Learning from Al Gore

Al Gore’s global warming film is getting great reviews and Mike Petrilli of Gadfly wonders why teachers don’t have the same media tools for use in the classroom.

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?

Individual teachers don’t have the time to put together mini-documentaries.

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?

Petrilli writes about the barriers. it will take a big investment to develop lessons, even more to customize for different state standards. But “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.”

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.

Finally, teachers’ unions are hostile to any innovation that might reduce the demand for teachers or the pressure to raise salaries. Petrilli doesn’t see this as a real threat, but I’m not so sure. Instead of raising all salaries to attract more qualified physics teachers, schools might buy a media course taught by a master teacher and let a modestly paid teaching assistant run discussions, supervise projects and give tests. It wouldn’t be ideal, but it could be better than putting the class completely under the control of a teacher who doesn’t know physics.

About Joanne


  1. I use SOME of the multimedia stuff in my college classes. However, there’s another factor being overlooked here: the unreliability of classroom technology. In the building where I teach, if there’s a power surge or even a “flicker” (which is not uncommon given the old wiring), everything shuts down and needs to be reset by someone from the central computing location. And that can take hours if there are lots of problems on campus.

    So, I always prep classes twice: I have the multimedia stuff cued up, but I am sure to have the notes and hard-copy so that if nothing’s working, I can at least draw graphs on the board and conduct my class the “old fashioned way.”

    And there are few things more frustrating than having some super-cool animated thing to use, and finding that either (a) the computer in the classroom is down or (b) the version of the OS on that computer won’t support the multimedia you want to use.

    and, totally yes, on the not having time to put together our own documentaries. Even cribbing stuff off the web (off of educational websites where they don’t require you to pay copyright fees to use it in teaching) takes time to track down, and download, and make sure it works…even finding simple illustrations can be a challenge. The textbooks support some of this stuff, but some of the good upper-division textbooks still do not, and I refuse to use a less-than-best textbook simply because it has canned animations that come with it.

  2. The textbook companies aren’t going to come around any time soon. I’m betting on peer-production. An individual teacher doesn’t have time to make a slideshow for each class, but they could make a handful of pretty nice ones, and then share with others.

    We’re planning to launch TeachForward.org in the fall (a successor to teacherslounge.editme.com) and I’m hoping it will help to address the problem. If anybody wants to know more or wants to help create content, email me at teachforward at gmail dot com.

  3. Robert Wright says:

    Al Gore used an Apple laptop computer. That’s all you need to create impressive multi-media presentation, that and a means of projecting it on a screen.

    Multimedia presentatins, though fun to give and painless to view, are usually overvalued as learning tools.

    Some of you oldsters might remember when movie projectors and educational films first entered the classroom. That was supposed to revolutionize teaching. Well, it did, but it didn’t accelerate learning. Movies were a break from learning and teaching. Recess disguised as high tech instruction.

    Computers came along and it was a similar story.

    Teachers don’t need to know how to thread a movie projector, reformat a hard drive, or put together a killer PowerPoint presentation. They need to remember that learning isn’t passive.

    They need to know this Chinese/Indian motto/proverb:

    “Tell me and I’ll forget.
    Show me and I’ll remember.
    Involve me and I’ll learn.”

  4. Robert,

    Another wise saying: “The best way to learn something is to teach it.”

    Let’s get kids making slideshows and teaching materials for their teachers to use the following year. I’ll bet the high schoolers could do some pretty good work, and they’d be much more motivated by a legitimately useful project than by some poster that nobody’s ever going to see again.

  5. superdestroyer says:

    It takes more than a MAC. It takes software that does not come standard and needs to be configured. It takes feed materials such as the video. And what usually happens is someone designs this using a university lab with high end equipment and software and develops something that does not work on many other systems.

    Washington, DC is full of consultants and contractors who put together such slide shows every day. They generally cost a fortune.

