Tag Archives: TV

Teaching Lessons From The Wire

16 Jul

The Wire may be the greatest TV show of all time. It’s included in most “top five”  lists and  was anointed number one by Entertainment Weekly when they published their list of  The Greatest TV Shows of All Time in June of 2013.

The irony of this popular acclaim isn’t lost on long-time fans of The Wire because for years it seemed that this amazing show was destined to be ignored by most TV viewers. When the show aired (2002-2008 on HBO) it had famously low ratings and despite being critically lauded never won an Emmy award. Creator and “show runner” David Simon attributed this to “…the complexity of the plot; a poor time slot; heavy use of esoteric slang, particularly among the gangster characters; and a predominantly black cast”.

The Wire differs from many TV shows by having a complex, multi-layered plot that makes comment on modern society.  TV critics compare it to the best works of Dickens or Dostoyevsky in the way it uses narrative to explore social problems, especially the problems of urban poor in North America. One of the issues explored at length (mostly in season 4) is the role of schools and the education system in perpetuating many of  these problems.

I’ve watched The Wire multiple times and feel it has a lot to say about education and teaching. Here are five lessons I’ve spotted:

  1. Juking The Stats: One of the themes through all 60 episodes is the how politicians and bureaucrats rely on statistics to justify policy decisions. The Baltimore police department is concerned not with solving crimes, but rather with making sure that crime statistics show they’re doing their job. The emphasis on statistics changes how they approach their job. In season 4 Roland Pryzbylewski, a detective who becomes a teacher (as The Wire co-creator Ed Burns did) discovers that things are much the same in public schools. I’m always a little surprised by how accurate a depiction this scene is of what happens in schools.

The Lesson: Test scores aren’t about learning, they’re about politics, and as such they make learning in our schools worse.

  1. The King Stay The King: Despite our efforts the hierarchy of societies doesn’t change much. Drug dealer D’Angelo Barksdale teaches ‘corner boys’ Bodie and Wallace how to play chess. They want to know how a pawn can become a king and win. D’Angelo explains that no matter what, a pawn can never become a king, just like in real life.

The Lesson: We may see education as a path for students to move out of poverty, but the opportunities are few and the chances are slim. Often in society “…the king stay the king” no matter what we do or how hard we try.

  1. It’s All In The Game– The drug trade subculture, as depicted in The Wire, is referred to as “the game”. People do horrible, awful things to each other in pursuit of their goals but justify it as being ‘all in the game’. It makes sense within the rules and codes of the subculture. Similarly schools are subcultures, and there are many things in schools that don’t make sense outside that subculture.

The Lesson: Schools are separate places with separate rules. Sometimes there’s a disconnect for students between the world of their school and the world outside. They might be from different ethnic culture or economic circumstances. We need to recognize and allow for the fact that for many students schools don’t make sense and are disconnected from the ‘real world’ they and their families live in.

  1. Caring When It Isn’t Your Turn (paraphrased): Police detective and anti-hero Jimmy McNulty points out in the first episode of The Wire the dangers in taking on a challenge when you don’t have to. Detectives who try to ‘change the world’ end up feeling frustrated and ineffective. Addressing complex problems is difficult and requires a collective effort.

The Lesson: There’s a long list of outside factors that affect a child’s learning (poverty, family circumstances, previous learning, etc.). If we try to ‘fix’ all of them we end up spread too thin and unable to do focus on where we’re most effective. We need to accept students as they are and do our best to help them move them forward, and not get distracted by the multiplicity of things we can’t control. Care deeply about the things that really matter.

  1. “The game is rigged, but you cannot lose if you do not play”: Police lieutenant Cedric Daniels has been assigned to investigate a crime neither he nor his superiors want investigated. He feels he’s in a ‘no win’ situation when his wife points out to him that this is only true if he accepts success as others have defined it. If he thinks ‘outside the box’ and redefines the situation there’s a way forward.

The Lesson: Many outside the system try to define what success means in education. Politicians define it in terms of test scores and graduations rates. Some educators find themselves in difficult situations with inadequate resources to meet those external definitions of success. When faced with this educators should redefine what success in the classroom means to them. Perhaps it’s progress or maybe it’s making a difference to a student in a non-academic way. Whatever it is, it’s important to make sure that “success” is defined in ways that are personally meaningful.

