Episode 001 Transcript



PETER HORN: Hey everybody, this is Peter Horn. Welcome to the pilot of the Point of Learning podcast, brought to you in part by the letter P. This is episode number one. On this episode of Point of Learning, some ideas about how popular television engages young viewers today very differently than 25 years ago. 


KEVIN JOHNSON: I think what is different now is that it's participatory. Nobody ever asked you when you were watching, you know, Coach to do anything, but John Oliver last Sunday put footage up and asked people to do things in after-effects. That's a very different world that these kids live in.

PETER: And a different take on scheduling high school classes you're not going to want to miss. 

KEVIN: We're very used to this model: One instructor, one section. I don't think that's the best way to teach teenagers. 

PETER: This podcast is for anyone interested in getting to the point of learning. It will often focus on kids or school or teaching ... but I want to keep it lively for anyone curious about what and how and why we learn. This is the pilot episode so I want to give you just a quick bit of background on where this is coming from. This spring marks my 20th anniversary as an educator. In 1997 I had the pleasure of working with Maribeth Edmunds, now Dr. Maribeth Edmunds, who challenged me as her student teacher to bring my best ideas to share with our students each and every day. Every day, my best ideas about what we were reading or writing or discussing. I took that challenge seriously, partially because I loved what it implied: If you're going to bring your best ideas, first you must assume that your kids can handle your best ideas, provided you are clear enough about what you're saying and passionate enough to sell the value of thinking hard, and making and exploring new ideas. Second, you've got to believe your students are worth it. If you're a teacher checking out this show, given everything else you've got to do, I'm betting you believe your kids are worth it. And third, you have to keep discovering. As I said, that was 20 years ago. 


PETER: I'm on a break from the classroom right now so that I can pursue projects like this that I would not have had time to pursue if I were still in the classroom. If you are a teacher, you know what I mean. And God bless you! This show is for you teachers and school leaders, but not just for you teachers and school leaders. This podcast is for anyone interested in getting to the point of learning. It will often focus on kids or school, but I want to keep it lively, for anyone curious about what and how and why we learn. 


PETER: Today for instance I'm talking with Kevin Johnson. Whip-smart and fun to talk to, he's worked for one of America's largest corporations, for a major stock exchange, and for New Jersey public high school students. A sound engineer, editor, director and television teacher with a decade of experience. And once upon a time, as a senior in high school, he was my student in English Lit and Composition. Students, dare I say, are the best part of teaching. So I really like the idea of spending this first episode talking with somebody who used to be a student of mine but has also many times been my teacher, and is certainly a good friend. In our conversation Kevin introduced the challenge of teaching television to very media-savvy kids with the example of framing shots. With today's availability of Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube, et cetera, kids often come into an intro TV course having already acquired the ability to frame shots pretty well. 

KEVIN: The thing about framing is, it's the basis, right? So I've seen Quentin Tarantino talk about how "the basis of prose is the word; the basis of cinema is the frame." Right? See, I said that like Quentin Tarantino. And so at this very basic level, modern students, they're so immersed in the medium that they they can create it in a way that we couldn't when I was their age. We had to be taught the basics, kind of the way how people can look at a word and say, "It doesn't feel like it's spelled right." These kids visually, they know what's going on, even if they can't articulate it.

PETER: We got to talking about what accounts for this difference between the current generation and ours. Kevin's just a few years younger than I am.

KEVIN: Americans have consumed about the same amount of television for decades. It's trending up a little if you count other screen time. But basically Americans watch between three and five hours of television every day. I think what's different now is that it's participatory. Nobody ever asked you when you were watching, you know, Coach to do anything, but John Oliver last Sunday put footage up and asked people to do things in after-effects. That's a very different world that these kids live in. Or they watch YouTube and they can post a video response. You don't write to your local station manager ... Remember those ads we used to see? "Write to your cable operator and ask them to carry The Nashville Network!"


