Using television to develop critical thinking


Developing students’ critical thinking and questioning skills is crucial in today’s internet-driven age. Dr Andrew K Shenton discusses using broadcast drama to achieve this.

Three years ago, I wrote how modern releases of bygone television series on DVD have effectively breathed new life into tie-in books published when the works were first broadcast. What is perhaps more surprising is the way in which many old television productions can serve as ideal vehicles for promoting critical thinking among pupils in our schools today.

Critical thinking is an important component within the teaching of information skills. In recent years, the need to appraise information rigorously has become vital as youngsters have to distinguish between sound and untrustworthy content that can be found on the internet.

So much material of such varying quality and origin is available via the internet that skills associated with effective discrimination are pivotal to use of the modern electronic information environment. 

In the face of a substantial volume of literature which indicates that many youngsters passively accept a lot of the material that they receive, the most fundamental challenge for educators is that of instilling into pupils a questioning attitude. 

A pertinent starting point lies in exploiting the potential offered by appropriate television drama as the content for scrutiny. Such a route offers immediate attractions – material of this kind is highly visual and provides novelty value in that it differs considerably from the format of what is used so often in the teaching of information skills.

With reference to individual examples, the following paragraphs discuss two specific forms of drama that may be exploited by teachers of upper secondary school pupils, and 6th-formers especially.

The first type is that of hoax documentaries. These are, of course, programmes that are made and presented in such a way that leads viewers to believe that they are watching material pertaining to a real situation, whereas the story is actually fictitious. 

One of the best known is Alternative 3, broadcast by ITV in June 1977. The programme opens with reports of the disappearances of several mathematicians and scientists. Soon, the prospect is raised that, as a result of global warming, the Earth has become doomed and plans have been put in place by the US and Soviet authorities to establish a human survival colony on Mars. 

The missing professionals are among those who have been selected to inhabit the colony, with the aim of ensuring that each aspect of human endeavour is represented. Outwardly, Alternative 3 looks highly authentic. The material is packaged as an instalment in the Science Report series, the well-respected broadcaster Tim Brinton is used as an authoritative anchor man, there are references to and film of real events, a rational basis is presented for the seemingly incredible story, and existing scientific theories are skilfully incorporated.

Yet, there are also clues that all is not what it appears – viewers may recognise as actors some of those seen, a date of April 1, 1977, is shown on-screen just before the credits, and details of a cast are provided at the end. Teachers may play the DVD of the programme to pupils and ask them to reflect on its credibility. What features which make the work believable can they isolate? Are they able to detect evidence that supports a different interpretation? 

A more recent, although comparable, hoax which offers similar potential for evaluation is the BBC’s Ghostwatch (1992).

Probably the most famous work of fiction to have been presented as real-life drama is Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre production of The War of the Worlds (broadcast in the States on October 30, 1938). The teacher may invite their pupils to critique carefully chosen extracts from the radio adaptation with a view to ascertaining characteristics that suggest the work provides a report of an actual alien invasion and to identifying “weaknesses” that may lead to a more mundane conclusion even before Welles himself explains the truth at the end of the broadcast.

If Alternative 3 was a belated April Fool’s Day joke, then Welles’ The War of the Worlds was a playful Halloween Eve jest. Both use, to convincing effect, many of the conventions associated with factual reporting. In Welles’ work, authenticity is added through an impressive range of techniques, including what would appear to be:

  • Interruptions to existing programmes with the latest news reports on the events.

  • Quotes from and interviews with expert informants.

  • Plausible scientific opinion.

  • Technical breakdowns.

  • Use of a reporter “on the spot”.

  • Contributions from eye-witnesses.

  • Statements from authority figures.

With regard to weaknesses, clearly the whole notion of an alien invasion is preposterous and there can be no doubt that the action moves too fast to be realistic.

Although many works of television drama make no pretence to be anything more than fiction and it is unlikely that any viewer would believe that they were watching real events, some still offer opportunities for critical thinking in terms of the events reported by the characters. 

One of the most useful such programmes is Crown Court, the daytime Granada series that ran for some 12 years between 1972 and 1984. This fictional series portrays legal cases presented to a judge and jury. The viewer is not shown the events in question and virtually all their knowledge of the crime involved comes from what is seen and heard in the courtroom. 

Seven volumes of Crown Court, amounting to 85 individual cases, have been released on DVD and any teacher seeking to develop their pupils’ critical faculties may watch a case with their class and then critique the witnesses and the disclosed information. Clearly, though, cases should be chosen carefully, with a view to what is suitable given the age of the learners and what is likely to capture and then maintain their interest.

In outlining their 16 Habits of Mind, Costa and Kallick list a series of behaviours which, they assert, are integral to intelligent problem-solving. One such trait is that of questioning. Costa and Kallick propose that, in a particular situation, we might ask:

  • What evidence do you have?

  • How do you know that’s true?

  • How reliable is this data source?

  • From whose viewpoint are we seeing, reading or hearing?

  • From what angle/perspective are we viewing?

All these questions would be suitable for analysing the oral accounts that are heard in Crown Court. Teachers may explore with their pupils whether the questions they ask in this context can be translated into strategies that can be used to assess information on the web. It may also be illuminating to create a breakdown of qualities that are characteristic of a trustworthy witness. They may, for example, possess expert knowledge, lack bias, exhibit a willingness to accept interpretations that conflict with their own, and contribute information that is consistent with that given by others. Can similar factors be used to define broader prerequisites for a credible and authoritative author? 

A key task for a teacher or school librarian lies in ensuring that the critical mindset fostered by these activities is transferred to situations where pupils are working more routinely with information provided in other ways and in the context of varied school assignments relating to different curricular areas.

Here it is important that teachers make explicit links between the learners’ thought processes in relation to the drama productions and the situations at hand, and take every opportunity to reinforce the broader principles that have emerged in this context. 

Transfer is, of course, a difficult issue in many areas of learning and should not be regarded as a specific weakness of the approach that has been advocated here. 

Moreover, the problems that arise in this regard may well be firmly outweighed by the very considerable motivational benefits that can be seen when pupils evaluate the chosen television/radio productions with enthusiasm.

  • Dr Andrew K Shenton is curriculum and resource support at Monkseaton High School in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and a former lecturer at Northumbria University.


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