Tech Wit: Reality television: Trading classrooms

Posted: Monday, July 12, 2004

Techwit By Jason Ohler

You gotta love "reality TV" because it's the fakest stuff going. And when you put the fakest stuff going on the most contrived media around, well, from an advertiser's perspective you've hit the mother lode.

The way I see it, there's three basic kinds of reality TV shows that are most popular. First, there's news channels. Wars, natural disasters and everything in between plays out like a football game. Newscasters with shiny hair and disc-jockey voices give one-sided commentary while music wafts in the background. Rather than making you think about what you're watching, the news makes you want to root for the home team and feel guilty if you don't.

Second, there are the "Darwin on steroids" shows, in which a bunch of Ken and Barbie look-alikes are marooned on an island or at a five-star resort, and are as mean as possible to each other in the hopes it will make them rich. Every once in a while a show involves normal-looking people, but you can't help thinking they're deformed.

The third are "the trading places" shows, in which real people do things like redecorate each other's house. These are a big hit, so TV execs are considering other "trading places" programs:

"Trading Parents" - Kids trade parents for a month and then decide whether they would rather have their parents back or spend a week at Disney Land.

"Trading Politicians" - Nice idea, but the problem is that communities usually ship off their least favorite political windbag just to get them out of state for a month. In the pilot I saw, mass depression set in as everyone realized that political windbagness was a universal condition.

"Trading Classrooms" - This is my favorite. Two teachers trade lesson plans and teach each other's classes. I watched a pilot involving two very different teachers - let's call them Dr. Podium and Polly Process - who entered each other's world for a month. It was very educational.

Dr. Podium was used to speaking in a monotone from behind a lectern because he thought it helped maintain calm in his classroom. He believed in "seat time." That is, if kids were in their seats then they must be learning. That's why he didn't let anyone go to the bathroom. He believed that kids should memorize things like the full names of the kings and queens of England so they could pass all the No Child Left Behind exams, as well as be ready to be a contestant on "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."

He tried to adopt Ms. Process' methods, which required kids to work in teams using computers and to apply general principles of inquiry rather than memorize facts. But it fell apart when he told students they could work together as long as they didn't talk.

Things were worse for Ms. Process. Unable to stand still, she put wheels on the podium and pushed it around the room to work one-on-one with students. Because kids had to keep quiet and remain seated, she gave them all PDAs so they could instant-message each other.

Great show, but FCC Commissioner Powell is making sure it won't hit the airwaves. It turns out that an independent reviewer determined that kids who could pass No Child Left Behind exams were useless in the marketplace, while kids who failed the exams actually got jobs. Rumor has it that Powell told the President's Cabinet that "criticizing No Child Left Behind is far worse than Janet Jackson showing her you-know-what during the Super Bowl."

The irony of all this is that the most honest thing on TV is professional wrestling because everyone accepts that it's fake, just like the presidential debates. Maybe we need another trading-places program: trading parties, in which politicians are forced to argue issues from their opponent's point of view. We might actually get close to the truth. Now that's something I'd pay real money to see.

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