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Don’t Touch That Dial

By John Merrow — March 01, 2001 6 min read
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For many youngsters, school is repetitive and unchallenging, which, of course, is what many people say about television.

When you put kids in charge of production, television becomes a teacher.

Not everyone attacks television, however. We’ve had our share of constructive criticism, as well. In the past four decades, researchers have produced more than 3,500 reports and commentaries about television and children, often calling for more children’s programming, for more public access channels, or for “media literacy” training in schools. My experience as a journalist and a parent tells me that a more helpful step would be to let children be around, in, and on television.

I am arguing for rethinking how we use TV in schools. Children want desperately to “be on TV,” as any reporter who has taken a camera crew into a school can attest. When I was a radio reporter covering schooling, children would flock around me, clamoring for attention and demanding to know “what channel” they would be on, even though I was carrying only a small cassette recorder. Post- game interviews with athletes are invariably conducted over, around, and through a crowd aping, waving, or calling out, “Hi, Mom!”

What are children telling us when they mob camera operators, making faces and crying out, “Can I be on TV?” I don’t think they’re demanding the 15 minutes of celebrity that Andy Warhol predicted we’d all get. I think their moblike behavior is, paradoxically, a search for individuality. We seem to have become polar opposites of the aborigines, who fear that cameras will steal their essential beings. To children especially, “being on TV” proves that they exist. Schools, on the other hand, often send students the message that they’re empty vessels into which teachers will pour knowledge. At best these young people see themselves as minor cogs in the vast machine of schooling. They reject that message either by quitting school or by tolerating it, putting in the “seat time” necessary to graduate.

But saying that children are “seeking individuality” when they jump up and down in front of the camera doesn’t help the filmmaker, who, after all, only wants them to stop doing it. At first we tried letting them get it out of their systems by wasting 20 minutes or so of videotape, which is fairly cheap. But that didn’t work. Our entire tape supply would have been exhausted long before the children were.

Schools often send students the message that they’re empty vessels into which teachers will be pour knowledge.

What does work is making young people part of the production process itself, sitting down with them and explaining everything, answering every question. That gives them power (knowledge is power, remember) and a stake in the outcome. Understanding how television is made—actually helping to make it— provides young people with an even greater sense of self.

Most schools generally use television as a medium of instruction. Draw the shades, lower the lights, and watch videotapes in science or social studies class. Teachers attuned to “media literacy” often acquire scripts of network series and build lessons around them, as a way of teaching writing and other skills. But these uses of TV do not tap children’s creative energy and desire to learn in the way that actually making television can.

High schools (and a few middle schools) in prosperous districts might have their own production facilities, perhaps even closed-circuit channels; a few cable systems broadcast programs produced entirely by children, for children. Today, however, the advent of low-cost digital cameras and computer-based editing systems means that most schools can afford one or more complete systems.

Excellent schools have this equipment and use it creatively. I’ve been in elementary schools that produce their own news programs, complete with fake commercials. These programs were shown throughout the school, and copies of the master tape were distributed to local TV stations. Today, however, the gates are open and school productions do not have to rely on traditional broadcasting. The Web is a more convenient outlet, and student programs could be Webcast to (potentially larger) audiences everywhere in the world.

Understanding how television is made—actually helping to make it—can give young people a greater sense of self.

The possibilities are endless. For example, every junior high school social studies class could make a news program about a particular historical period, and a panel of judges could choose the best one. Or a chemistry experiment could be videotaped and tightly edited to teach both the material and the lab technique. Any competent music, art, physical education, or dramatic arts teacher can think of dozens of creative ways to have students use the equipment.

Let me give an example from my own high school teaching in the 1960s. I decided to try to bring Shakespeare’s Macbeth to life by putting Macbeth and his wife on trial for first-degree murder. Some students took roles of major characters in the play, which required them to know the play well enough to testify accurately. Other students served as attorneys, and the principal was the judge. But this was a large class, and there weren’t enough major parts to go around, which meant that some students had the less interesting job of juror.

Introduce a video system, however, and a whole new dimension emerges. Student “newscasters” could deliver regular reports on the trial (careful writing required here); a panel show could provide a forum for interviewing the defendants (more careful study of the play required); technicians would be needed to tape and edit the proceedings (I’d also have them prepare a written plan and a subsequent report); and so on. Some curious students would probably end up analyzing the plot, perhaps comparing it to one of the daytime soaps. Everyone would learn something about the cooperative nature of television production—and a great deal about Macbeth and Shakespearean tragedy, as well.

Hands-on involvement with television makes schools places young people want to attend, and interested students make school a more satisfying place for everyone else. Hands-on experience with television makes children better educated, better informed consumers of television, which will lead them to demand better television—and to avoid inferior programming. Some educators call this “media literacy,” an insider’s term for a level of understanding that is essential today.

Students who become avidly media literate remain curious about the world around them.

To those who worry that TV and other media will replace the textbook, I think there is a real possibility that the textbook may go out of fashion, but text itself will not disappear. Words will always matter. In my experience, students who become avidly media literate remain curious about the world around them. They read to learn.

The new technologies have the potential to drive a stake through the heart of the high-stakes, standardized, machine-scored, multiple-choice test, which (if it happens) would put the standards movement back on track. I say this even though the current momentum is very much in the direction of more testing. Those tests come from a tradition, a time when it was conceivable that an educated person could know everything there was to know about a subject.

Those days are over, with knowledge growing exponentially. Today employers in high-tech industries are looking for people with an appetite for learning and an inner core sensibility that allows them to find and process facts faster in sophisticated, more efficient ways. Not someone who knows a lot of facts, but individuals who know how to dig deeply and turn facts into a coherent story.

Politicians are trying to standardize schooling and the measurement of its output, but technology is making learning more focused on process and depth. We need new measures of capability and achievement because, with technology, less is so much more.


A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 2001 edition of Teacher as Don’t Touch That Dial

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