Classroom TV (1956)

In the early and middle 1950s, the Copp Clark Publishing Company issued a series of ‘Study Pamphlets in Canadian Education’. The 12th of these, issued in 1956 and titled ‘Classroom TV’, was written written by McLuhan.

Classroom TV1

It is very natural today to speak of “audio and Visual aids” to teaching, for we still think of the book as the norm and of other media of sight and sound as incidental.  We also speak of the new media of the press, movies, radio, and TV as “mass media” and think of the book as an individualistic form.

We have good reasons for thinking of the book as individualistic. It is a form which isolates the reader or learner in silence. Yet the printed book was the first product of mass-production — the modern mechanization of an ancient handicraft. This achievement meant that more or less everybody could have the same books. In medieval times it was out of the question for different institutions to have the same books or for students to have copies of the same book for study. Manuscripts, as well as explanations of the text, were dictated to students, and the students memorized as much as possible of both text and commentary.

Under these conditions instruction was almost entirely oral and was done in groups. Before the advent of printing, solitary study was reserved for the advanced scholar. In its beginnings the printed book must have appeared as a visual aid to oral instruction.

Before the printing press made its great revolution in the teaching and learning process, the young learned mostly by listening, watching, and doing. Until recent years, children in our own rural communities learned the language and the lore and skills of their elders in much the same way. Most learning took place outside school and classroom, and only the very few aiming at professional careers ever went to school at all.2

Again today in our highly technological cities a great deal of learning occurs outside the school. The sheer quantity of information conveyed by press, picture magazines, movies, radio, and TV far exceeds the quantity of information conveyed by school books or school instruction. This situation has challenged the monopoly of the book as a teaching aid, and in fact has challenged the very role of the school. It has come upon us so suddenly that we are confused and baffled about what to do. 

In this violently upsetting social situation many teachers naturally view the offerings of the new media as entertainment rather than education. But this view carries no conviction to the student. It is hard to find a classic on our curricula which wasn’t in an earlier time regarded as light entertainment. Nearly all vernacular works were so regarded until the nineteenth century. Many movies on historical subjects are obviously handled with a degree of insight and maturity at least equal to the level permitted in texts for social studies today. Movies such as Olivier’s productions of Henry V and Richard III assemble a wealth of scholarly and artistic skill which reveal Shakespeare at a very high level, yet in a way easy for the young to enjoy. Could it not be said that the movie is to dramatic [stage] representation what the printed book is to the manuscript? It makes available to many people and at many times and places what otherwise would have been restricted to few people at few times and places. The movie, like the book, is a ditto device. TV can show to fifty million people simultaneously the same movie which in theatres would reach only a series of small audiences.

Some people feel that the value of experiencing a book is diminished by its being extended to many minds. This notion is always implicit in the phrase “mass medium” or “mass entertainment”. But it is not a very useful phrase since it obscures the fact that the English language itself is essentially a mass medium. If a language is not the means of inter-personal communication for millions of people, we regard it as unimportant.3 Today we are beginning to realize that the new media are not just mechanical gimmicks for creating worlds of illusion, but new languages with new and unique powers of expression.

One does not require a very extensive acquaintance with English literature to see how profoundly the resources of our language have been shaped and expressed in constantly new and changing ways. Mass-production by the printing press changed not only the quantity of writing, but also the character of language and the relations between author and public. Habits of word order in grammatical construction were changed by the printed form, and with the coming of the power press and the modern newspaper the structure of English syntax was modified even more rapidly.

Radio, talking pictures, and TV have pushed written English towards the spontaneous shifts and freedom of the spoken idiom. And the poets, from Hopkins and Hardy to Eliot and Dylan Thomas, have insisted on bringing the resources of Spoken English to the foreground of poetic effect.

The great voice of Dylan Thomas heard over microphone and LP disc provided the first real experience of poetry for millions of people. These people did not mind that his erudite and witty verse was incomprehensible to them at first. They listened to his poetry as they might have listened to Casals’ cello. Microphone and disc have added a great new dimension to the printed or written word, just as movies and TV have recovered intense awareness of the language of facial and bodily gesture. If these “mass media” should serve only to weaken or corrupt our previously achieved levels of verbal and pictorial culture, it will not be because there is anything inherently wrong with these media. It will be because we have failed to master them as new languages in time to assimilate them to our total cultural heritage.

