Screening teaching

How are teachers and teaching represented in the media? Some observations provoked by Mark Readman’s book ‘Teaching and Learning on Screen’, reviewed here.

I’ve been watching and reading about quite a few fictional teachers recently. I have been working on some essays for my new project Growing Up Modern: Childhood, Youth and Popular Culture Since 1945 (coming very soon to this website). Mr. Dadier in Blackboard Jungle, Mrs. Wilkinson in Billy Elliot, Mr. Farthing in Kes, Professor Zellaby in The Midwich Cuckoos, Dick Searle in Mandy – whenever children and young people appear, teachers are bound to follow. And yet there have been very few studies of how teaching and teachers are represented in the media.

Against this background, I was especially interested to read a new book edited by Mark Readman, entitled Teaching and Learning on Screen: Mediated Pedagogies (published by Palgrave Macmillan). Like most academic collections (including my own), the quality of the contributions is somewhat uneven; and like most academic books these days, it’s insanely expensive. But there are some real gems here, and some genuine food for thought.


Among the stronger pieces, Roger Saul provides an insightful account of the school-based storyline from the fourth season of The Wire; editor Mark Readman offers a witty analysis of Accepted, the movie satire on US universities; while Ava Parsemain gives a broader account of pedagogy in the Australian version of the genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are? A couple of other pieces provide interesting insights from non-English-speaking settings, notably Lawrence Raw on Turkey and Joel Windle on Brazil; although personally, I could have done without the ‘fannish’ accounts of predictable texts like Doctor Who, Harry Potter or Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In many cases, the particular target for criticism here is the figure of the ‘hero teacher’ – the lone crusader who single-handedly transforms the lives of their recalcitrant students, often incurring the wrath of the authorities in the process. This is a familiar stereotype (think Dead Poets Society, The Prime of Jean Brodie, The History Boys), yet it is one whose very persistence seems to reflect some kind of fundamental, fantastical desire – perhaps not least on the part of teachers themselves. And yet, as Roger Saul (and indeed The Wire itself) makes clear, this is a fantasy that belies the force of structural constraints on teachers, and on such students’ lives.


Blackboard Jungle: Hero teacher meets recalcitrant student

For me, the collection raises some interesting questions about what we are doing when we analyse ‘mediated pedagogies’. Some contributions here seem to regard pedagogy in quite abstract, philosophical terms. The task then becomes one of spotting exponents of particular forms of pedagogy in the chosen texts. Thus, the chapter on Harry Potter identifies examples of ‘undifferentiated reconstructionism’ and ‘discipline-focused essentialism’ (among other approaches) among the teaching faculty of Hogwarts; another distinguishes between ‘humanistic’ and ‘functionalist’ mentoring styles in Buffy and Teen Wolf; while another claims to identify ‘feminist and queer pedagogy’ in Jean Brodie and Billy Elliot. Aside from the tiresomeness of this kind of pedagogy-spotting, this approach seems to remove teaching and learning from their social context.

By contrast, the essays on The Wire, and on educational representations in Turkey and Brazil, do provide a sense of the wider context of education, not just in terms of education policy, but also in terms of the broader social and political setting. There’s also something of this in Julian McDougall’s essay here on Educating Yorkshire (and Gogglebox). Of course, the collection focuses on ‘pedagogy’ – in other words, on the immediate relationships between teachers and students. But there are limits to how far we can understand pedagogy without looking at the institutional contexts in which it occurs, and then in turn at the wider forces that shape those contexts.

Furthermore, viewers make sense of all these representations against a background of intense political debate. Over the past three or four decades, at least in the UK, education has become a hotly contested political issue, in which ideas about pedagogy are a central focus of controversy – much of it ill-informed and unduly polarized. Politicians of all persuasions routinely denounce the apparently sloppy, permissive teaching styles of the 1970s. They invoke and seek to enforce models of classroom practice that owe much more to fictional representations of the elite private schools of the past than to any contemporary reality. Education has become somehow symbolic of much broader assertions about social change: claims about the lack of discipline in schools, about the need to return to traditional conceptions of knowledge, and about the reassertion of teacherly authority, all reflect much broader anxieties about social decline.


In this context, it seems important to look more closely at how education is depicted in factual representations of various kinds. Readman’s book contains a couple of essays that touch on documentaries like the Educating series and The Secret Life of Six Year Olds; but there is nothing at all about television news. Meanwhile, we could also be looking at how schools and other educational institutions represent themselves. In an increasingly competitive, marketized system, public relations have become a major preoccupation for schools and universities. Analysing the publicity strategies of educational institutions – the websites, videos and glossy prospectuses – would reveal much about the political pressures on contemporary pedagogy. (And if you would like to see a sample of this kind of propaganda, click here.)

At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that pedagogy is actually everywhere in the media. In this respect, Ava Parsemain’s essay on Who Do You Think You Are? is particularly suggestive. This series – in which celebrities investigate their own ancestors – doesn’t obviously involve ‘students’ or ‘teachers’, but it does nevertheless show a learning process, in which the celebrities gradually acquire information from a range of experts. There is a kind of ‘popular pedagogy’ here, which is actually apparent in a wide range of television and other ‘edutainment’ media genres. Teaching and learning are a major focus of talent shows such as Pop Idol and The Voice; we see displays of knowledge (or the lack of it) in TV quiz shows, from University Challenge to Fifteen to One; cookery shows like Bake Off and Masterchef amply illustrate different forms of teaching and learning; and there is obviously an informal pedagogy in the presentation of natural history documentaries or TV science programmes. News, one could argue, is a profoundly pedagogical form: it inevitably rests on assumptions about what readers or viewers know, and about how they learn.

All these genres (and many more) offer models of teaching and learning: they define knowledge and skill in particular ways, and they represent different ways of acquiring them. Directly and indirectly, they are all teaching, or attempting to teach. I’ve done some work on this myself in relation to children’s television and (in a different way) in relation to media portrayals of sex and relationships, but I can think of very few academic analyses of the broader pedagogical function of mainstream media: only a couple of older books like Jostein Gripsrud’s collection Common Knowledge and John Corner et al.’s Nuclear Reactions come to mind.

These are important issues to explore, not only for media scholars and media producers, but also for teachers. Public understanding of the business of teaching is critical, especially at a time when education (like childhood) has become a focus for a kind of ‘symbolic politics’. There’s a vital agenda of questions to address here; and while Teaching and Learning On Screen has its limitations, it makes a good start in doing so.