Eat my lessons! What Simpsons can teach us

11th July 2008 at 01:00
Politically incorrect it may be, but The Simpsons could be used to provide the antithesis of role models for aspiring teachers, or those who want to improve their classroom practice
Politically incorrect it may be, but The Simpsons could be used to provide the antithesis of role models for aspiring teachers, or those who want to improve their classroom practice.

Characters Principal Seymour Skinner (right, calming his mother), Edna Krabappel (also pictured) and Elizabeth Hoover, and their relationships with trouble-making Bart Simpson and his knowledge-thirsty sister Lisa, have been held up as examples for initial teacher education and continuing professional development of how not to teach.

Alan Britton, of Glasgow University, and Gavin Morrison, of Texas Christian University, told an international conference in Glasgow last week: "Gross caricatures they may be, but the images of teachers in The Simpsons are fully rounded, three-dimensional, significant and challenging to the profession."

The academics examined three characters in detail: Principal Skinner, who lives in "perpetual fear" of Gary Chalmers, the local schools superintendent, whose visits invariably coincide with a crisis of Bart's making; Mrs Krabappel, unfulfilled in her career and love-life; and Miss Hoover, the ultimate advocate of a sterile curriculum and time-wasting strategies.

Principal Skinner, they said, would "struggle under current regimes of accountability and inspection". Particularly alarming was his attitude to independent learning and creativity in the curriculum, exemplified by comments such as: "I have got word that a child is using his imagination and I've come to put a stop to it."

Mr Britton and Mr Morrison recognised good intentions in Springfield Elementary's foreign exchange programme, but said this was undermined by Principal Skinner's "limited appreciation of the underlying global-mindedness that ought to inform such exchanges", as shown when he introduced Adil, an Albanian student.

He said: "You may find his accent peculiar. Certain aspects of his culture may seem absurd, perhaps even offensive. But I urge you to give little Adil the benefit of the doubt. In this way, and only in this way, can we hope to better understand our backward neighbours throughout the world."

World-weary Mrs Krabappel shows her cynicism when she attempts to reassure pupils before a test: "I don't want you to worry, class. These tests will have no effect on your grades. They will merely determine your future social status and financial success - if any."

When Miss Hoover tells the class to make paper postboxes to store Valentine's cards, Lisa asks whether this is "just pointless busy work", to which Miss Hoover replies: "Bull's eye! Get cracking."

The one sympathetic, albeit eccentric, teacher is Mr Bergstrom. He appeared as a supply teacher in a single episode, entering the classroom dressed as a cowboy, and engaging the children with "charisma, participative teaching methods, and obvious concern and empathy for their welfare and wellbeing".

Mr Britton, who works in Glasgow University's education faculty, intends to use excerpts from the US cartoon sitcom with students to "provoke a more light-hearted response that nonetheless ought to encourage serious reflection on the part of aspiring teachers".

Mr Britton and Mr Morrison, based in his university's department of art and art history, presented their joint research paper at The Teacher: Image, Icon, Identity conference in Glasgow, exploring representations of teachers in the arts.

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