As these new developments come under a quiet analytic survey, the evidence points to a basic strategy of culture for the classroom. When the printed book appeared, it threatened the oral procedures of teaching. Yet the [book created the classroom as we know it and enabled every student to have the same authors before him simultaneously. Instead of making his own text, his own dictionary, and his own grammar; he could start out with these tools. He could study not one ‘but several languages. But there is a real sense in which the new media today threaten the procedures of this traditional classroom instead of merely reinforcing them. It is customary to answer this threat with denunciations of the unfortunate character and effect of movie and TV entertainment. In the same way comic books were feared and scorned and rejected from the classroom. Their good and had features in form and content, when carefully set beside other kinds of art and narrative, could have become a major asset to the teacher. Where the student interest is already intensely focused is the natural point at which to begin the elucidation of other problems and interests. The educational task is not only to provide basic tools of perception, but also to develop judgement and discrimination to deal with ordinary social experience.

Few students have ever acquired  skill in analysis of newspaper or magazine offerings. Even fewer have any ability to discuss a movie intelligently. To be articulate and discriminating about ordinary affairs and information is the mark of an educated person. Whatever we do about TV in the classroom, we cannot forever dodge the responsibility of training students to evaluate this medium. 

As we face the prospect of TV in the school, it would be misleading to suppose that there is any basic difference between educational and entertainment programmes. This distinction merely relieves people of the responsibility of looking into the matter. It is like setting up a distinction between didactic and lyric poetry on the ground that one teaches and the other pleases. It has always been true that whatever pleases teaches much more effectively. In his great Apologia for Poetrie Sir Philip Sidney wrote that, as opposed to the philosopher, the poet

dooth not only show the way, but giveth so sweet a prospect into the way, as will intice any man to enter into it. . . . He beginneth not with obscure definitions, which must blur the margent4 with interpretations, and load the memory with doubtfulnesse: but he cometh to you with words set in delightful proportion, either accompanied with, or prepared for the well inchaunting skill of musicke; and with a tale forsooth he commeth unto you: with a tale which holdeth children from play, and old men from the chimney corner.

Sidney’s argument is that poetry is not merely an attractive coating for the core disciplines, but that it alone can enlist the appetite for knowledge. And knowledge without appetite for the same is null.

Today, all of the new media are so many poetic means of packaging the age-old offerings of human culture. Sooner or later we shall recognize the need to study press, radio, movies, and TV as poetic forms.5

It is too much to expect that this need will be faced at once. Accordingly we must look at the intermediate state in which there will be occasional use of TV in the classroom.

In Canada the C.B.C. has made two experiments in classroom TV. The first was in 1954 and was described in a published report. Two years earlier, the B.B.C. had offered to selected classrooms twenty programmes dealing with science, geography, current affairs, and industry. The resulting study of their reception and effect led to the recommendation of a regular service of this kind which was then scheduled for 1957-58.

From 1945 to 1951 the British Ministry of Education experimented with school telecasts and then in 1951 began regular programmes (aimed for the most part at secondary schools) four days a week. In the United States the Federal Communications Commission reserved mere than 250 TV channels for educational stations. Some dozens of these channels are now in use providing school and university instruction. Most of the school programmes in the U.S.A. are the result of the collaboration of teachers and students on an amateur basis. The professional services of script-writers, actors, and se-designers have so far been little used.

The two Canadian experiments, in 1954 and in 1956, were inspired both by the earlier experiments outside Canada and by the recognition of “the tremendous impact that television is making on the minds and tastes of the rising generation of viewers. Its effects have been felt in every field of juvenile life — hobbies, homework, sport, reading, social intercourse, manners, and family relations.”

The aim of the experiment was “to determine whether, and to what extent, television could help the teacher in her daily classroom work. Thus it was hoped to find out whether television could take its place alongside the other teaching aids such as radio, films, film strips, and slides, which are already so widely used in Canadian schools.”

Towards this end it was decided to focus on the Ontario curriculum and select two levels, grades 5 and 6 on one hand and grades 7 and 8 on the other. For grades 5 and 6 a programme on How Columbus Navigated was prepared. Next a traffic-safety programme, Look Alert–Stay Unhurt, was brought out, followed by Surface Patterns and Starbuck Valley Winter.

For grades 7 and 8 there was The House of History, a tour of the home of William Lyon Mackenzie, and also Iran from the North, Save Our Soil, and Current Events. The standard of production was professional, using the full resources of the C.B.C. staff and studios.

These programmes were viewed in ordinary classroom conditions, and questionnaires for teachers were prepared to assist in evaluating the experiment. There was a generally favourable response to the broadcasts. The teachers’ comments made such points as these: “Television can help teachers create a climate for learning.” “The lesson was dead — more animation required.” “Leaves pupils with a healthy curiosity.” “Topic did not warrant the time on it.” 