PETER: Sure. So I wonder if we're bumping up against the difference between learning and acquiring. Acquisition being based on something that we're immersed in, such as the first language, whereas learning involves certain formal instruction using you know something that would look like a lesson or feel like a lesson, according to most education textbooks. The rule of thumb is that we're better at what we've acquired, but we know more about what we've learned. Learning: there's an accompanying vocabulary, a lexicon. And so when somebody starts to talk about shots in TV1, she or he learns some ways to talk about that, that's formal learning. But you're talking about this kind of acquired skill where kids would come to you in 2015 being quite a bit more adroit in framing something, in some basic visual language, than in 2005.

KEVIN: I think the challenge now is that the students come to you with this basic ability now and that's great--you can work with them. But in some ways it's a little more challenging because they can do something, but they have a lot less understanding of what they're doing, you know when they start. So they're starting at this sort of seemingly higher level but at least 10, 20 years ago when they were starting literally from zero they knew it, you knew it, you're coming up together. Now you're sort of trying to put language to stuff that they've been doing in many cases since they were in grade school. 

PETER: Well I would imagine it necessitates a different approach.

KEVIN: A totally different approach.


PETER: Sidebar: Acquisition versus Learning. Kevin's example nicely points up the difference between learning and acquisition. As I said a minute ago, "The rule of thumb is that we're better at what we've acquired, but we know more about what we've learned." (Oh yes I did just sample and remix myself. I'm in the process of learning and acquiring audio-editing skills for the first time--having a blast.) Back to the example of Kevin's students: these kids who have messed around with video and developed a certain amount of skill with it, have immersed themselves in it. That's acquisition, that's acquiring. They're better at it probably than somebody who just took a semester course on video editing who learned it in a formal setting and may have learned a whole bunch of vocab--tilt up, tilt down, frame, zoom, splice, pans. When Kevin talks about encountering those kids in a TV1 class and you start adding technical terminology to stuff that you've already done, well that is almost exactly like an English Language Arts teacher teaching grammar to students who have grown up speaking English. The grammar seems strange. "We do this already. Why do I need to know what an intransitive verb is? Why do I need to know what an infinitive is?" As we're discussing them here we're using the terms acquisition and learning according to technical definitions that I didn't encounter until I took a linguistics course in college. (For my blog post on this topic check out the show page or visit HornEdSpeak.tumblr.com, then search acquisition.) In a nutshell, I believe that distinguishing these terms is worthwhile for educators and other people who like to learn things because school is usually set up for either acquisition or learning to dominate, and these modes of apprehension get us to different outcomes with students. As I just said, we're better at what we acquired, but we know more about what we've learned. We obtain most skills through a mixture of learning and acquisition. For instance, new drivers usually learn through direct instruction how to operate a vehicle safely, including some specialized language like yield, parallel park, speed trap. But drivers only come to full and effortless control through a process of acquisition, that is to say trial and error behind the wheel, and exposure to different kinds of driving situations. This mix of learning and acquisition applies to many other kinds of skills, like playing a sport, learning a musical instrument, or cooking or parenting or, of course, teaching. We're better at what we acquired but know more about what we've learned is shorthand then for the up- and downsides of each mode. So to go back to language, if your high school French class offered only grammar and vocabulary, you probably did not become as good at French as if you'd spent a few weeks or a semester practicing the language on an exchange trip. Acquirers usually beat learners at performance. On the other hand, learning the grammar of another language provides a set of tools for better understanding one's first language; learners usually beat acquirers at talking about the subject, including explaining analyzing and engaging topics critically. Acquisition and learning lead to different goals, but schools often confuse them. The takeaways for educators, then: 

  • If the goal is mastery, that is to say full and effortless control and performance, then acquisition should dominate. What opportunities are provided for students to do whatever skill they are learning about? How close can class come to providing a meaningful and functional setting for this skill? 
  • On the other hand, learning inherently provides tools for kids to be able to discuss, compare, and critique ideas--not just important for students, but for citizens. How often do schools ask students to do this? 

