Al Gore, master teacher

As hurricanes spawn tornadoes so has An Inconvenient Truth spawned articles about Al Gore: his political ambitions, his resilience, his newfound charisma, his biomass. But what caught my eye when reading reviews of his new documentary film was the depiction of Al Gore as master teacher.

Variety's Dennis Harvey, for example, calls the movie "an excellent educational tool.... Defining how global warming works on the atmosphere and dramatically illustrating its effects with before-and-after photos of drastically shrunken glaciers, et al., Gore's data is [sic] concise and accessible, greatly aided by a state-of-the-art slide show involving computerized charts, photos, archival footage, even cartoons."

But it's not just gee-whiz technology that makes the former veep pedagogically noteworthy. The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern explains, "This is not Al Gore the policy wonk.... Nor is it the slightly robotized presidential candidate, but a good teacher who makes connections between love of family and concern for the health of the planet-a planet whose atmosphere, he tells us, is as thin as the varnish on a globe" (emphasis added).

To be honest, I haven't actually seen the film yet. (Only rarely are we allowed out of the Fordham offices.) But the trailer provides a glimpse of the powerful classroom combination of an informed, intense instructor and high-tech, interactive media that reviewers have picked up on.

Which begs the question: If "computerized charts, photos, archival footage, even cartoons" are helpful to Al Gore, why don't millions of teachers routinely deploy them in our K-12 classrooms?

Wouldn't this help schools connect with a generation that has been immersed in digital media since birth? Imagine a middle school science teacher weaving film, graphics, cartoons, even interactive video games into her lessons. Along with her own knowledge of the subject and passion for helping children learn, this could create a breakthrough learning experience. Why, twenty years into the "information age," isn't such instruction the norm?

To be fair, a number of "content providers" (the Discovery Channel, for example) are working on getting this type of media into the classroom. But the typical model still requires individual teachers to grab pieces of content (film clips, pictures, web sites, etc.) and do the hard work of integrating them into a coherent lesson. It's difficult to imagine a less efficient system. Technology is supposed to harness economies of scale; requiring every teacher to play producer/director doesn't make sense. After all, it took Al Gore years (and lots of help) to hone his digital display. Imagine if he needed another 179 similar lessons to fill out the school year.

Why doesn't someone-a private company, maybe the government-create an online library of full-blown media-enhanced lessons that any teacher could tap? Maybe even with video clips of master teachers giving lessons before a real-live class? I see five barriers, all related.

First, it would take enormous up-front investment. Let's figure that you wanted to create high-tech lessons for math, science, and history class in grades K-12. (We'll assume that English class will remain the domain of books.) Figuring $100,000 per lesson (for the rights to the content, the cost of production, video of a master teacher, server space, etc.), you're looking at a $700 million price tag. This doesn't include the cost of the classroom technology (at the least, a computer, internet connection, projector, and a screen), nor the ongoing expense of keeping the lessons up-to-date. Of course, in the $500 billion K-12 sector, even this expense is relatively nominal-far less than annual raises to 3 million teachers.

Which brings us to the second barrier. To make such investment worthwhile, a big slice of the nation's classrooms would need to use the product. But the market is splintered today by fifty sets of state standards, curricula and tests. Count this as yet another reason to support national standards and tests in education. If most schools in America taught more or less the same content in approximately the same sequence, a project like this would be much more practical; collectively, schools nationwide could help to pay the bill.

But, alas, that points to the third barrier. Our education system is allergic to spending money on this type of R&D and capital investment, choosing instead to allocate the vast majority of resources to teacher salaries and benefits. In fact, the so-called "65 percent solution," whose supporters aim to use the force of regulation to ensure most school dollars stay "inside the classroom," will only make the problem worse.

The trickle of money that does flow into instructional materials is locked up by the textbook companies-the fourth barrier. While they are well-positioned to create digital content for the classroom (producing educational content, after all, is what they do), to date they have moved glacially into this arena. Why? Mostly because they haven't yet figured out how to make the kind of money from multi-media content that they can from old-fashioned books. In the meantime, they are trying their hardest to use their political muscle, extensive distribution channels, and state-adoption procedures to block upstarts from becoming a threat.

Unfortunately, they have an ally among teachers unions, the fifth barrier, which are dead-set against anything that smells like a "teacher-proof" solution, or could reduce the expertise needed in the classroom (and thus, potentially, wages). To be sure, well-conceived technology could make inexperienced teachers more effective, and might even allow for larger teacher-to student-ratios. Yet great teachers have little to fear on this score. The best media tools in the world won't be half as effective without an informed, passionate instructor guiding them through it.

And that's where Al Gore can be seen as a true role model. He knows his stuff, he cares passionately about the topic, he connects with his audience, and he uses powerful media (such as the internet he invented) to leave a lasting impression. Whatever you might think of his politics (or the message of this particular documentary), surely you'll agree: Al Gore for teacher of the year!

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