The report mentions that “no attempt was made to survey pupils’ reactions to the programmes, apart from general questions on teachers’ evaluation forms.” This may well have been a mistake since these programmes were in direct competition with the many other TV programmes already familiar to students. These programmes were not regular class instruction but incidental to such instruction. An experiment in direct instruction in some curriculum topic should be made under the same conditions, so that teacher and student reactions could be evaluated. After all, so far as providing a climate for instruction, press, radio, movies, magazines, and TV already constitute a new tropical jungle within which the classroom teacher attempts to carry on teaching as usual. Our classrooms may be said to provide a tenderfoot training for students who are obliged to cope with sabre-tooth problems in their ordinary environment.

Alternatives to the CBC experiments are rapidly being explored in the United States. One of these is closed-circuit TV, which can be used to make the instructor in one class simultaneously available to all the classes in the city, or can be used on a continent-wide service, as the Medical Association used it to instruct doctors about the Salk vaccine. Another alternative is the new technique of recording sight and sound on a single tape; it will make any TV programme or film almost as available and as inexpensive as an LP disc.

In any estimate, TV in the classroom means that the instructors presented will have a classroom of huge scope. Only the most expert teachers will be called on, and they will be obliged to prepare and to process their lessons with a care and consideration that is seldom found or expected in the preparation for a single class. Theoretically one teacher might do all the arithmetic teaching for grade 6 for the whole country. In this way some teachers could become national figures as much as current celebrities of stage and screen. As one wit pointed out, TV is the biggest log ever invented, and Mark Hopkins can now sit at one end and all the students at the other.6

It is also characteristic of the TV medium that instead of leaving the student twenty or thirty feet from the teacher, TV picks him up and puts him in the teacher’s lap where he has a quiet, easy voice speaking right into his ear. Moreover, the minute expressiveness of eye and face becomes much more visible than in the ordinary classroom.

This means that the talents and powers of the individual teacher will have to be carefully studied by the TV producer just as movie producers have always considered the individual excellences and weaknesses of their actors. And this again presents problems to teachers using such TV programmes. Will their own efforts begin to appear, by comparison, trite and puny to their pupils? Will the TV programmes fit into or disrupt their own teaching? Will the pupils become careless about their homework? From these and similar questions and problems of TV in the classroom there emerges the obvious need for close teamwork between the schools and the producers.7

Within the classroom in which the TV programmes occur, it would seem likely that the teacher will be drawn more and more from the blackboard to the student’s elbow. As TV takes up the visual job, the teacher will assume more and more the psychological job of assisting the individual learning process. TV could, then, in one sense take the teacher out of the classroom into a larger world; and in another sense, restore him to a much closer relation to the individual student.

Does TV instruction mean that education will be extended much farther than ever attempted in the present classroom? Does it mean that by virtue of having a higher quality of instruction at the studio end there will be a richer educational result? Does it mean that child and parent will be able to share the same instruction? If the instruction is broadcast to the present type of classroom, will the room teachers become person-to-person tutors rather than lecturers? How far would such changes affect the present supply and quality of teachers? Would high-level instruction received simultaneously by teacher and student enable the room teacher to achieve a higher personal standard?

It would seem that the number of room teachers required would not be affected, but the demands made of their physical and nervous energies might be lessened. Moreover, the opportunities of the teacher to follow TV programme instruction with personal supervision of individual work would increase to the point of becoming the main mode of teaching. And many parents would be able to follow at home the daily broadcast instruction to their children in school.

It may be a great while before any significant proportion of essential and initial instruction is transferred to TV presentation, even in the U.S.A. The purpose of this essay is not to advocate any changes but merely to survey the situation. For those who wish to look further into these matters some pertinent discussions are listed [in the bibliography] on the next page.


  1. Bolding has been added to some passages.
  2. A decade before this, when McLuhan first arrived at UT, he probably saw Eric Havelock’s description of Greek education in just these same terms.  For discussion see Havelock, McLuhan & the history of education.
  3. Therefore the ongoing wholesale destruction of ‘minority’ languages by us mindless modern ‘humans’.
  4. Presumably the margin between ignorance and learning.
  5. McLuhan adds here: “in the classroom”. But the point of such study was, of course, to take the classroom out of the school into the world at large — “classrooms without walls”.
  6. Referring to one of the foremost educators of the day, President James Garfield (1831-1881) expressed his concept of an ideal university as “Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other”. McLuhan returns to the ideal of one-on-one education (which he himself had experienced at Cambridge) later in his essay: “will the room teachers become person-to-person tutors rather than lecturers?
  7. McLuhan was well aware that the presence or absence of “close teamwork” between the academy and the outside world was exactly one of the most important differences between the humanities and social sciences, on the one hand, and the physical sciences on the other.