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Learning from Netflix?

Posted on: November 16, 2020

I agree with those who say that we can learn a lot from Netflix about how we might school and educate learners, but not in the way you might think.

Proponents of the Netflix way might refer to viewing on-demand or its recommendation engine, but those focus on the relatively superficial technological affordances of making viewing more efficient.

I would rather focus on what makes learning more effective. With that in mind, I have started thinking about the “pedagogy” of Netflix, i.e., how some shows follow common designs that educators might emulate.

A caveat: Not all Netflix shows are winners. The best are what some might call slow burns, e.g., Ozark, Criminal: UK, The Queen’s Gambit.

Netflix's Ozark, Criminal: UK, and The Queen's Gambit.

The most intriguing shows draw viewers in with non-linear narratives. This means that a story is not told sequentially from A to Z. A show like The Queen’s Gambit is not afraid to go back in time to provide backstories.

In a classroom, this might apply to curricular redesign. Most curricula are designed with standards and examinations at the head and tail end. Both result in a “just-in-case you need this later” design, i.e., what students learn is not used immediately or meaningfully.

The willingness of a teacher to leave a linear design and provide just-in-time information contrasts with the orderliness of most curricula. But this also focuses on what the learner needs most at the time. This could mean that a math teacher who realises that students have a language deficit will address that gap first instead of sticking to the math scheme of work.

A show like Criminal assumes that the audience is smart and curious. It does not provide all the answers and actually hides some information. The viewers become participants as we put the pieces together by discussing the gaps with others and/or by figuring things out on our own.

The application of this to schooling and education is not that educators carelessly teach and exclude information randomly. There is a method to the apparent madness — it is called needs analysis that informs pedagogical/content design. The design invariably includes an emphasis on peer teaching and critical reflection.

If there is a winner of the slow-burn award, it should go to Ozark. It is show that provides shocking moments largely because the rest of the movement is languid. Its not-afraid-to-go-slow might be a storytelling device that is akin to slow cooking.

Likewise, not everything needs to be taught a breakneck speed or rely on flashy demonstrations. Much of learning is a slow and mundane struggle. Students do not give up because there is a constant dance between what a teacher encourages and what a student needs to do. The learning environment is not limited to the classroom and not dominated by the teacher.

I would be the first to point out that Netflix is designed to provide entertainment and not to be a source of professional development for teachers. But I would also point out that we can learn from any experience if we watch carefully, reflect critically, and apply meaningfully.

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