiving waking world, but the expense of these “dreams”, i.e., marketing schemes and half-baked projects based on dubious “hard data,” is forgiven again and again.

Meanwhile, perfectly serviceable subsonic aircraft carry passengers, cargo, and bombs; perfectly good teachers go on teaching without high-tech whiteboards; perfectly good schools go on offering sound programs at wooden Harkness tables; and perfectly good state universities offer genuine degrees without the profit motive, jumped-up promotions, and phantom “content.”

It is therefore with some hope, mixed with exasperation and suspicion, that I read about a program in Washington to acquaint teachers with their colleagues’ best efforts. I have written a number of times about the importance of watching my inspiring colleagues’ work in forming my own way of teaching, and about the efforts of one school where I worked to have teachers observe and talk with each other. I welcome the chance to observe good teaching and learn from it.

But why, why must we have a shelf of slick videos produced by “a reality television company” as the medium of observation? The eighty videos, five to fifteen minutes in length, were financed by those lovers of bells and whistles at the Gates Foundation. Assuming an average length of ten minutes, we have about thirteen hours of Reality TV produced at a cost of nearly a million dollars. The problem is that Reality TV is of course not reality. These videos are “peppered with quick jump cuts, slick screen labels and a jaunty sound track:” Messrs., Mmes., Misses, & Mss. Holland for Your Teaching Pleasure. Thanks, but I have other plans than to see Plato’s Symposium turned into My Dinner with Socrates starring Sir John Gielgud as Socrates and James Dean as Alcibiades.

Some years ago a crew came to my classroom to record my English classes over a period of days for a film they were making. In its finished form it was fascinating but, finally, off-putting as a record of education. We were discussing Moby Dick, and one of the students, a keen and highly articulate boy, offered a splendid extemporaneous firework show in a thesis about Captain Ahab’s motives. The problem was that it was in an important respect wrong-headed, betraying an insufficient understanding of Ahab. The only method of evaluating this understanding live and in a properly formative way was a careful line of Socratic questioning, which would have the added benefit of enabling the class to follow their fluent classmate from an unproductive track onto a more productive one. I also needed to preserve intact the clever student’s amour-propre. It took some minutes, but my fluent student and I finally reached an agreement that satisfied both of us and left the class also with a clearer understanding. I was, secretly, very proud of those few minutes. The problem was that the edited version of the movie left out everything except the flashy but wrong-headed statement at the beginning of our dialogue. It was “good TV,” but as an instrument of teacher education it was worthless. Raise your hand if you think you will learn about Socratic questioning with jump cutting and a jaunty sound track, or about teaching music from Mr. Holland.

By contrast, a workshop on Socratic questioning that I offered at a teachers’ conference lasted hours, not minutes, and the way it proceeded much of the time was by my using Socratic techniques during our discussions. The response was favorable. Also by contrast, the Looking for Learning program that my school went through lasted years and involved teachers’ visiting one another’s classrooms for whole lessons and then discussing and writing about them afterwards. No fancy stuff, just pedagogy.

The problem is that one-eyed media are incapable of presenting the full reality of a classroom, just as a Cyclops has no depth perception. (Do you remember how Polyphemus’ thrown rock missed Odysseus’ ship? Just so did the e-Polyphemus miss my questions,) I have written about two administrators of my acquaintance who ask a teacher-applicant to teach a lesson, during which one of them watches the teacher and the other, the students. Both of them bring their non-jump-cut perceptions to a discussion of the hiring decision. TV is what Marshall McLuhan called a “cool” medium, and as a result its images are often in need of artificial warming—just what a teacher does not need. Instead, the teacher must be keenly aware of every inch and every pair of eyes in his little space, just as a naturalist sees details in an ecology that escape the TV camera. (I owe this argument to Jerry Mander, author of the 1978 book Four arguments for the Elimination of Television. One of the examples he gave of the difficulty of using TV was the difference between filming conservationist films about the Grand Canyon and about coastal wetlands. The Grand Canyon is grand, even on TV, but coastal wetlands are forever boring. I had my own experience with the truth of this insight when visiting in mangrove beach near my flat in Hong Kong. Try filming mangroves for exciting TV and see how far you get. Then come back after dark, and you will hear the indigenous bullfrogs in their weird thousands, singing nyuk nyuk nyuk nyuk as they search for mates. These amorous laughing stooges are hilarious to listeners of a certain age, but no TV show will ever have them.)

What the Washington schools should be doing is spending that million dollars to free up teachers to attend their colleagues’ lessons, or to bus them across town if necessary, and to meet about them afterwards. The Washington schools chancellor had the right idea when she said her aim was to be “very clear about what good teaching looks like.” She must now continue by putting good teaching, not good TV, on offer in her schools, and other people in Washington must leave fantasyland and dreamland when building their programs.

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