The world can be your classroom

In recent times the mass media have drawn a lot of criticism for their negative influence on society, particularly children. The new generation is often seen as devoid of values, hooked to easy forms of entertainment and completely immune to the problems faced by many disadvantaged groups. As teachers and parents, we cannot do much to control the media environment our children live in.

On the other hand, we also decry the quality and limitations of our curricula; we feel that they do not offer enough to prepare children for the world outside. But we can perhaps co-opt the mass media for our own purposes - draw from it the good rather than the bad and in the process also help our students learn from it and around it. This article explores some of the ways in which you can make use of media forms such as newspapers, television (news and documentaries), advertising and even cinema, to enhance and extend classroom learning. The ideas are discussed mainly in the context of the middle school (classes 6-8) classroom, but they could easily be scaled down or up to accommodate upper elementary or high school as well.

Language Arts: The mass media have made the greatest impact in the area of language teaching. Language teachers have made a beginning in the use of popular media forms to add interest and relevance to their lessons. The mass media use language in many ways, to inform (news), persuade (advertising, editorial commentary), entertain (features, television serials) and educate (documentaries).  In the language class, such examples can be used to underscore the different purposes to which language is put, and to introduce children to the idea of purposive writing. A few other aspects to explore are outlined below. You could probably think of many more.

  • Contemporary language versus dictionary meaning. Are words used differently in the mass media as compared to in other contexts? Does language use differ across different types of programmes? Take note of the kind of language used on a news show versus that used by a vee-jay on MTV. What are the differences? Which do you find easier to understand and relate to and why?
  • How does advertising use words and phrases to convey whole concepts? What does an ad do with its clever used of words?
  • What is the purpose of different parts of a newspaper article (headlines, introduction, photo and photo caption)? How does the headline relate to the story? The teacher can cut out several front-page news stories and ask the class to write headlines for each, perhaps working in groups.
  • How does television use words to enhance pictures, not restate them? Compare the soundtrack of a documentary with the visuals. What sort of information is given in each?

Mathematics:

Apart from the direct lessons one can learn from the business sections or the financial pages, we can use the newspaper or the television to construct a variety of mathematical exercises ranging from ratio and proportion to diagrammatic representation of data. Here is one small example. Ask the children to watch one hour of television – it could be a news show or a comedy, or even cartoons. Have them maintain a record of the time they begin, and the intervals at which advertisements are inserted and the length of these ad breaks, as well as the length of the program segments. Of the one hour, how much time was devoted to ads versus programming? Now, look through the newspaper and count the number of articles on the first five or six pages. Then count the number of ads. Based on this exercise, and depending on the level of the class, you can pose a variety of questions.

  • What are the different ways in which you can represent the information you have gathered?
  • How much time is given to the actual programming (during one hour) versus advertising, in the case of television? Or in the case of newspapers, how much space is given to ads versus news stories?
  • What is the ratio of ads to programming/news?
  • How do the two media compare in terms of the amount of advertising?

Social Studies:

News media are the record keepers of the times. When people write history, they go back to old newspaper records, television archives and film clips to frame a wholesome picture. (This activity is for older children.) Using old newspapers, you can give students a glimpse of how history is pieced together and how incomplete and imperfect any history is. Try to find a few old newspapers (10 years old, perhaps) or old magazines such as The Week and India Today. If old newspapers are hard to find you could refer to the archives available online.  Have them write out a brief description of what things were like during those years. The same can be done for today’s media. Later, this can lead to a discussion of how historians use mass media and how much is left out of the news, and therefore, left out of the history we read.

The media’s use of patterns has more lessons in it. How have lifestyles changed as a result of media use? Children can interview their parents, grandparents or other elders they have access to, and find out what the world was like without the kinds of media we have today (television, computers, internet). Questions they can ask here are:

  • What did they do in the evenings?
  • What were the forms of popular entertainment?
  • How much did they know about other countries and peoples?
  • How was the living room (or family room, where the television now is kept) organized?
  • Did they go out more to get information or entertainment?

Science:

Several cable television channels and newspaper supplements deal directly with science, and these are useful additions to textbook material. Teachers can encourage children to watch programs like “Eureka” or the series on the Animal Planet/National Geographic /Discovery channels that specifically relate to topics being discussed in class. Children can write reviews of such programs or short essays, which summarize the information they have gained from what they watch or read. In the classroom, these reports can form the basis of discussions that bring together textbook concepts and real-world applications/phenomena.

When the opportunities arise, the media can be used to usefully explain such concepts as light (television, cinema), sound (all audio-visual media), human senses, all of which are exploited differently by each medium.

The attempt here has been to open your mind to the possibilities of using materials from everyday life to extend curricular learning. Media, particularly popular media, can be used to our advantage, as a learning tool. In the process of learning from it, children can also be encouraged to look at the content of the programs more critically. 

This article first appeared in Teacher Plus, Issue No. 61, July-August 1999 and has been adapted here with changes.

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