What TV Chases Out of the Classroom

By Marie Winn

An educator and authority on early childhood with forty years of experience as a teacher and principal has noted a change in children since the advent of television—they are more sophisticated but less mature:

Young children today have a sophistication that comes from all their contacts with the outside world via television, but sophistication and maturity are not the same thing. Children today are often less mature in their ability to endure small frustrations or to realize that something isn't instant. They're less tolerant of letting themselves become absorbed in something that seems a little hard at first or that is not immediately interesting.

For educators, this means that getting children to engage in challenging work is more difficult than ever.

Demanding Coursework and Rigorous Homework

One of the indisputable ways in which television has changed the face of education is through the appearance of a new and increasingly popular addition to the curriculum—the study of television itself. Variously called "Media Literacy," "Critical Awareness," "Viewing Skills," and other names, these courses offer a tantalizing possibility: to make a stepping-stone out of a stumbling block by using television itself to transform a classroom of students into selective, critical viewers.

The reasoning behind the media-literacy movement goes like this: Children already watch a great deal of television and nothing much can be done about it. Let's help them get more out of their viewing by teaching them to be more critical about what they view. And thus children, to their delight, are finding that in place of arduous studies requiring reading and writing and concentrated effort, they can settle back in their seats, chat about TV, and watch programs in school that relate to those they enjoy at home.

One such program that made its way into second-, third-, and fourth-grade classrooms a number of years ago was called Gettting the Most Out of TV. Emanating from the Yale Family Television Research and Consultation Center and funded, not surprisingly, by a major TV network, the program's goal was to help young children distinguish what is real and what is unreal on television; it also pointed out that TV commercials often exaggerate. Children may indeed learn to watch television more critically, but it's hard to justify taking away valuable school time from other subjects to accomplish this questionable goal.

Today, TV is not only the subject of courses, it has become part of homework in traditional courses. Faced with large numbers of students who simply do not complete their homework, often as a result of home television viewing, many teachers have settled on a common compromise solution: television programs for homework. Sometimes these are shows such as National Geographic specials that may be related to a part of the curriculum. At other times, regular TV programs are assigned for whatever educational value they might provide.

For most teachers, assigning TV for homework is not a maneuver taken to lighten their workload—it is an act of desperation. Teachers hope that by engaging their students in the study of their favorite medium they might manage to sneak in some lessons of a more traditional sort along the way. A high-school teacher whose English class is entirely devoted to the making of video programs and the study of existing shows on television explains:

One of my prime goals in this class is to use TV video as a motivational tool for reading and writing. We write scripts and we read about television. When I assign them to watch TV, they are aware of the content as well as the technical aspects.

It's not hard to understand why there's a waiting list to get into this teacher's class, or why more and more teachers are turning to television to make their classes more attractive to children of the television generation. Making video films in the classroom and watching situation comedies for homework is fun! Struggling with the complexities of a sonnet, striving to uncover subtle meanings, ironies, or patterns can be work, no matter how gratifying the final experience of reading might ultimately prove to be.

The trouble with using television as a motivational device arises when students must make the shift from the TV-related reading and writing to those forms of reading and writing that lead to clear thinking and a better understanding of people and events—that is, to the reading of literature and history or the writing of well-presented, logical ideas. When asked why he chose the television-centered English class instead of the customary, book-centered course, one student explained: "A regular English class gets boring—you just sit around and read books."

But in an era when children are known to spend 4,000 more hours watching television during their school careers than they actually spend in the classroom, is it not the responsibility of schools to redress this imbalance? Shouldn't teachers devote all their energies to the preservation of literacy and the development of those cognitive skills that will give children access to the heritage of the past—history, science, literature—and help them understand the increasing complexities of life in today's society?

Marie Winn has written for many newspapers and magazines, including the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She has written 13 books including Children Without Childhood and Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park. Excerpts adapted from The Plug-In Drug, Revised and Updated by Marie Winn, © 1977, 1985, 2002 by Marie Winn Miller. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.


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