What Neil Postman taught me about teaching and television

Neil Postman
Neil Postman

Back when I was fairly new to teaching, I sometimes wondered how I could make my lessons more like TV. Maybe I should play a theme tune at the start of each class, I thought. Something that would get the students pumped up and ready to learn. Something dynamic, like Easy Lover by Phil Collins.

You’ll be relieved to hear I decided against starting every lesson with the same song, but any teachers among my modest readership might recognise the impulse to make your classroom more entertaining somehow. A game here and there, the odd joke or two. Activities which are so fun, the kids learn “without even realising it”™.

The 100% fun classroom is a pipe dream, of course. Learning takes work, and while work can be enjoyable and satisfying, there’s only so much fun to be had.

Years after my Phil Collins theme tune days, I read a book which has affected my attitude to education about as much as anything else I’ve read. The book is by the American academic Neil Postman, and is called Amusing Ourselves to Death. There’s a nice comic introduction to it here. Postman passes a skeptical, pessimistic eye over modern culture. He looks at a history of discourse, describing how the West went from being an oral culture to one dominated by writing. He celebrates the founding fathers and Lincoln, who put forward their ideas in extended prose, a format that lends itself to detailed, logical argument. Then he laments the level of discourse in 1980s America, where TV trumps all other modes of communication. To put it mildly, Postman was not a big fan of TV. As a high-paced audio-visual medium, TV ruined political debate. Detailed, logical argument was replaced by handsome smiles and neat slogans.

Postman’s critique of the damage TV has wrought on modern discourse goes from politics to the news, and while he tries to remain positive at the end, it isn’t very convincing. His overall feeling is one of dismay, and his prognosis is clear: the more popular TV becomes, the more we descend into a world of idiocy.

But the corruption of our discussions and thought is not only limited to our politicians and newsrooms; the classroom has been infected too. It seems cruel of him to pick on something as benign as a Jim Henson creation, but Postman doesn’t hold back. Without even wincing he plants a firm boot into Big Bird, Cookie Monster et al. Sesame Street doesn’t teach, he argues; it entertains. There’s a nod to education, but that isn’t its driving purpose.

It might be helpful to compare TV with this simple educational process, happening in classrooms all over the world:

Student tries something.

Teacher listens and corrects.

Student tries again.

Teacher says “That’s right!”.

Sesame Street doesn’t do this, for the simple reason that this is not how TV works. With a few exceptions, TV is a one-way, non-interactive medium. When we turn on the TV, our default setting is to sit and watch. Because we don’t interact with it, broadcasters have mastered standard techniques to maintain our interest: fast cuts between images; background music; narratives which keep us wondering what will happen next.

When Postman turns to the classroom, where the dominant mode of discourse has always been text, he sees a gaunt spectre rising above the books and the blackboard. It is the spectre of television, beckoning to students and teachers alike.

“Television can be educational,” we say to each other, thinking of educational TV such as Sesame Street, science documentaries and the news.

“And television is fun.” Which it is. We wouldn’t spend so much of our free time watching TV if it wasn’t fun.

It’s one more step to concluding that education can be made fun by showing more television. On top of that, we can borrow tricks from TV to make traditional classroom study more fun (see: quiz-show format lessons and inspiring Phil Collins theme tunes). The wider problem, Postman says, is that TV is leading the way for how discourse should take place. And TV is leading us into a world of short attention spans, superficial appearances, and the triumph of soundbite over extended argument. Did I mention short attention spans?

Many years ago, I heard a sound artist on the radio talking about his work. They played a bit of his work, and it wasn’t very good. I remember my petulant teenage mind thinking, “We already invented sound art – it’s called music”. People have been spending thousands of years creating instruments, music theory and an enormous body of knowledge to produce beautiful works of art in sound. Musicians dedicate their lives to a single instrument, practising for eight hours a day to reach hitherto unknown levels of technical virtuosity. You can’t just come out of art school with some plinky-plonky atonal noise out of some old cassette tapes and pretend you’re somehow in a separate field. You are doing music; you’re just doing it badly.

I’ve become a bit more open-minded about sound art now, but I’d like to use the same point in an educational context.

Teachers lecture. To a larger or smaller extent, it’s part of what we do: we stand in front of groups of people and explain things. At some point, with all the videos cropping up on YouTube, the educational community realised that we could video these lectures and put them online. TV stations in the 20th century wouldn’t have let us do this, but the internet has now made it possible.

The problem is, we’re like the sound artist who thinks he’s working in a brand new medium because he’s moved into it from the art world. Educators who film their lectures and broadcast them are working in a medium which is over a hundred years old. Without even realising it, your audience is going to expect cuts between at least three cameras; music; narrative; excessive emotion. TED talks are fascinating, because they are a genuine success story from the genre of video lecture. But when you look at them, more often than not, they contain all of the features I’ve just listed.

When your students realise it’s one camera and an expert carefully explaining things to the camera, it’s going to be a shock. If they listen, they’re going to need a level of maturity many adults don’t possess, and a real thirst for the knowledge being offered. The main struggle they’re going to have is watching TV in a different way to how they usually watch it. For instance, they might need to take notes. This one example more than any other highlights the starkness of the difference between what video lectures are trying to do, and how we naturally approach them. What kind of a freak would take notes while watching TV? So we usually watch Sal Khan, or TED talks, or any video lecture without a pen in hand. Simply by virtue of the fact that we don’t take notes, we admit that we are not approaching this as we would a live lecture.

Like any media studies essay, it all comes back to Marshall McLuhan and “the media is the message”. The message of a television is sit, watch, and be entertained. The message of the lecture theatre is sit and be ready to work. These are default settings, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be changed. If we think students lack the initiative to take notes, we could simply tell them at the start of a video lecture to have a pen and paper ready. We could softly encourage them to engage actively with the content by providing a list of questions which have to be answered by the end. As well as this, I think if we’re going to video lectures, we need to accept that there are visual conventions in place which make them more watchable. Cuts, views of the audience etc. It’s more time, effort and money, but if we going to be reusing these things, we might as well do it well. Just remember: education and entertainment have different aims. Confuse the two and you end up with Sesame Street.

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