Why Khan Academy Is The Wrong Answer

21 Nov

“The problem with television lies not in the quality of resolution but the quality of programming”

Nicholas Negroponte “Being Digital”

Nicholas Negroponte is a genius and one of my heroes. He played a major role in creating the MIT Media Lab, Wired Magazine and the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program. His book “Being Digital” was transformative . Every time I turned a page I read something that blew my mind.

One revelation was Negroponte’s thoughts on the future of TV. In 1995 HDTV was on the horizon and millions of dollars were poured into increasing screen resolution. Negroponte pointed out that what stopped people from watching more TV wasn’t screen resolution, but lousy programming. They were innovating on the wrong problem.

Before we solve a problem it’s important to make sure we’re working on the right problem. We need to do the same when improving education.

Popular efforts to improve education are focusing on the wrong problem. Millions of dollars and hours of innovation are being spent on improving how we deliver content in an era when content matters less and how we interact with it matters more.


What do all these all have in common? They are one-way content delivery systems and large corporations stand to make a lot of money from them.

However, the weak link in our current learning paradigm isn’t content delivery. Traditional textbooks deliver content efficiently and effectively, and access to content is cheaper and easier than at any other time in history thanks to the internet. It’s only with the guidance of a skilled teacher and interaction with other learners that content becomes relevant and engaging. That’s what makes  good teaching important. Future education is better served by  investing in and developing tools that support discussion and interaction, not improving content delivery.

New uses of the internet (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) are social. Web 2.0 is about users interacting and collaborating. The power of YouTube is that users create, share and discuss their own videos. That’s what makes it unique. Using it to show lectures so students can watch their homework while playing World of Warcraft turns it into a TV channel, nothing more.

Promoting interaction and discussion is the most effective way to use technology to support learning. Social media promotes and extends discussion, which is far more effective and transformative than putting lectures on YouTube or textbooks on tablets will ever be.

Some Examples:

  • Google Hangouts facilitates face-to-face discussions when students can’t be in the same space. Use it for after school study groups or to connect remote learners working on the same topic.
  • Twitter allow students to discuss learning and share insights over mobile devices or asynchronously.
  • Skype can effectively and easily connect learners to experts in the field they are studying so they can ask questions and delve deeply into topics.

We need to focus on using and developing technological tools that make learning more interactive and collaborative. It’s is a more effective and innovative way of improving learning than simply finding new ways to deliver content.

Best Teachers on TV

18 Nov

It’s weird that education and schools don’t get more representation on TV. Schools are a bigger part of people’s daily lives than police, lawyers or hospitals, but there are hundreds of shows that revolve around those professions and very few that feature schools and education.

There are however a few teachers on TV and here are the best.

Who did I forget or miss? Tell me in the comments:

1) Roland Pryzbylewski, The Wire (Jim True-Frost

Quote: ” I don’t get it. All this so we score higher on the state tests? If we’re teaching the kids the test questions, what is it assessing in them?”

Bio: Pryzbelewski is an incompetent detective in Seasons 1-3. At the end of season 3 he retires and in Season 4 becomes a middle school math teacher allowing the series to explore the links between the failures of the school system and violence on the streets of Baltimore.

Why I like him: Pryzbelewski cares deeply about his students and does the best he can while recognizing that he is working in a very imperfect system.

2) Charlie Moore, Head of the Class (Howard Hessman) 

Bio: Out-of-work actor Charlie Moore is a substitute teacher, assigned to the Individualized Honours Program (IHp) class, a gifted class. He makes it his mission to get them to think rather than merely to know. He is there to listen and shows an unswerving ability to get the students to solve their own problems while making it seem like they came up with the answers on their own.

Why I like him: The curriculum is problem based learning that empowers the students back in 1986. A reminder that these are not new ideas.

3) Gabe Kotter, Welcome Back Kotter, (Gabe Kaplan

Quote: “Buchanan is not anywhere. It’s in Bensonhurst, which is in Brooklyn, which is where I spent four degenerate years as a student. You know how rough that is? The gangs there don’t use guns. They insert the bullets manually.”