  6. I completely agree that we should let our students develop neat multi-media projects on the material that they are learning. As a teacher, I’ve had so many experiences in which I’ve laid out an assignment for students and then watched them produce incredible work. This is our responsibility as teachers and perhaps we’ll lay the groundwork for the next George Lucas or Steven Spielberg.


  7. I think “control” is actually a more major issue here. Anybody can learn “about physics.” But, learning how to TEACH physics is a skill that involves classroom management skills which would give one “control” over their classes.
    Multimedia can be an effective tool in teaching, but they are just that: only tools. Like trains, they need conductors to affectively facilitate true learning.
    I don’t think machines could replace good old fashioned classroom management. Just as there are non-dynamic teachers, multimedia can become stale and static as well. The challenge is to blend the two into a truly dynamic experience for the student.
    It is difficult to capture the minds of youth today, but not impossible if you put in a little effort and creativity.

  8. Petrilli’s making the same mistake everyone does when wondering about the poor state of innovation in public education: what’s the driving force?

    In private enterprise R&D spending is seen as an investment in the future. You spend the money now to open new markets or reduce costs so that, eventually, the R&D spending shows up as an increase in the bottom line.

    The military spends money on new technology because if your gun can shoot farther and straighter then the gun the guy you’re shooting at is using to shoot back at you, you win.

    What similar, organizational, motivation exists to justify R&D spending in public education? There is none. Everyone who has money to spend sees no value in funding R&D so it doesn’t get funded.

  9. BadaBing says:

    Technology in the classroom is overrated. Good teachers don’t need more and more tech to teach a subject, but it doesn’t hurt either. I’m not anti-technology, but give me students that want to engage text instead of being wowed by computer graphics any day. I’m old. I know I’m out of it, but I don’t care. Students that want to learn can learn in a little red school house just as readily as in some massively funded high tech institute. McGuffy’s Readers did what so-called technology is failing to do, i.e., teach generations of kids how to read and how to be good people. The result was the production of generations of Americans that tower above recent ones in many different ways. All the high tech in the world isn’t going to save this country from the oblivion it seems to be headed.

  10. Technology is a tool, not a replacement for teaching. In the example of a physics class taught by a media presentation with discussions run by a “modestly paid teaching assistant”, who is grading the tests? Who is commenting on the students’ assertions and providing additional examples to affirm or contradict their points? Don’t you need someone who knows physics to do these things effectively, and if so, why isn’t THAT person teaching the class in the first place?

    If all you needed to do to learn something was to watch it on television, we could all just turn on the Discovery Channel.

  11. Prof210 says:

    “Modestly paid teaching assistant?” Isn’t that just what many colleges have done for decades? The “star professor” lectures and grad. assistants grade work, conduct group discussions, etc.

    Might be a good way to expose students to the technique in advance so they can use their experience in selecting a college.

  12. “All the high tech in the world isn’t going to save this country from the oblivion it seems to be headed”

    Petrilli and others at Fordham do not seem to think curriculum and content are issues. Just issue school vouchers, provide plenty of charter schools, and throw in some good computer graphics and all problems are solved. The argument that schools need to be technology-savvy is the argument du jour. But how does the technology-savvy classroom really work? Right now we have a bunch of students who think they are doing research by Googling on the internet, and haven’t a clue of how to do research in a library.

  13. The opening sentence of Joanne’s post that “Al Gore’s global warming film is getting great reviews” caught my eye. I had only yesterday read that a large percentage of scientists who know about these things had suggested that the film makes erroneous claims concerning the works of man.

    Then I read in Barry’s post above that Michael Petrilli and “others at Fordham” have a jaded view of curriculum. Well, I suggest Barry and others read Mr. Petrilli’s article today at National Review Online. You will learn that he is of the “core knowledge” group. I count myself among them.

