How not to teach - the Simpsons way

11th July 2008 at 01:00
D'oh! politically incorrect it may be, but The Simpsons could be used to provide role-models for budding teachers, or even those who want to improve their classroom practice
D'oh! politically incorrect it may be, but The Simpsons could be used to provide role-models for budding teachers, or even those who want to improve their classroom practice.

Principal Seymour Skinner, Edna Krabappel and Miss Hoover, and their relationships with troublemaking Bart Simpson and his knowledge-thirsty sister, Lisa, have been held up as the latest innovation in initial teacher education and continuing professional development.

Glasgow University's Alan Britton and Gavin Morrison, of Texas Christian University, told an international conference in Glasgow that the "extreme caricatures" of teachers in The Simpsons could provide examples for aspiring teachers of how not to teach.

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

Skinner, they say, would "struggle under the current regimes of accountability and inspection" in Scotland and elsewhere. Particularly alarming is his attitude to independent learning and creativity in the curriculum, exemplified by comments such as:

l "I have got word that a child is using his imagination and I've come to put a stop to it."

l "That's two independent thought alarms in one day. Willie, the children are over-stimulated - remove all coloured chalk from classrooms."

Mr Britton and Mr Morrison recognise good intentions in the school's foreign exchange programme, but this is undermined by Skinner's "limited appreciation of the underlying global-mindedness that ought to inform such exchanges", evident when he introduces Adil, an Albanian student:

- "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, meanwhile, is unfulfilled in her career and love life, and her cynicism is clear when she attempts to reassure pupils before a test: "Now 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 entirely sympathetic, albeit eccentric, teacher is Mr Bergstrom. He appears 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 well-being".

Miss Hoover returns to find that he "didn't touch my lesson plan"; Lisa, however, says she has learned that "life is worth living".

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

He and Mr Morrison - who is based in his university's department of art and art history - conclude: "Gross caricatures they may be, but the images of teachers in The Simpsons are fully rounded, three-dimensional, significant, and challenging to the profession."

Their joint paper was presented at "The Teacher: Image, Icon, Identity", an international conference at Glasgow University last week, dealing with representations of teachers in the arts.

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