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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

What Presidential Candidates, Brangelina, and Reality Television Mean for Education

By Peter DeWitt — September 25, 2016 5 min read
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We want to be entertained more than we want to be informed.

At first glance when we’re standing in the grocery store checkout aisle we see a few tabloids talking about various celebrities, presidential candidates and unsolved mysteries that have long captured our attention. Those tabloids even focus on celebrities who died some time ago, and how their families are fighting over the riches they left behind. The stories always focus on the sensational, and then we make one of two choices.

We smile, shake our heads and wonder if the person behind the register could go any slower.


We pick up the tabloid to bring it home for a closer look at the surface level stories.

Truth be told, I’ve never gone for option 2, but many have or else those tabloids would no longer be available because the publisher would be out of business. Stories about Brangelina, our choices for president, and the countless number of reality television shows all seem to represent what we value.

We can say that all of those don’t represent us, but there is a reason why we have one of these two candidates for president, and why the divorce of Brangelina consistently makes it on the nightly news when there are far more important stories that are happening around the world.

Another example perhaps?

How about the Kardashians? I used to think that the Kardashians were what’s wrong with America, and then my partner was quick to point out that I shouldn’t be blaming the Kardashians, because they are merely giving America what it wants.

He’s right.

We are surrounded by quick stories that grab our attention, including the title of this blog post. We surf the net, and look through Twitter and Facebook to see the stories that will best grab our attention when we’re drinking our morning coffee or having a glass of wine before we prepare dinner. We want to be entertained more than we want to be informed.

What Does This Have to Do With Education?
But, this is an education publication. Why write about Brangelina, presidential candidates and reality television? The presidential candidate choice makes sense because the winner of the election will have an impact on education. But the other two choices in the title? Why those?

They all have the same thing in common. We seem to value entertainment more than we value being informed. Perhaps it’s our need to escape the woes of our job or personal lives, but somewhere along the line we became more interested in lives of people we don’t know than our own lives, and that effects what we purchase, view and learn about.

John Hattie, someone I work with as a Visible Learning trainer, talks a great deal about how we spend a lot of time on surface level knowledge without ever going deep. In Hattie’s context he is talking about in the classroom. We ask students questions to see their level of understanding and we hurry up and move on because we have curriculum to cover. Great teachers go a bit deeper by asking questions that will take students from surface to deep, and even inspire students to ask their own questions instead of always being in the position of answering the ones from their teachers.

Is it harder for teachers to go deep because society likes surface? Or do we need to work harder to go deep to combat society’s need to stay at the surface level? Spending too much time at the surface level is a common occurrence.

Here are two quick examples of how we do that:

The Daily Show’s Jordan Klepper went on the Trump campaign trail to interview Trump supporters about Hillary Clinton, President Obama, and why they’re supporting Trump. Besides contradicting themselves, and seeming to be completely uninformed, they cited Facebook, Twitter and word of mouth as to the sources they use to get their information (view the whole video here).

The video represents surface level understandings that aren’t even true, and how confirmation bias is how they got to that level of understanding. Supporters, regardless of what candidate they’re going to vote for, show up on the campaign trail looking for anyone to confirm a bias they already have before they even stepped into the rally. We listen to the very things, no matter the credibility of the source, that we want to hear about someone we may like or dislike.

We think we’re being informed, when we’re really being entertained.

Second example. Out Magazine recently published an article about how Mike Pence, Trump’s vice presidential candidate, urged employers not to hire gays back in the 90’s. For those of you thinking I’m picking on Pence, which would be easy to do given the article that he wrote in the 90’s...I’m not. I’m actually focusing on the commenters.

There were hundreds of people who commented about how disgraceful the letter written by Pence was, but deeper down in the comments someone mentioned that the article that Out Magazine linked to, which was supposed to be Pence’s letter, didn’t have anything in there about what Out’s story focused on. Why? Out Magazine linked to the wrong article, and had to change it. So, although hundreds of commenters were ready to rip apart Pence, they hadn’t actually read the original article that Pence wrote. If they had, they really would have ripped him apart.

In the End
Back to education. We need to teach students about media literacy, so they learn how to make informed opinions, and we need to model it by having our own informed opinions. Every student we don’t engage to their fullest are going to grow up to be adults who have uninformed opinions. We need our students to understand that not everything they read can be taken at face value, and we need to understand that ourselves. We all must learn how to be informed instead of just entertained.

We all need to look at our own confirmation bias, which has everything to do with media literacy. We need to understand that we have a bias that makes us only look for the information that will support that bias. We all have to take a deeper look at what we value, and before we pass judgment on someone, we need to make sure that we are getting the full story.

I don’t think the presidential candadates and our need to watch reality television and indictment of the american educational system. However, if we want better candidates, less sensational news in the checkout aisle, and fewer options of reality television, than we need to stop supporting it, and start educating our students and ourselves differently. That begins with tranferring from compliant learning to authentic learning.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (September, 2016. Corwin Press). Connect with Peter on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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