    Core Knowledge, as defined by E.D. Hirsch suggests an integrated curriculum. And in response to the worries that kids aren’t learning because they don’t have enough technology gimmicks in the classroom, such advocates would point out that kids aren’t learning because too many in the classroom pretending to teach don’t have anything to pass on. They have no core knowledge.

    Now that would make an interesting movie but I think it’s already been made.

  14. Wayne Martin says:

    > Right now we have a bunch of students who
    > think they are doing research by Googling
    > on the internet, and haven’t a clue of how
    > to do research in a library.

    The “library” is quickly becoming the “internet”. It’s open 7/24, unlike its print media progenitor. As more and more information becomes digitized and available on-line, there will be little need for bricks-and-mortar libraries.

    Research is about organizing information. While some of the techniques for on-line research may seem to be a little different (such as using scanners vs copy machines), ultimately making sense out of what you are discovering in your research, and how that information shapes the work you need to real your goal.

    Most of the world’s libraries now have on-line catalogs, making it possible to “visit” these libraries from any coffee shop that provides wireless service. No need to be there at all.

    With increasing material on-line, it’s only a matter of time before the most of the out-of-copyright material will be digitized and available for downloading and reading – just as if you were in a “library”.

  15. Kenneth –

    I’ve no doubt that the film is garnering wonderful reviews among movie reviewers, who probably don’t give a damn what the real truth is, such as little things about carbon dioxide being only 1/1000th as a effective at trapping heat as water vapor.

    Just remember, this is the same Al Gore who decided dumping a carcinogenic substance (MTBE) in gasoline would be great for the environment. Now it’s being phased out and waters all over California, including the magnificent Lake Tahoe, have been fouled with the stuff. Just consider the source.

  16. Robert Wright says:

    Heads up those of you who would have your right-wing politics distort your common sense grasp of science.

    Via CNN, this is an AP story that came out today:

    Climate experts: Gore’s movie gets the science right

    WASHINGTON (AP) — The nation’s top climate scientists are giving “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore’s documentary on global warming, five stars for accuracy.

    For the rest of the article, go to cnn.com.

  17. Are you kidding me? Do you really expect us to believe that the following proves that Gore’s movie got the science right:

    (From the CNN story Robert referenced) “The AP contacted more than 100 top climate researchers by e-mail and phone for their opinion. Among those contacted were vocal skeptics of climate change theory. Most scientists had not seen the movie, which is in limited release, or read the book.

    But those who have seen it had the same general impression: Gore conveyed the science correctly; the world is getting hotter and it is a manmade catastrophe-in-the-making caused by the burning of fossil fuels.”

    OK, to clarify. A little over 100 scientists are contacted, fewer than half have seen the movie, and those who have have the same “general impression” of its correctness. Honestly, Robert, I couldn’t write such non-evidence if I tried.

    And then, if that weren’t enough to turn one into a skeptic, the article says that the movie contains tiny errors which include hotly debated issues such as the links from warming to hurricanes and the causal link between CO2 and warming. Those are not tiny errors, they’re large and controversial points being passed off as proven fact by Gore.

    If you actually read the AP article with a critical eye, you’ll see that it provides no proof that the movie “got the science right,” only proof that a minority of the scientists interviewed actually saw the movie and those who did generally agreed with it. Keep in mind that there’s probably a fair deal of self-selection within that group, too.

    Next time you want to offer evidence, offer evidence, not spin from an AP writer who should know better.

  18. Oops! The paragraph after the italicized paragraph is also part of the quote. Here’s the full quote again:

    “The AP contacted more than 100 top climate researchers by e-mail and phone for their opinion. Among those contacted were vocal skeptics of climate change theory. Most scientists had not seen the movie, which is in limited release, or read the book.

    But those who have seen it had the same general impression: Gore conveyed the science correctly; the world is getting hotter and it is a manmade catastrophe-in-the-making caused by the burning of fossil fuels.”

  19. “I suggest Barry and others read Mr. Petrilli’s article today at National Review Online. You will learn that he is of the “core knowledge” group. I count myself among them.”