PETER: For Act 2 of today's show, which I wanted to be about a thought about a different model for how to schedule teachers with groups of kids, especially in high school. That was a cool idea that Kevin came up with. I was trying to get him to talk about this idea that he had mentioned a couple of weeks earlier in sort of an offhand way. I thought that our soundcheck would be a great opportunity to provoke him to expound upon this. And so I thought that I was artfully guiding him in this direction. And this is the question that I actually asked him: We seem to be asking more and more of classroom teachers, saying, "You should be including these standards in your lesson plans, you should be consulting the resources, you should be getting this kind of professional development on your own time, reading these kinds of things, differentiating for students, using technology, creating engaging learning experiences, and meeting with parents and community ... The list seems to go on. One of the things that we know is important is engaging kids where they are relative to their media landscape and some of the ways that they are engaging with the world and appropriating new information and engaging new ideas is through video, through online platforms. But that's a lot for a teacher take on. You were positing a classroom model that would have a principal content-based teacher but then a instructional support professional who might be able to--

KEVIN: Oh yes. I'll describe that in a second. 

PETER: So you have a sense for how well that went! I was trying to get him to talk about his idea, but he insisted, believe it or not that we needed to talk about Cheers first. Yes, Cheers the show from the mid-late '80s to the early '90s. Nine o'clock Thursday night NBC, that Cheers. We also discussed Alf and Mr. Belvedere and Small Wonder. It was wide-ranging for a certain period of television. This snippet should give you a feel for it and I promise it will become more important in a second. Hang in there. 


KEVIN: When we had spent a week on Cheers ... and I had to memorize a chart of what the characters' names meant. Norm is a normal guy. We're almost 20 years hence I could probably draw you the chart.

PETER: Let's keep going. We got Sam Malone, May Day Malone.

KEVIN: He ends up alone, Sam Alone.

PETER: Sam Alone, Sam Alone. Frasier Crane. A little bit later ...

KEVIN: I actually don't remember.

PETER: Cliff Clavin.

KEVIN: Cliff Clavin: "dumb guy, dumb name." Actual quote from my professor. 

PETER: Dumb guy, dumb name. What? Oh. He was full of factoids though, Cliffie. 

KEVIN: But the thing about Cheers and why I bring it up: we talk about these classroom materials. "Teachers should be using YouTube, or making a blog." This is complicated stuff! The worst show you've ever seen--and the reason I said Alf at the beginning of this is Alf and Cheers were on at the same time. Every single person who worked on both of those spent a lifetime in that business. These weren't idiots off the street making Alf, but nobody gives a sh*t about Alf because it was a terrible show, right? I can make fun of it now. "Oh it was a terrible show." I'm just dismissing a lot of people's work! 


PETER: So there are a couple of fairly broad claims in there, but the idea is that this stuff is hard, even making an average quality television show is really, really hard, requiring the work of a lot of specialized people. But now think about what we do in school ... frequently!

KEVIN: If you are a young teacher, and your vice principal comes to you (or whoever's in charge of you) and wants you to do this stuff, and it's all laudable stuff:  "I want you to create these classroom materials, I want to do all this stuff." Is it even physically possible to produce quality content as basically an amateur and still do your job at the level that the people of your city expect you to do as a professional? I would say No: the current system doesn't allow you to do both things well. You cannot be an effective classroom instructor--doing the assessments, keeping the records, having the relationships that you're expected to have with students and members of your community and supervisors-- you can't do that and also be creating this world-class content that, to be frank, Warner Brothers might create and still fall flat. As consumers of television, film, records, it's really easy to say, "Oh, this is terrible, this is terrible." This stuff that we're calling "terrible"--and some of it is--is produced by people whose entire lives are wrapped up in that project.


