Television and video have an undistinguished track record in public education, as either a baby sitter or a security measure. But things have changed in recent years, and the future is certainly getting interesting.
I cannot begin to count the number of times I have seen darkened classrooms full of kids watching some video or other. Sometimes it seemed to be relevant; other times it was clearly filler, an uninspired teacher killing time or ‘rewarding’ his students by letting them watch a movie.
Of course, some teachers have used video brilliantly to bring to life what otherwise might be words on a page. Far better to experience, say, Olivier’s Hamlet on the screen while also reading the play. (When I was a high school English teacher in the late 60’s, I used some wonderful Caedmon LP’s of Shakespeare’s play to bring Macbeth’s power and passion to life.)
Lots of schools use video cameras for security purposes. I’ve been in schools where every hallway is wired and someone sits in the main office watching multiple screens. Creepy. Other reporters tell me about schools where classrooms have cameras, allowing the principal to monitor activity.
However, in recent years we’ve seen videos of teachers losing it in class, thanks to hidden cameras or cell phones.
I wouldn’t be surprised if some teachers were now turning the tables, whipping out their cell phones to video kids who are misbehaving.
But this use is negative to the max and reflects how unhealthy the atmosphere is in some schools.
Now the ante has been upped, with a massive project to videotape thousands of teachers in action. Sam Dillon reported on this in the New York Times recently. Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation are heavily involved, and large-scale videotaping experiments are now going on in at least seven districts, including Dallas, Denver, Hillsborough, FL, and Pittsburgh. About 3,000 teachers are allowing themselves to be videotaped, with trained ‘graders’ viewing their efforts (but not their principals). These graders look for specific behaviors: does a teacher consistently ignore students who have their hands up to answer questions? Does she make an effort to help students who may have missed the previous day’s lesson? Does she turn her back on the classroom on a regular basis?
What’s the endgame? If the goal is to provide tutorial videos that will demonstrate good teaching techniques to struggling teachers, I think it’s going to be a failure, as I explain below. And if it’s a ‘gotcha game,’ it will be strongly opposed by organized teachers everywhere. As the AFT’s Randi Weingarten told the Times, “Videotaped observations have their role but shouldn’t be used to substitute for in-person observations to evaluate teachers.”
Bill Gates told the Times that he was interested in helping teachers. “Some teachers are extremely good . . . What’s unbelievable is how little the exemplars have been studied . . . You have to follow the exemplars.”
There’s money to be made here. Firms like Teachscape are charging districts hundreds of thousands of dollars to set up systems for schools (one camera per school) so they can videotape teachers at work. The Times says Teachscape charges about $1.5 million for a district with 140 schools and 7,000 students for the first year, and $800,000 annually after that.
But let’s take a deep breath. This particular project will result in 64,000 hours of classroom video by June 2011, creating what someone has called ‘a cottage industry’ for retired educators who will now sit and watch and ‘grade’ what these teachers do.
So far so good, but how do those 64,000 hours become short tutorials of the sort that Mr. Gates is envisioning? I work in this business, and for a typical NewsHour piece that runs 8 minutes, we will come back from the field with 20-30 hours of video. And we will work for days and days, whittling and shaping so the video tells a story. Who’s going to do that with these 64,000 hours?
And because television is little more than radio with pictures and these classroom videos are really nothing more than a wide-angle camera in the back of the room with a small microphone mounted on top, and a second mic on the teacher, the sound is going to be pretty bad. Nobody is going to watch what they cannot hear!
To give you a better idea of just what 64,000 hours means, that’s about 2,666 days or 7.3 years of video—mostly without decent sound. I’d rather do hard time in a penitentiary than be sentenced to watch all that.
Or think of it this way. I have been working for PBS since 1985 and in 25 years have amassed an archive of 90,000 hours of video (professionally recorded with good sound quality). These folks are collecting 64,000 hours in just the first year alone.
Properly used, video can transform learning, but it’s a tool, a piece of technology that has to be harnessed to specific learning objectives.
Let me give an example from my own high school teaching. I decided to try bringing 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, not to mention a great deal about Macbeth and Shakespearean tragedy.
Before we left Macbeth, we’d probably try our hands at acting and videotaping some scenes and speeches. I’d have the students watch different actors in TV dramas and ask them to figure out where the camera was, and why. They’d be thinking, and writing and learning.
Here’s what I believe about video and schools: Children should be given access to information about how television is made and to the TV making equipment itself. Access invites inquiry and encourages curiosity and creativity. So as not to scare anyone, I’ve labeled what I’m talking about as access, but in fact I mean power – giving young people more control over their own learning.
It’s time to recognize that television, the most powerful medium of mass communication ever invented, is also a wonderfully effective way to acknowledge individuality, foster cooperation and encourage genuine citizenship.
Hands on involvement with television makes school a place that young people want to be, 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, avoid inferior programming and hopefully recognize propaganda when they see it.
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. A clothing outlet (Syms) hawks its wares with the slogan, “An educated consumer is our best customer.” That should be adapted to education: “An educated citizen is our democracy’s best hope.”