Bio: Mr. Kotter is a well-meaning, teacher who returns to Buchanan High after ten years to teach the Sweathogs, a group of remedial students. He has an affinity for the potential of these students because he was a founding member of the original Sweathogs. He teaches Social Studies, and frequently role-plays events to the class.

Why I Like Him: Anyone whose taught students who struggle to learn know that it’s incredibly hard and frustrating. Flexibility and a sense of humour is key. Mr. Kotter has both of those.

4) Phil Gilbert, The Inbetweeners, (Greg Davies

Quote: “This isn’t The Dead Poets Society and I am not that bloke on BBC 2 that keeps getting kids to sing in choirs.”

Bio: Mr Gilbert is the permanently angry head of sixth form and answers to the headmaster of the school. He has a biting wit and sarcasm which he uses to convey his dislike of his job and the children for whose care he is responsible.

Why I like Him: Greg Davies was a secondary school teacher for 13 years. In his time he no doubt encountered many angry and burnt out teachers. He offers a note perfect parody of someone who shouldn’t be working with students, but is.

5) Helen “Greg” Gregson, Summer Heights High (Chris Lilley

Quote: “I’m always joking with the principal. I always say to Margaret, ‘you’ve got yourself an entertainment industry professional for the price of a teacher! So where’s my pay rise?’”

Bio: Mr G, is a drama teacher at Summer heights High. He believes he is an incredibly talented and well-liked teacher and that his students share his intense passion for drama and performance. He is in constant conflict with other members of staff, and the school principal in particular.

Why I Like Him: Chris Lilley, the creator of Mr. G & Summer Heights High trained to be a teacher and is another actor with insider knowledge of education. Mr. G is the kind of teacher who makes it all about him. The teacher who didn’t succeed in their chosen field and so retreats to teaching even though it’s obviously beneath them 🙂

What Teachers and Parents Can Learn From Korean Hip Hop

4 Oct

There’s no hotter cultural phenomenon that Psy’s Gangnam Style right now. We’re in the centre of the passing cultural storm as everyone (yes, even edubloggers) try to catch a little of the reflected glory from everyone’s favourite hit song.

The video for Gangnam Style is now the most “liked’ video on the history of Youtube  (359,713,166 likes as I’m writing this). The performer Psy has appeared on Jimmy Kimmel (singing/rapping in Korean no less) and has the number 1 pop single around the world. And of course we’re in the midst of that now familiar cultural marker, the endless string of parody videos. Yesterday, in the staff room, I watched teachers listening to the song on their phones 🙂

The bigger question for educators and parents is what are we to make of all this. If you can find someone who predicted we’d be swooning over Korean Hip Hop this fall I’d like to pick their brains about the stock market.

Here are a few ‘takeaways’ from The Gangnam Style Phenomenon for parents and educators:

  1. Popular Culture is Still Youth Culture: For the last 60 years it’s been teens and those in their early 20’s that drive popular culture and that’s still true. My teen sons knew about Gangnam Style’s appeal long before I did. I saw the video first, but didn’t really know what it was or what it would become. They knew when they saw it and were talking about it with their friends (and by talking I mean skyping & texting of course).
  2. Youth Culture is Global: Teens are less concerned with where someone is from and more interested in how appealing their ideas are. If the ideas are good they want them, no matter the source. Technology allows this to easily happen. Anyone can instantly connect to any part of the world, any subculture or any generation. It’s a meritocracy of ideas facilitated by the internet.
  3. Unique is Good: In digital culture anyone can easily copy anything. Making or liking something unique and different is valued. Creativity is king. Teens would rather see something unique than a really good copy of something ‘old’.
  4. The Power of the Remix: Technology allows content from any source to be personalized. Your Facebook timeline doesn’t look anything like mine. People increasingly using this power to take existing content and remix it to make it relevant and personal and then share it. Why sit and watch Gangnam Style when you can remake it with you and friends as the stars?
  5. Sharing Matters: YouTube “likes” have driven the popularity of Gangnam Style and other viral YouTube hits before them (“Call Me Maybe” anyone?). Participation in online communities and expressing your opinion is increasingly the way we determine what matters. The Olympics and The US Presidential debate tout the amount of twitter traffic their events generate. Our students and children need to be able to successfully navigate this to make sure their opinions and thoughts are heard. If they are not participating on-line they don’t exist.
  • Note: I wonder what happens to our democratic “liking” model of determining worth when billions of rural Indians and Chinese come on-line and start expressing their “likes”‘. Will Bollywood movies be winning all the Academy Awards? Will our teens listen to pop songs in Mandarin & Cantonese on their iPods? Or will we find another system?

