Education Opinion

On Commercial Television in Schools: Whittle’s Plan ‘Violates Public Trust,’ Relies on ‘Worst’ Teaching Model

By Scott D. Thomson — March 22, 1991 6 min read

Many schools enjoy solid partnerships with business. Why, then, would any educator object to the notion of trading 12 minutes a day of school time for fully installed television equipment and a news program with two minutes of advertising? Isn’t the proposal of Whittle Communications a new and imaginative strategy for helping our troubled schools?

Perhaps not. Perhaps, rather, Whittle’s plan violates some carefully developed relationships between the private sector and schools; perhaps it foists a superficial news show on the classroom, and maybe it does so by offering the carrot of obsolescent instructional-delivery systems.

When we force students attending compulsory schools to watch product advertising in the classroom, we are placing the minds of our sons and daughters on the auctioneer’s block. Whoever is willing to pay the highest fee receives the students’ undivided attention to a product. This approach creates a Valhalla for advertisers but violates the public trust given to schools to educate rather than indoctrinate.

While advertising can readily be found on school campuses, the Whittle proposal crosses a clear line previously honored by the private sector. Only its news show, Channel One, requires the focused attention of students in a classroom setting. Attention to all other advertising at school is voluntary, idiosyncratic, and casual. Students may or may not glance at an advertisement when reading a magazine article. Channel One offers no option; it provides the only live activity in the classroom.

Imagine a teacher with blackboard interrupting class after a 20-minute lesson to exclaim, “Kids, do I have a deal for you. Eat Snuggles bars and double your energy for homework tonight. I always keep a box by my desk.”

This is precisely the Whittle format: The television monitor is the teacher and blackboard in electronic form. The idea of merchandising in the classroom should be as offensive to educators in an electronic mode as in human form.

Many major corporations, including ibm, Apple, Chrysler, and General Electric, have made substantial contributions of equipment and services to schools. Certainly, in these instances, enlightened self-interest and public image were involved, but no strings were attached.

But Whittle takes a direct, hard-sell approach, with major strings attached: control of both the programs and commercials aimed at captive classrooms. Corporate involvement and advertising in schools are one thing when businesses are interested in young people as students and potential employees but quite another when they see students only as consumers.

School officials work at preventing special-interest groups from coming in the front door of the building. In spite of sometimes immense pressures to add or subtract from the curriculum, they maintain a balance. But allowing advertising in the classroom simply lets special interests enter school by the back door.

Channel One itself is a three-part sandwich, including headline news, a short focus on a weekly topic, and a wrap-up, all presented by two young anchors. The production is superficial, emphasizing image above content. It provides social studies by 90-second sound bites.

The way to teach current events is not by throwing images on a screen every day but by focusing in depth on a timely topic. For example, if pollution is the subject, students should be advised to bring articles, newspaper clippings, and notes from television shows to class. The teacher and students can then discuss the causes of the problem, current efforts to reduce various kinds of pollution, and short- and long-term solutions. This method provides context, perspective, and analysis for the students, and they will remember the lesson.

We now have 25 years of research on instructional television, beginning with the federally funded Hagers4town, Md., experiment and continuing through an exhaustive analysis by the Ford Foundation. The results are a mixed bag. When used well, instructional television gets a grade of B; when used poorly, it receives a D.

Important to its effective use are two factors: control of time and topic by the teacher, and integration of the video piece with a larger lesson plan. Lacking these elements, instructional television doesn’t deliver. It makes the least impact when controlled from outside the classroom and when presented without context.

Whittle proposes the worst possible model for using television in schools. All students must view programs on the same day whether or not the content is relevant to other classwork. Retention will be minimal under these circumstances.

Perhaps the school should set aside an hour a day for thorough discussion of current events? High-school faculties show little enthusiasm for this suggestion; they must already manage the curricular crush in their own subject fields, the priorities of colleges and universities, and mandates from state departments of education.

No questions about current events appear on the American College Testing program or the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or on international com8parisons of student achievement. Given recent reports that place American students at the back of the bus in international test scores, devoting large amounts of time to current events makes little sense.

Will students like the program? Except for the brightest, most will probably say that they enjoy it, or that the program makes them more aware of the news. But students would also support 12 minutes of National Football League highlights or a slice of one of the sitcoms.

The issue here is entertainment versus education. Liking a TV show does not equal learning by students; a happy face does not necessarily reflect an informed mind.

Schools today are spending their technology dollars on microcomputers rather than on television systems. A microcomputer with interactive software is a much more powerful instructional tool than is classroom TV, which in fact enjoyed more attention in the 1970’s than it does now.

Microcomputers meet three of the most fundamental principles of learning: The learner should be an active participant; the difficulty of the material should match the ability of the student; and the learning environment should be individualized.

Classroom TV meets none of these criteria. The learner is passive; the difficulty of the material may be above some students and beneath others; and there is no individualization. Unless carefully tailored to individual classrooms, instructional television is about as effective as a below-average teacher.

But with software that responds to individual replies, and with word processing and simulation programs, the microcomputer is rapidly becoming the technology of choice in schools, along with videocassette players used at appropriate times in the lesson plan by teachers. For most purposes, group television presentations as proposed by the Whittle plan are obsolescent.

Advertisers salivate at the prospect of gaining a headlock on the youth market, because young people tend to become loyal to the first products used and they tend to influence parental purchases.

The Whittle proposal, therefore, is a high-stakes game. It sets a powerful industry, which wishes to increase consumption by young people, against the schools, which have been given a trust by the American public to educate fairly and thus to prevent special interests from invading the classroom. Since schools are a marketplace for ideas and not for pro4ducts, the responsibility of educators on this issue is clear.

Some argue that critics should wait for the results of the research on the pilot schools before taking a position. To conduct research, however, requires a research question. Whether or not to allow advertising to a captive student audience is not a research question; it is an ethical question.

And whether an advertising agency should dictate the curriculum and the delivery system in schools for 12 minutes a day is a professional issue as well as an ethical question.

We are confident that most educators will make the right decision.

A version of this article appeared in the March 22, 1989 edition of Education Week