Teaching on TV Sucks – An Trope Over-analysis

I’ve been teaching in some capacity for about 7 years now, about 3 of them properly and getting paid for it, and I’ve even recently got qualifications that say that I can do it. While I haven’t got it all figured out by a long shot, I’m pretty sure I know when to spot it going awry.

So, while I haven’t seen this specific thing documented thoroughly on TV Tropes yet, I want to bang on about the following trope, you’re sure to see it pop-up on TV frequently:


SCENE CLASSROOM (INT)

**Rows of students sit attentively as the TEACHER walks up and down between the individual desks talking.**

TEACHER

…And then we add one to the power and divide through by the new power to get the integral of the function, which gives us –

**The bell rings. Suddenly, all the students grab their bags and begin to move. The camera begins to focus on MAIN CHARACTER. The TEACHER begins to shout to be heard.**

TEACHER

…And don’t forget that the mid-term is on Friday so bring a spare pencil and also your essay on Franco’s Spain is due on my desk tomorrow and also remember student elections are this Thursday!

MAIN CHARACTER

Hey, are you going to SPUNKY HARRISON’S big party on Sunday?

SECONDARY CHARACTER

Man, I still don’t have a date for prom!


Trashy dialogue aside, there are a few things going on here and I’ll address them in turn shortly.

If you see classroom teaching on TV, this is what it will look like. I know why this is a thing. If you set your characters in a school, you can’t have them perpetually on a lunch break. Even the most lax of sitcoms know that you have to show your characters doing something occasionally, and this is a great case of “show, don’t tell”. And because you don’t want your scene to be 45 minutes of a grown adult talking to youngsters, you have to set it at the end of a lesson so it only lasts a minute at most – it’s a nice set-up to get MAIN CHARACTER and SECONDARY CHARACTER in the same room with a reason to speak and move the plot onward.

This is fine… but every time you see the trope in action it always exemplifies piss-poor terrible teaching. As I will now over-labour to death below.

Bad classroom management

The bell is always there, and it always triggers an immediate exodus. You can make the disciplinarian argument that the teacher’s word is law, and that the bell is only a “suggestion” – a thing to keep the whole school in sync even if clocks are out by several minutes. As a result, students should stay seated until the teacher dismisses them, rather than rumble off immediately in spite of the classroom’s authority. This tends to be what happens in schools as far as I’ve seen, so it’s at the very least an unrealistic trope.

Personally, I think a purely authoritarian/disciplinarian argument for this is a bit weak. Still, poor-to-non-existent classroom management is the underlying fault in this trope, and it informs the other reasons it’s unrealistic / bad teaching below.

Waiting for the cue

If you ever watch this sort of scene closely, you’ll note the speed that the kids stand up and pack away the instant the bell rings. As if they’re waiting for it, mentally preparing like a star sprinter waiting for a starting gun to go off. But of course they are, because they’re actually actors waiting for the director to tell them to move (presumably the bell is added in post).

But assume that they are real students for a moment. If their reaction times are so unified and sudden, it means they were preparing and waiting – possibly even clock-watching until the bell rings. That means they’re not focused on what the teacher is saying or their own learning. The classroom is background noise to their mental preparation to move. The whole mental effort of the background actors goes toward not missing their cue, a similar amount of effort needs to be spent by real students if they were to react so quickly to such a signal.

Bad time for key reminders

Almost invariably this trope shows the teacher giving out important information over the din. Exams, essay deadlines, where they’ll pick up next… yet you may as well start shouting scores from your favourite Rotten Tomatoes reviews for all that information will stick. The tiny humans in the classroom have moved on, their brains shifted into “moving the plot on” mode and won’t switch back to “information receiving” mode quick enough to take it in. Regardless of what you might think of your own ability, humans don’t multi-task, they task-switch. Students won’t take in this concluding information and shuffle about their desks, pack their books and prepare for the next bit of dialogue at the same time.

From a trope perspective, it’s background noise. It’s filler until MAIN CHARACTER outlines their problem. But if this were to happen in reality… it would be equally banal and pointless background noise.

Do these people not have watches?

An invariable part of this trope is that the bell always rings in the middle of a point. Why? It’s as if the lesson started only a minute before the camera began to roll and suddenly the bell rings to signal the end. Which is probably true on TV, but again unrealistic for real-world teaching, where lesson lengths are known in advance rather than set to a random duration.

I don’t ask that directors and screenwriters develop a full lesson plan in advance and film it, but come on! Did the serious-but-fun teacher dude who’s about to break it to SUPPORTING CHARACTER that she’s about to flunk math not realise that time was ticking on? Did they seriously think that twenty seconds from the end of the time slot would be a fantastic time to start teaching a new thing?

You might think the example script above with integration is a bit extreme, but I’m pretty sure I lifted it directly from Season 3 of Gilmore Girls.

Not the time for new information

Thanks to a lot of psychology and educational studies (and some fun ones involving military snipers) we know the exact attention span of a human being. It varies a little, but generally speaking after approximately 1 hour without a break we’re absolutely frazzled. So at the 45-60 minute mark of a traditional lesson, students are effectively brain-dead. This isn’t the time to start making your key thesis or introduce a new topic because you’ll run out of time, but because the students literally won’t take it in.

On a shorter time scale, our attention spans are about 10-15 minutes. That’s about the limit of our dead-set focus. As a result, good lesson plans tend to chunk things down into blocks. A typical (good) 50 minute lecture should break down into at least two 20 minute structured blocks with about 5 minutes between. So as attention begins to dwindle over the course of those structured blocks, your mode switches from presenting new information to reviewing old information. It’s all about keeping the cognitive load manageable.

So, in the example above, the teacher has blown the last five minutes of their time on teaching a basic outline of integration rules. This is a complete waste of time because they’ll need to spend at least 10 minute re-capping and addressing misconceptions that arose from doing it while students had lower attention due to being at the end of a lesson and were distracted by clock-watching for the bell.

The end is for continuity announcements

I’ve discussed a bit about lesson plans and chunking, but the end of a lesson plan should always be used for a re-cap and review, and for building a lead-in for what happens next. That’s a good five minutes of your time you need, not 10 seconds after the bell has rung and everyone is moving. The trope usually fits in a “Okay, tomorrow we’ll discuss Chapter 4!” after the bell rings, which sounds like it should do the trick, but you need a bit more than that.

There are a lot of reasons why you use the end of the lesson to discuss what comes next and in-depth. Firstly, there’s the principles around scaffolding. Here, you need to structure prior and existing knowledge so that students become more receptive to new material. This is a two-way street – before you present new material, you relate it to the older material, and after you present new material you relate it to the next bit. This activates students’ awareness that they will need to keep their mind open to bolt on some new information at a later date. It also provides instrumental value to the new material by showing them where it progresses.

So, that last line should be more like “Okay, tomorrow we’ll discuss any questions you have about Chapter 3, and then move onto Chapter 4 where we get to apply the Thing in a new situation, so if you have time to revise the Thing, make sure you’re comfortable applying it to the situations of Chapter 3”. Or anything with a little substance, really.

Conclusions

So, from this, you should have learned that television tropes depicting teachers at the end of the lesson are often unrealistic, and frequently depict very bad teaching. The main take-home points are that the end of the lesson is a bad time to deal out novel information, and when students are distracted by packing up after the bell rings is a very bad time to deal out important information. Do remember to review the concept of cognitive load above, because we might discuss cognitive load theory in more detail in the future. Now, there’s about 2-3 minutes left until the bell, so take the time to pack up carefully and discuss the topic amongst yourselves and then you can leave when I tell you to.

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