Use News, Documentary to Build Real Skills at Schools

20 Aug

Sometimes, a small episode gives a chance for huge learning based on reflection – regardless of the direction of the critique. And gives us a chance to think through many aspects of our lives. I really care about learning, schools and education – and I wondered – can we build better learning from news into our classrooms?

The small episode for India and its students is the now infamous documentary that has been banned. The Documentary is based on the horrific and inhuman Nirbhaya rape case that happened a few years ago. A case that shook India and the world for its brutality and the simple fact that it could have happened to anybody. The girl was on her way home after seeing a movie with a friend. We do that all the time. The film reminds us of what we fought for- and has garnered much controversy – and maybe is getting far more attention than it deserved.

Why is this a learning opportunity? What does it have to do with us educators (even in offices) and our learners? What can we learn from the episode? How do we share such learning? How do we structure the questions?

Let me try to help – I will not write out lesson plans here but will certainly attempt to mention the questions that can be discussed in a class or group situation. Let us treat this as a case study, and a starter to a masterclass on using news to propel learning and reflection.

(For a more detailed list of questions please look here: and adjust them to the appropriate class level if you choose to use this particular upheaval for the discussion. Many similar issues with multiple discussion points will be available to you, this just happens to be one very rich in debatable topics) Since banned, this is not a recommendation to see the documentary. It is also not advisable to focus on one documentary or episode within the lesson plan – it is just a useful trigger for teacher’s to structure thinking and plan a more appropriate lesson). For each level the content, topics, activities and skills are briefly mentioned.


A simple discussion on media. The difference between news, film and documentary. Most pre primary children in India often sing and dance to film music, have lyrics memorised. They are clearly comfortable with the concept of variety in medium and form. This is a good time to engage in a discussion about content. Even without directly discussing a case it is essential for them to demonstrate understanding of pure news, commentary, analysis and spin. It is very easy to do this via a discussion or a fun activity where they run a mock TV channel in the classroom and report on incidents in the classroom. As part of the School Safety Campaign, I would say that the tools of reportage, role play, and even the ability to tell the difference between truth and add-ons is a valuable skill that we must teach our children.


A discussion on Safety. On rules. On who makes the rules and how they are enforced. Whether rules are different from traditions. Whether rules that are implemented by force (such as a threat to beating other people up, or punishment) are a good thing or a form of bullying. What is the difference between individual and societal bullying?  Are school rules different from bullying and why? The role of violence vs reason in enforcement. Bring it forth with real life stories from the classroom and the society around them. The skills they need to demonstrate are an understanding of bullying, the choices they have when cornered by bullies and simple ability to identify and articulate problems.

Older Primary-Lower Middle School:

A conversation on our role in society, societal norms, history, traditions and nationhood. At this age students have a clear notion of environmental consciousness, about campaigns for change (water/firecrackers/soil conservation etc. are in the syllabus), about how individuals form society. They are also ready for their first lessons in ‘civics’ and have a clear sense of nationhood – whether learnt at school or elsewhere. The discussion at this stage must still be gentle and constructive and can focus on building safer spaces for all. The discussion must also include elements outlined for the younger year groups.
It is essential that this age group have a discussion about critical thinking, truth, and build skills to respectfully question the values we live and claim. They may have seen their books and teachers praise Gandhi’s non violence, they may have even dressed up as Gandhi on occasion. Then, in contrast, they see violence in films, on the streets and maybe even at home. They hear of Nirbaya (even if they pretend not to). Many have heard of the Arushi murder, and hidden it away in fear. There are dichotomies that the children are dealing with everyday and it is up to us to give them tools to understand human frailty, strength and the bridge between them.

