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Published in Print: October 22, 2003, as Classroom TV

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Classroom TV

It would be foolish not to recognize the power of a dramatic TV show to serve as a doorway into a full, rigorous curriculum.

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It would be foolish not to recognize the power of a dramatic TV show to serve as a doorway into a full, rigorous curriculum.

With the ongoing hullabaloo about computers and their ability to transform education, it's easy to forget that one old-fashioned technology is still vastly underutilized--and often misused--as a classroom aid.

That technology is television. As demonstrated by Hollywood every night, TV is a medium particularly well suited for telling stories.

Curriculum companies and educators have only just begun to harness this storytelling power to help children learn.

Currently, classroom TV is focused almost exclusively on nonfiction programming. Think of the teacher who uses videotapes of "Bill Nye the Science Guy." Think of CNN's "Student Newsroom," which distributes news segments produced by students. Think of Channel One, which produces a daily news summary that's fed directly into classrooms. Or think of the JASON Project, which broadcasts live from remote sites where scientists are doing original research.

To varying degrees, all of these ventures have educational merit. But like all nonfiction TV shows, they are fundamentally passive. Students are expected to absorb whatever information is fed to them by a talking head: the reporter, the host, the scientist. These shows rarely engage children's emotions.

Yet, engaging children's emotions may be the most important job of any educator, since it is a child's emotions that will motivate the child to learn. This is where dramatic storytelling—via the medium of television—can make a major contribution.

The key, of course, is to use a fictional TV series in a very targeted way, motivating children to learn but also minimizing the time they spend in front of the TV. Ideally, classroom television will feature very short episodes shown once a week, with well-coordinated, rigorous lesson plans that build off a fictional storyline.

Thus far, a handful of curriculum companies have capitalized on this powerful model. GALAXY Classroom, for example, produces science curricula that are built around fictional TV series. Every two weeks, students watch one episode, about 10 minutes long, ending in a "cliffhanger." Between episodes, they engage in a variety of activities that build off the TV show: hands-on science explorations, art projects, letter- writing to the fictional characters, and so on.

In the same company's "S.N.O.O.P.S." series—targeted at 5th graders—a group of adventurous children uses science to solve a series of mysteries: Who or what is haunting a historic theater building? What happened to the Anasazis, an American Indian tribe that disappeared suddenly from its homes about 700 years ago? How and why have a family of peregrine falcons taken up residence in a large city?

The Galaxy series "Grandpa's Garage," for which I served as an executive producer and writer, has this plotline: Kids in rural Georgia gather to sort through the junk collected by an eccentric African-American man who has traveled the world over. This junk inevitably leads to science learning. Their discovery of an old telescope, for example, sparks an interest in astronomy.

TV is a medium particularly well suited for telling stories.

Integral to such shows' success is that the teachers receive intensive training, teachers' guides, and even, in the case of "Grandpa's Garage," a "box-o-junk" that can be used for hands-on science activities. A similar teaching model has been used by Sunburst Technology, in its science curriculum built around the TV series "The Voyage of the Mimi." And the potential of the model is not confined to science. "The House," a series set in a fictional inner-city after-school program, examines childhood alienation and cross-cultural learning, and forms the core of a language arts curriculum for 4th graders.

As a teaching tool, dramatic television shows offer a number of educational benefits that are difficult to achieve through more conventional means:

  • Engaging students and motivating them. A well-crafted story often plays off audience members' natural curiosity and can motivate them to learn more. Recall, for example, how many 10-year-olds became dinosaur experts after seeing the movie "Jurassic Park."
  • Modeling behavior. By creating believable characters, we can model healthy behaviors for children and teachers. If a character sees someone cheating on a test, for example, we can show that character struggling with the ethical dilemma of whether or not to turn the cheater in. Likewise, adult characters can model effective teaching behaviors, supporting—but not directing—children's learning experiences.
  • Putting escapism to work. Let's face it: Keeping kids cooped up in a classroom all day is inherently unnatural. With TV, we can stimulate their minds with exotic locales, adventure stories, and compelling characters. It's bound to give them more energy and make them more receptive to other classroom activities.
  • Crossing the artificial boundaries of disciplines. These are some of the most difficult goals to achieve in a classroom. Most of the real learning, of course, will take place away from the TV screen. But it would be foolish not to recognize the power of a dramatic TV show to serve as a "doorway" into a full, rigorous curriculum.

Research has shown that children are active viewers of TV shows that are intellectually engaging. They make predictions about the narrative, ask questions, imitate behaviors that they see, and speak out loud to fictional characters. These are exactly the same behaviors that many educators believe children display when they are actively involved in learning.

As a classroom aid, video also offers a number of practical advantages over other instructional technologies. Most importantly, TVs and VCRs have become almost universally available in schools, a change that has been called the "quiet technological revolution" in American education. When compared with computers, TVs and VCRs are relatively easy to operate and require little training. Teachers have the ability to preview content before introducing it to students, pause a program in the middle to engage students in a discussion, and replay a segment as many times as necessary.


Of course, there are many ways that television can be abused in the classroom. Some teachers might be tempted to see it as a replacement for the curriculum, rather than as a doorway into the curriculum. And poorly-produced shows might depict unhealthy behaviors or target the audience's lowest-common denominator.

Curriculum companies and educators must learn to embrace the power of this forgotten technology.

But those risks shouldn't stop us from harnessing the incredible power of television in pursuit of educational goals. Curriculum companies must develop products that harness this power without abusing it. And educators, when evaluating these products, must know how to tell the good from the bad.

Here, then, is an incomplete list of key success factors. Classroom TV will be fully successful when:

  • Rigorous classroom activities are integrated seamlessly with each episode of the TV series. While television can be used to spark children's curiosity, most real learning will take place after the TV has been turned off.
  • Teachers receive intensive support, including extensive training and easy-to-use teacher's guides. With the right support, teachers can learn to use the TV show as a way of engaging students in rich classroom activities.
  • Compelling child characters articulate their own goals and overcome obstacles to achieve them. Students will be most engaged by stories in which the main characters are children like them.
  • Adult characters support the children when necessary, but do not take center stage. It's very important to avoid situations in which adult characters provide "all the answers." Learning should be portrayed as an active process of discovery, rather than just the passive absorption of information.
  • Settings outside the classroom allow children to feel transported in time and space, whether to ancient Egypt or to the treehouse down the street. As discussed above, TV can help spark kids' imagination and overcome classroom boredom.
  • All characters model healthy, prosocial behaviors. When watching a dramatic series, children will pay particular attention to how characters relate to one another, and they will often imitate the behaviors they observe.

When these factors are all in play, classroom TV will be an overwhelmingly positive force in the lives of teachers and children. But first curriculum companies and educators must learn to embrace the power of this forgotten technology.

Tim DeRoche is an educational TV producer living in Los Angeles. His e-mail address is timderoche@yahoo.com.

Vol. 23, Issue 8, Pages 33-34

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Correction: 
This commentary incorrectly stated that "CNN Student News" distributes news segments produced by students. Rather, the program integrates the day's news for classroom use.

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