KEVIN: As you know, my beginning in public education is a little different than many people's. I was not a teacher by training, but I became a pretty good teacher's assistant. I had two years in the classroom with somebody with experience and I got to watch him teach every day and jump in sometimes and he would delegate things to me. It was a really good experience. I got to see what worked, what didn't work. I got to do things in a very low-pressure environment. And I would want such a thing for other people developing. So imagine, if you will, you're some young whippersnapper amazing vice principal who's been tasked, you're the Master Schedule Guy this year. Even within your current contract, even within your current budget, staffing, everything, I think it's worth looking at how schools allocate their instructional resources. So if you have a department let's say of, you know, five teachers who teach 100 students (trying to use some easy numbers that are made up here). You know, you might have sections of 20 as your goal and they go up or down from there depending on how things shake out. One instructor, one section. We're very used to this model: one instructor, one section. I don't think that's the best way to teach teenagers and I know Peter you've heard this a million times but for your viewers or for your listeners, I think that you can benefit so many things, right? Vice-principals are always on about instructional time and they're not wrong, you don't want to lose a few seconds here, a few seconds there, because over the year they add up. What about acceptable absences? You know you're out for a day because you're ill or because you have to chaperone a trip or because half of your students are out. If you have a system where there's multiple teachers, a partial absence of one of them doesn't have the same deleterious effect. No matter how you feel about instructional time, worrying about 30 seconds here and 30 seconds there, no matter how much they add up to--three class absences is way more than that. So I would love to see a system where instead of five instructors each teaching their own sections, pull two of them out. They will not be the 'teacher of record' or whatever you want to call it for their own sections. Three people are going to teach all of those students and the other two will be assigned for each section and they can--however you want to supervise it, I'm not a managerial genius! The bottom line is I think what administrators need to do is find ways within their current labor agreements to divide tasks in a more sane way. So you don't have 10 people each doing five things, but maybe you have you know five people doing two and a half things, and five other people doing two and a half different things. And I'm not here to prescribe what they might be. I just know from my experience, it works very well if you can have one person planning lessons, being the primary point of contact with students and bosses. And another person who is generating materials, doing preparatory stuff that that person can't do. Right down to as simple as if you want to have a video tutorial for students, who's going to the hang the light? Who's going to set up the mic? Who's going to QC [quality control] the gear? I mean, it's not glamorous stuff, but it has to happen.


PETER: There are several reasons I think that Kevin's thought experiment is so valuable. You know one, of course, he lived it; it's not actually an experiment. It was a version of his own experience, so it's growing out of a tried and true model that he lived in for two years, being an assistant to somebody else who was the principal teacher in the classroom. But also it took me a while to realize how much a school's master schedule is really an expression of what it values. That was abstract to me until about the second decade I was in school. Certainly that was the time that I began needing to schedule a team of teachers myself, so I saw how complicated it was. But it was only then that I began to ask questions like "What does drive the schedule? What classes drive the schedule?" And you know if we say that co-teaching for example is important--you know, working with a special ed teacher and a curricular subject teacher--if we say that's important, but we don't schedule any time for these two teachers to plan together, do we really believe that it's as important as we say that it is? The master schedule is an expression of values. Another reason I think this idea might be important is that it might provide the opportunity for people to try out, in a lower-pressure way, some of the aspects of teaching. It strikes me that it would be ideal for somebody in college right now doing teacher preparation to do, you know, a Junior Practicum, some aspect of his student teaching, in this kind of model where you are supporting somebody, creating some materials for you know much of the time. But some of that time you can be the principal teacher but it could be a possibility of some flexibility here where you could mix it up and give somebody an opportunity to see "Is this something I would really like?"--without all of that pressure that attaches to the standard student teaching experience. Not too long ago I was analyzing some data from a study on paraprofessionals in Washington D.C. and paraprofessionals, as many of you know, are the staff members who used to be referred to as teachers' aides. So several of the paraprofessionals in this study were spitballing. They asked whether their role could be reimagined as a possible entryway to teaching, if desired, rather than a permanently parallel track. I think that's third reason that I wanted to highlight Kevin's example is not for the example itself, but rather the fact that here is an educator coming up with ideas as he's in the classroom thinking, "How could things be a little bit different?" There is tremendous latent capacity, there tremendous ideas that teachers have, that paraprofessionals have, that custodians have, that students have, that people who are in school spending time in schools have about how school could be better that we do not regularly seek out or take advantage of.


PETER: Well, that just about does it for the pilot episode of the Point of Learning podcast. Thanks again to Kevin Johnson for getting us set up here in the studio, and agreeing to be our first guest and to you for listening, for checking it out. Hopefully you'll be willing to subscribe to the podcast, comment on it, Tweet us thoughts @HornEdSpeak, share it with friends. I'll be back soon with another episode of the podcast and more conversations about teaching, learning, kids, leading, and school as we try to get to the point of learning.

KEVIN: Write to your cable operator and ask them to carry The Nashville Network!

Peter Horn