Middle School:

It is an edgy age. These are children who are beginning to test their boundaries actively and the teachers know how much skill and effort they invest in corralling the talents, questions and restlessness of this age. This is where they begin to test and define their limits. The syllabus for these years includes pre and post colonial history, includes civic and executive structures, includes an understanding of the judicial process. It is the age where we make peace with history and make a pact with the nation we will grow up to build. Ideally.
At this stage the discussions should centre around choosing right and wrong, using freedom well and most importantly – about self control.
The documentary has thrown up many questions about national culture, societal mix, criminal vs. pervasive mindsets etc. It also has enough to start discussions about gender discrimination, law enforcement, judicial process, news making, documentary as commentary, and maybe – if the class is mature enough, about creating connected stories. There is plenty to discuss about the colonial hangover (on both sides) and the consequent hate fostered by media (including television serials) where characters are shown as pure good or pure evil whereas in real life including politics and news, people are a victim of their circumstances or interests.
The skills that they need to hone at this age are the ability to research, observe, sort, analyse critically – stripping out assumptions, hearsay and leaps of faith beyond reason. Any meaningful discussion around culture, citizenship and nation building must have these elements and therefore must be triggered off by a controversy such as the current one.

Secondary School:

Learners at this age must be ready to analytically and critically report on the key issues in a national debate and must be able to demonstrate two skills – (i) the ability to report without emotion and only based on research (ii) the ability to form an opinion based on facts that they can defend. Debating is often the route used by schools to develop these skills (though other tools can be used). It would be good not to focus on a specific documentary at this stage (unless you are a film making club or class – then there is much to critique) and to build debates around (a) Critical thinking and its role beyond tradition; (b) Building culture or receiving culture; (c) How the past shadows the present – e.g. the slower pace of a change in social norms than physical needs of cities (roads, housing, streetlights, policing); (d) Can anything be really banned in the age of interconnected technologies, etc. Do ask your students to bring real live examples into the debates, and do please ensure that the debates are not stunted by formal procedures. These are debates that will build the thinking and learning muscle of the students.

Senior Secondary:

Learners are ready at this age to discuss every aspect of the case – whether it be the banning of a documentary, the restrictions put on sub-judice cases, the limits (or not) to Freedom of Expression, the discrimination of men and women in everyday life and institutions (both face it differently). They are even ready to discuss the implications of cross border commentary and the reactions to such a discourse especially when there is shared colonial history. (for the thousands planning to go abroad, you may need to do this anyway). The age group is also ready to discuss rape, power and societal sanction of evil.
This group should already be self directed learners and should be able to build arguments based on data, facts, reports and shared anecdotes. They should be able to connect it to their lived reality and identify decisions that will be expected of them and their ecosystem as they grow up. If they are not, do use this opportunity for them to start learning these skills.
The skills they need to demonstrate include critical thinking, analytical research, ability to organise and design an argument and to build an un-emotional defense for their statements while acknowledging human frailty and political implications.

Can they do this much?

(Don’t you know how difficult it is to find those who can even construct a single sentence? And you expect them to create coherent arguments? Have you not read the reports by ASER and others that say that our children cannot read or do math at school?)

This is why moments of grand national or even local debate are great learning opportunities provided the teachers have the skills to design a meaningful lesson. Any qualified teacher who is assigned to these levels should be able to deliver on this, or acknowledge incompetence and seek help. Any student who cannot deliver on the skills listed (even at beginner level) is not going to be ready either for higher education or for university.

Our students, the children we teach are actively engaged in the society they live in and are more likely to hone their skills if engaged in real world issues that go beyond their textbooks. Try it – you might be surprised how much the students learn and engage this way. It may not work the first time, try again. And again. Till they start feeling safe with you and the class and start speaking. You may even be surprised at the positive impact on attendance and other learning. Limiting them to their textbooks has robbed them of their context, both in the learning and in the application.  Use this, use local conversations to fuel real learning in the classroom and it will not take that long for the skills gap to be eliminated. The gap between education and employment is the tough touch of reality. Let us not shy of making that connection in the classroom.

Use the documentary, news to foster real skill building in schools

March 10, 2015, 10:36 am IST in EduCable | India, Lifestyle | TOI

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