Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Best show you’ve never seen?

I don’t watch much British drama on TV any more. All those rehashed genres; costume dramas (endless Bronte and Dickens), murder mysteries (same old plots, same old bit actors), cop shows (tired and weary cops chase tired and weary bad guys) and science fiction (set largely in disused quarries or London suburbs). It’s the same old commissioners, commissioning the same old writers, in the same old organizations producing the same old stuff (Shameless and Skins excepted).

Cut to the renaissance in US TV drama – The Wire, The Sopranos, West Wing, Lost, Heroes – the list goes on. They rip up the old genres and deliver contemporary drama that is absolutely gripping, and sometimes worthy of the term ‘art’.

I’ve put ‘The Wire’ at the head of my list, as it’s regarded by some critics as being the best TV series ever. Having watched the first four series on DVD, I can’t wait for series five, which starts on the FX channel on Monday. I’m not a fan, I’m an addict

The learning game
In particular, for those in the ‘learning game’, I recommend series 4, as it’s about schools. Well, not exactly, it’s about learning from your peers, the streets and why institutions like schools are now part of the problem and not the solution. It’s complicated, and that’s the joy of The Wire; it’s never what it seems. It’s not a ‘cop’ show; it’s a ‘city’ show. Actually, it’s a deeper ‘game’ show, in the Wittgensteinian sense – showing, not telling, sophisticated characters and issues through the many language games of the many interlocked groups; drug barons, corner boys, dopeheads, cops, lawyers, politicians, dock workers and so on.

Writer – cop and teacher
Ed Burns, the writer, was both a cop and schoolteacher, knows his stuff, and makes the dialogue so rich and real that seasoned cops, teachers and other professionals often ask him how he managed to get the inside track.

So what does he show us? As solid institutions such as the church, work, family and community have fragmented in the face of awful city planning, drugs and increasing gaps between rich and poor, the one institution that has remained solid in this melting icepack is the local school. It is wrong therefore to blame schools for failing to satisfy this deficit in social needs.

No romantic ‘Poet’s Society’
What The Wire does, is dissect a school in the full context of other institutions; city government, police, criminal organisations and so on. This is no romantic, Poet’s Society tale of doughty teachers inspiring young people to succeed. It’s the grim reality of inner city state education, where the web and allure of crime becomes a rational choice for young black kids (Baltimore is 65% black, and in these areas, the schools are 100% black). The bright kids are sought after by the drug gangs to run corners.

The hopelessness of teaching literary criticism and other areas of an outdated curriculum to these kids is show with sensitivity. Yet the educational apparatchiks demand that teachers ‘teach to the test’. Computers lie in their original boxes in basements as the teachers don’t know how to use them. Violence is commonplace. Statistics rule.

Disruptive kids ruin any attempt at teaching in classrooms and only thrive when removed from classes, where they want to show off and play their own particular ‘games’. This is surely right. I’ve witnessed with my own eyes the hopeless attempts at keeping a small number of massively disruptive kids in class. Many of the kids are shown to be street-smart, and the writer seems to suggest that separating the serious problem kids out of mainstream classes, with plenty of outside support, is the only way to keep them and others learning.

Where it scores is in the irrelevance of much of the curriculum and teaching methods. Old fashioned teaching methods are shown in all their magnificent irrelevance, while more relevant, differentiated methods are show to work. Maths is the focus, and Burns shown why most maths teaching fails – as it is too far removed from real life and seen as irrelevant. The kids are delighted to find that probability can be taught by predicting the odds in street dice games. Girls who struggle to do simple arithmetic find they can do it when it’s rephrased in terms of street dollar transactions. The teacher tricks them into learning by making them feel that it’s not learning. He also excites them with a class computer. The less they are aware of it being learning, the more they learn.

Watch it (Mon 21st FX)
Ultimately, however, this is a dark tale that doesn’t pander to clichéd hopes and promises. It’s a deep and realistic analysis that will make you reflect, laugh and cry – the characters are unbelievably real (Omar is of Shakespearian stature), the stories complex and the end result lingers in your mind for weeks.


Anonymous said...

I wish some one had come up with these concepts when we were in school. The shool kids will bless you for suggesting all these alternative methods. Recently, I observed that my daughter has picked up very high level video games. Yesterday, I saw her catching a Pokemon, which according to my son is pretty difficult. This makes me agree with you. When work is made to fel like play it is fun to learn. As you say "The less they are aware of it being learning, the more they learn." Amazing indeed. To think of this even I am learning when the content here is not boring but is something I relate to especially regarding my kids' problems. Well written Donald, thanks for sharing and reinforcing the right concepts of learning. I have gone back to my own mode of not pushing after reading your blogs. These writings have given me conviction in my orignal belief that children should learn while they are obliious of the process. Thanks and Regards.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. I think that the greatness of The Wire was somewhat over looked - maybe lost in the shadow of The Sopranos.

The depth and complexity of the character Omar is truly fascinating to watch.

Omar on the stand.

The 4th season that focuses on the schools truly is the shows finest hour. It really causes you to think - and realize the concept of privilege - and what it really means.

Here is a real life example of how effectively kids can learn when they are engaged, when learning is made fun.

Ron Clark Academy.

Ken Robinson on Creativity.

Damien DeBarra said...

At the same time that I was making my way through Wire 4, I was also reading 'The Terror of Performativity' by S. J. Ball (Journal of Education Policy, 18(2), 215-228.) which outlines how teachers' have essentially become slaves to Government's obsession with accountability and transparency. Translation: a crippling strangle-hold of box-ticking and shuffling students through the minimum required to get rid of them up to the next grade, resulting in every 'objective' being met, but with no-one actually learning anything.

Watching Prez struggle to get the kids to think on their feet almost seemed surreal after reading that.