Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Getting readers and viewers interested in the developing world - an educational analogy

In my internet wanderings today, I've come across two interesting pieces in the Guardian. Germain Greer reviewing the book, Half the Sky, and Jonathan Freedland discussing media portrayals of the developing world.

Both pieces hinge on the essential dilemma of how to get the media-consuming public in the developed world aware of and engaged in the issues of the developing world. They discuss how this is often accomplished by resorting to oversimplified caricatures of victimized or heroic developing-world characters, losing the complexity and color of life in the country being focused on. Often the reader or viewer is engaged through the use of heroic avatars -- the Americans or Europeans who have swooped in to save the hapless locals -- at the expense of portraying the ability of the locals to save themselves. And often the complexities (and complicities) of the interactions between the developed and developing worlds are neglected.

Life in the developing world is abstract, complicated, and messy for most media consumers in the developed world, and the media therefore has a hard time engaging its audience in a well-rounded, complex, authentic view of that world.

There's an educational analogy here. Africa : US TV viewers :: physics : secondary school students.

Greer mostly points out problematic aspects of Half the Sky's approach to engaging its readers, without proposing alternatives. Freedland, however, proposes three ways for the media to engage consumers in a more authentic view of the developing world.

  1. Find the active drama going on within the story, "not a crude battle of victims against villains, but [the] subtle mix of conflicting, shifting political interests."
  2. Replace occasional, flashy, "parachute-in", front-page stories with a sustained stream of small, "inside-page" stories that over time piece together a well-rounded mosaic of the complexity of the subject.
  3. Insist that "these foreign stories are not so foreign" -- unearth the links between the reader's world and the world of the story. (His example ties Lithium used to power laptops and iPhones to the environmental problems around Chile's largest lithium mine.)

So, to carry forward the analogy, what does that look like for Physics (or almost any subject):

  1. Find the active dramas in the subject -- don't just talk about gravity as a given, talk about how we came to understand gravity the way we do now over time; and don't just teach science as a set of facts in the textbook, introduce current scientific debates (dark matter, the expansion of and eventual fate of the universe, etc.).
  2. Don't just cover a topic once and consider it taught. Come back to important topics repeatedly over time, touching on them in relation to new topics and new applications. Cover potential energy with relation to the physics of motion, and come back to it in the context of electrical circuits and the structure of the atom.
  3. Make the connection between the subject being taught and students' daily lives. Voltage isn't just a symbol in a circuit diagram -- it also determines what kind of battery a student needs for a given electronic device. And distance = velocity * time isn't just an equation, it tells you how long it will take you to get to school each day.

In the end, I actually feel pretty lucky. I think physics, earth science, and math are all much easier to teach than the politics, religion, social issues, and history of Africa. And I get a whole school year of classes to work with, rather than limited TV time or print space. I just need to get my students to feel the same way.

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