    I’m so happy to see that Mr. Petrilli liked Hirch’s book and believes in a solid, integrated curriculum. Maybe this fascination with technology and computer graphics is just a passing thing and he’ll start writing editorials about how bad certain curricula are like Investigations in Number, Data and Space; Connected Math Program, IMP, Core Plus. Ooops, those are math curricula, and he’s after integrated curricula. Too much emphasis on science and math. Nope. No editorials like that anytime soon. Still, it IS heartening news; thank you so much.

  20. Jack Tanner says:

    ‘Heads up those of you who would have your right-wing politics distort your common sense grasp of science.’

    Obviously we can’t let it cloud left wing environmentalist hysteria. A self selected group that had chosen to go a movie agreed with it. It’s the F911 phenomena.

  21. SuperSub says:

    “The AP contacted more than 100 top climate researchers by e-mail and phone for their opinion. Among those contacted were vocal skeptics of climate change theory. Most scientists had not seen the movie, which is in limited release, or read the book.”

    Also note that the qualifications for being a “climate researcher” are becoming less and less specific these days. Gore and his supporters routinely lump in scientists who specialize in non-climate related fields into their numbers.

  22. Walter E. Wallis says:

    …and if any Gore uses an Apple for more than a doorstop it is his daughter, producer of Futurama and also kinda cute.
    Wright, is your face red about now?

  23. Robert Wright says:

    Quincy, I’m not saying that the CNN article proves that Gore’s movie got the science right. I am saying that the AP is reporting that the nation’s top climate experts give Gore very high marks for accuracy.

    Is the AP article good journalism? Read it and decide for yourself.

    Is their sampling flawed because not all of the scientists saw the movie? Obviously. How much so? I don’t know.

    The AP is not Mother Jones Magazine. The AP is known to be more objective than Fox News and the National Review.

    Walter, my face is indeed red. It was 109 degrees up in Laytonville. More evidence of global warming.

    Sometimes I think that the only Republicans who want to save the polar ice caps are those who want to keep a place where they can club baby seals.

  24. No, Robert, you’re trying to say the AP article says that when it really says “the minority of climate scientists interviewed who bothered to see the movie generally agreed with it.” Read it for yourself, it’s right there. The AP does not note what percentage of the scientists were polled and what the actual stature in the field is. The article, in short, says nothing of value regarding the truthfulness of the movie, other than admitting that two major, controversial points are glossed over in said movie. I’m really convinced, truly.

    Go find REAL evidence that a significant majority of climate scientists agree with Gore, and then we’ll talk.

  25. Robert Wright says:

    Quincy, I see your point and you make perfect sense.

    The AP’s evidence to back up their headline is weak. It certainly doesn’t qualify as being proof.

    But tell me, have you seen the movie? What was your reaction?

    Have you read other reports in the media about the scientific community’s view about global warming?

    Based on what you’ve read, do you believe that scientists agree more with the Bush administration or with Gore?

    From what I’ve read, Gore is right on target and the Bush administration is embracing doubts that most of the scientific community abandoned years ago.

    Of course, maybe I only expose myself to the liberal press. I don’t have sources to cite.

    But you seem smart, so tell me, what is your response to Gore’s book/movie? And how do you compare it to the science that Bush believes?

  26. Robert –

    Put simply, I believe that the earth is warming, but until I can see data and models that can account for the effects of water vapor, which is about 1000 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat, I can’t support Gore’s position that this is a man-made catasrophe and that drastic government action is required.

    Also, I’d like to see Gore admit that, if greenhouse gases are such a problem, that the anti-nuclear hysteria of the 1970s and 80s on the part of environmentalists that’s forced us to continue burning coal and oil for electricy has contributed to that problem. (Ironically, coal power pumps thousands of tons of radioactive uranium and thorium into the air every year.)

