Teach Kids to Make TV!


This article originally appeared in Issue# 52-53

In a documentary I produced some years ago called Part Time Work, 17-year-old Danny recognizes that he's wasted his high school years and faces a bleak future as "just another worker." After the documentary aired, however, Danny enrolled in college and majored in television production and theater.

In another documentary, Ricky is a high school dropout naively dreaming of a career in the National Basketball Association. But Ricky now has a high school diploma, is attending community college and hasn't played serious basketball for years.

I am not confessing to fraud and deception. The camera showed Ricky and Danny as we found them, but being around and on television changed their lives. And what happened to Danny and Ricky could easily happen - and should happen - to millions of American school children.

Why did television change Danny and Ricky? Was being with us merely a form of vocational education? Yes, but it was more. I think that making television gave Danny and Ricky some insight into and power over their own lives. My experience as a journalist and as a parent leads me to believe that a more helpful step than calling for more and better children's programming would be to invite children to be around, in and on television.

Children want desperately to be on television, as anyone who's taken a camera crew into a school can attest. Why do children jump, stare, turn cartwheels, wave and shout, "Hi, Mom"? I think that their moblike behavior is, paradoxically, a search for individuality. We seem to have become the polar opposite of those aborigines who fear that cameras will steal their souls. To children, being on TV proves that they exist, that they matter.

But educational institutions see children as empty vessels into which teachers pour knowledge, or as the raw material for their "knowledge factory." Children get the message that they're minor cogs in schooling's machine, and in ever-increasing numbers young people are rejecting that message by quitting school. Today one in four students drops out.

Can television, the greatest tool of mass communication ever developed, be a means of individualizing learning? Of course it can. Television is not only our neighbor, our common language, our link and the collector of our experiences. Used skillfully, it could be the instructional and motivational tool of the 1990s, the means of revitalizing our schools and of turning on our children in positive, life-enhancing ways. I'm saying, "Teach children-beginning in elementary school-to make TV." And as they learn to make television, they will also learn most of the other lessons, values and basic skills we want them to.

The possibilities are nearly endless, with basic equipment that can be purchased for under $5,000 (a minicam, tripod, two portable video/sound recorders, two color monitors and an editing unit). For example, junior high school social studies classes could make news programs about a particular historical period, with judges picking the winner. Or chemistry experiments could be videotaped and edited to teach both new material and lab techniques (as well as editing). Any imaginative teacher would find dozens of ways to have students use the equipment.

Years ago, a blue-ribbon panel recommended five sensible objectives for realizing the educational potential of television.

  • Availability. Broadcast children's programs when they're watching television.
  • Diversity. The range of content, style and subject matter should be as broad as a child's curiosity and needs.
  • Selectivity. Television should not try to be everything but do what it does well.
  • Focus. Make different programs for different age groups.
  • Innovation. Take chances, experiment, explore new concepts.

    I suggest a sixth objective:

  • Access. Children ought to have access to information about how television is made and to the TV-making equipment itself. Access invites inquiry and encourages curiosity and creativity. When I call it access I am really talking about making sure that young people have power over their own learning, with the guidance of trained professionals. All I am doing is recognizing ways in which TV is important, even central, to young people. It's time to recognize that television is also a wonderfully effective means of fostering cooperation and acknowledging children's individuality.

Excerpted with permission from Family Resource Coalition Report, volume 9, number 1.

Author Bio: 

John Merrow, President of Learning Matters, Inc., reports on Education for the Newshour with Jim Lehrer on PBS.