Superbowl in the classroom

5 Feb

Today at 6:30 pm EST The New York Giants will take on The New England Patriots in Superbowl XLVI. And tomorrow morning, at about 9:30 am, my grade 4/5 class will compare their game predictions and try and answer questions about the game and the spectacle.

Many students, especially those with no interest ask me ‘why?’ which is a fair question with anything we do in the classroom. Here’s my explanation:

  1. This is a huge TV event which happens to include a football game. Last year’s Superbowl was the most watched US TV program in history (111 million viewers) and this years audience will probably break that record. We’ll discuss why that’s important (e.g. advertising)
  2. The half time show will feature Madonna along with several surprise stars (MIA?, Nikki Minaj?) performing live. This is a different, less produced version of these stars than students usually see on YouTube videos. We’ll discuss who lived up to expectations and why.
  3. The size of the TV audience means that Superbowl commercials cost $3.5 million US for a 30 second spot. Advertisers pump up the budgets and the creativity, and the commercials are amazingly fun to watch. We often don’t get these broadcast in Canada, but my students and I watch them on YouTube. I’ll use these as a jumping off point to discuss advertising techniques and develop media literacy in students.
  4. We’ll look at Google Maps, locate the participating cities and advance students understanding of US Geography.
  5. It’s a shared cultural experience. There are fewer and fewer of these and I want my students to know the feeling of everybody watching something separately and coming together to share their different perspectives. This develops communication skills.
  6. It’s fun for some students. It’s a good way to connect with students who enjoy the game in it’s own right, and gives students a way to connect with others in their family who are watching the game. This enhances social skills.

Why Mr. D. is good for education

31 Jan

“Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.”

Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin'”

I’ve wondered why there weren’t any good TV shows about teachers. There are good shows about lawyers, police, doctors, etc. Why not teachers? There’s as much drama and mayhem in schools as hospitals, and schools are a place almost everyone can relate to.

But education has remained one of the last bastions of professional privledge. In times past no one questioned a doctor’s authority, but patients show up with reams of information and diagnoses, challenge their doctor’s opinions and seek alternatives. We’ve accepted that doctors, lawyers, police officers et al are fallible, and make mistakes just like anyone else.

But we struggled when it comes to education. When Johnny and Janie set off in the morning we release precious children into the care of educators and schools. How can we do that daily and accept that educators may not exactly know what they are doing?

That’s what’s behind the run of “Teacher Porn”, films from the mid-1980’s to the mid-1990’s that celebrated educators as hard working, under appreciated saints. Think of ‘Dangerous Minds’, ‘Stand and Deliver’, ‘Dead Poets Society’ and the excreble ‘Mr. Hollands Opus’. They maintain the fiction that ‘Teacher knows best’. But now, that’s starting to change.

Last year I watched the big budget ‘Bad Teacher’, with Cameron Diaz portraying a frighteningly bad middle school teacher, surrounded by a cast of less than perfect colleagues. Then last week the staff room was buzzing about the new CBC series ‘Mr. D’. Comedian Jerry Dee plays a high school teacher who is an incompetant bufoon. The conversation amongst teachers was how we could all see ourselves and other teachers in his portrayal.

Seems that we are starting to accept that teachers aren’t the fountains of all knowledge, and this is good for education. The more we accept the idea that students are at the centre and teachers just there to facilitate their journey, the sooner the needed shift can happen.

Some educators are threatened by this, but they needn’t be. The medical professional has changed and adapted, and so can we.