    In addition, I’d like to hear Gore’s side of the aisle admit that their anti-growth policies when it comes to road construction have caused a great deal of harm to the environment by keeping large numbers of cars jammed together in traffic pumping out exhaust all the while.

    Now, a problem that both sides of the aisle share is this belief in ethanol and hydrogen as miracle fuels. It takes energy to produce both, in fact almost as much energy as the fuels contain, so I cringe every time I hear some politician claim that they’re new sources of energy. They are merely energy transformed from one material form to another. In a place like France, where there’s enough excess nuclear energy to produce ethanol and hydrogen without releasing greenhouse gases those fuels could actually be considered clean fuels. But as long as the US is still dependent on dirty fuels for electricy like coal and oil, any green energy produced from it (including plug-in electic cars) is still adding to the greenhouse gas problem.

    What’s my point? Neither side has it right, and using shaky science to scare people into making decisions they otherwise wouldn’t make is an awful thing to do.

  27. Bill Woods says:

    You’re rather understating the importance of carbon dioxide.

    Water vapour is the single most important absorber (between 36% and 66% of the greenhouse effect), and together with clouds makes up between 66% and 85%. CO2 alone makes up between 9 and 26%, while the O3 and the other minor GHG absorbers consist of up to 7 and 8% of the effect, respectively. (Wikipedia: Greenhouse_effect)

    If CO_2 doubles we’ll see an effect.

    It’s true that burning coal releases more radioactivity than burning uranium, but I doubt the uranium and thorium travel very far through the air. 🙂

    Hydrogen takes considerably more energy to make than it yields, and as it’s made from natural gas, it’s really just another form of fossil fuel. For corn-based ethanol, it takes most of the energy produced to grow next year’s corn crop, so that’s more-or-less a boondoggle. However, cellulosic ethanol looks like a considerable improvement.

  28. Bill –

    The Wikipedia numbers seem awfully high, considering that CO2 is roughly 0.04% of the atmosphere according to JunkScience.com (and corroborated by several academic websites in a Google search for “percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere”), while H20 vapor makes up 4 percent. Percentages alone dictate a 100-fold increase in the effectiveness of trapping heat if the substances trapped equal amounts of heat. I can’t come up with a source for the difference in heat trapped per molecule of each substance, so feel free to take my 1000 times more effective claim with a grain of salt until then. Similarly, the numbers you quote from Wikipedia come from the IPCC, hardly what I consider an unbiased source in the debate. Their entire reason for existance is climate change, so I don’t expect them to come up with numbers that support a view that climate change is primarily natural.

    Further, even were I to accept the IPCC number as accurate, which I don’t, I’ve still not seen any climate model which can accurately handle the behavior of water vapor, which even the IPCC admits is the primary greenhouse gas. And with humans contributing a mere 2-3 percent of CO2 in the atmosphere per year (JunkScience.com again), I can’t accept that a significant amount of warming is man-made and requires government intervention.

    Finally, I’d love for one of these global warming scare mongers to admit some of the things their movement has done to contribute to the continued emissions of CO2 that I listed above. It’d be nice.

  29. Bill Woods says:

    4% water vapor!? That’d be more than argon.

    According to the National Center for Atmospheric Research, “… The mean mass of water vapor is estimated as 1.27 x 10[^16] kg and the dry air mass as 5.1352 ±0.0003 x 10[^18] kg.” Wikipedia: Earth’s_atmosphere

    That’s 0.24%. Though by volume, it’s “typically 1%”.

  30. Bill –

    In my classes and in speaking to people knowledgeable on the subject, I’ve heard the 4% figure far more than the 1% figure, however it’s still two orders of magnitude greater than CO2. But like I said above, even if you accept the Wikipedia numbers (and I’m more likely to accept this one because its sources from NASA not the IPCC), there are still *no models that can accurately account for the primary greenhouse gas*, so it is still impossible to blame any percentage of global warming on man. Until I see otherwise, I won’t be convinced.