Flies on walls, not on faces

31st March 1995 at 01:00
Television is the ideal tool to enable pupils to discover the positive side of life in the developing world, says Deborah Isaacs. It's boring there, Miss, they don't have computers." This nine-year-old Mancunian and his class had just finished a project about Benin City.

I was doing some background research before making the television series, Benin: an African Kingdom. He explained to me how much he had enjoyed making masks with a Nigerian potter; he knew it was hot in Benin City and rained sometimes, and he could describe the kind of food people grew and ate. But what kind of lasting impression will he have of Nigeria? Will it bear any relationship to the reality?

Personally, I know nowhere less boring than Nigeria. Nothing there ever happens the way you expect. It may be bewildering, exciting even impossible, but never boring. But how can you get over the feeling of what it is like to be in a distant, a foreign country to a classroom full of children on wet Wednesday afternoon in Manchester?

Geographical information is often hard to come by and time-consuming to keep up with. And even if schools can afford some of the excellent publications that are available, it is hard to develop pupil's empathy for such places from a printed page.

Television is a brilliant tool for developing empathy - it easily draw you into the lives of people pupils can never hope to meet in places they will probably never visit. It can inculcate very strong long lasting images of places in people's mind. However, in news and current affairs this quality has set up many of the barriers teachers have overcome to establish an accurate picture of distant places.

Pupils' impressions of Africa, in particular, are fed by new reports of war and starvation and a dose of Tarzan. They can be forgiven for thinking this is a continent of victims unable to help themselves.

Coverage tends to be distanced from the people themselves, ignoring broad swathes of life - 70 per cent of Africa's food is produced by women, for instance. Much to many British children's surprise, there are cars, concrete buildings and traffic jams in Africa. There are rich, fat people as well as thin, poor ones. And even poor people can have full lives. It is possible to enjoy life without a computer!

The first task of the schools' geography programme has to be to dispel the myths and stereotypes, and promote a positive but accurate appreciation of the people of the developing world and their environments. Television is best at dealing with the particular, not the generality; the case study not the general lecture.

If pupils identify with people in a given situation, they will be interested in them. Hang the geography round the story, and they are much more likely to remember it; that is what we try to do in the series Geographical Eye. Show them Kevias Zulu, 19, in Zimbabwe, who has left school having failed his exams and is making 70p a time for hauling kayaks up from a steep gorge for white water rafting tourists. He is a bored, but ambitious teenager - someone they recognise and identify with. If we have done our job well, pupils want to know what the future holds for him.

Empathy can also assist pupils' deeper understanding of abstract concepts. In a programme on Zambia's copper industry, we introduced the idea that the changes in world commodity prices can have devastating effects on a developing country. By showing the change in the fortunes of one mining family over three generations, a very big idea can be reduced into simple human terms - in a form that is both digestible and memorable. At key stage 3 it is not necessary to look in detail at the mechanisms that caused the downturn, but the underlying concept has been introduced so it can be explored later.

Of course, a programme cannot do a teacher's job for them, but it provides a backdrop and framework to develop from. Because is impossible to put everything into the programme itself, providing back-up materials is crucial, especially as the locations we choose are difficult to find other information on.

More and more, we are trying to produce packages of support materials for teachers of which the programme, though able to stand-alone, is only one element. When we started to make the cross-curricular series Benin: An African Kingdom it was virtually impossible to find enough information to teach Benin as a national curriculum history option at key stage 2.

To make the series useful for teachers, there had to be complementary materials published. Several different organisations co-operated to produce a package which now includes a photopack, a teachers' guide, a wall chart, an illustrated story-book and we are now considering the production of a CD-Rom, too.

One year after the programme's first transmission, perhaps 120,000 children in 10 per cent of primary schools have been able to learn about an obscure but fascinating place, one that had been completely out of reach beforehand.

None of this would be important, if the programmes we produced were not accurate and up-to-date. Programme makers have the great advantage that they have to visit the countries we cover and find the case studies for the theory we illustrate. If the theory is out of date or merely hopeful, it does not take long for us to find out.

I did not forget about that perceived lack of computers in Nigeria. In a programme I recently completed comparing standards of living in the city of Lagos for the series, Geographical Eye Over Africa, the affluent 12-year-old Sesan is seen tapping away playing a computer game, while his sister is at her ballet class and his poorer compatriots are kicking a home-made football across a muddy street. Let it never be said that we do not listen to our audience!

o Geographical Eye Over Africa will be repeated on Channel 4 in September and Benin will be re-shown next spring. Videos of both series and their associated publications are available from the Educational Television Company, tel: 01926 433333

Deborah Isaacs produces Geographical Eye Over Africa for key stage 3 and Benin: An African Kingdom for key stage 2 for Yorkshire Television and the International Broadcasting Trust

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