Wilbur Schramm’s Letter to John Gardner

Title Letter from Wilbur Schramm to John Gardner

Creator Wilbur Schramm

Date December 5, 1966

Source Letter, Wilbur Schramm to John Gardner, 12/5/66, EX ED 5, WHCF, Box 25, LBJ Library.



December 5, 1966

The Honorable John Gardner
Department of Health, Education, and Welfare
Washington, D.C. 20202

Dear John:

This is the letter you invited. I don’t expect an answer.

I don’t pretend to be able to tell you what to do about instructional television, but after completing 23 case studies in 18 countries in the last year I feel able to say something about how and where and under what conditions it works well. Which is:

1. Where there is a problem that needs it. If anyone comes to me for advice on instructional television, let him come, please, with a problem in hand, not with a piece of technology. If he has a real problem, I may be able to help him fit educational technology to it. If he comes with a television station, or with the idea that “shouldn’t we have television?” then the prognosis is doubtful. Television works well when it faces up to a really challenging educational problem: when Samoa tried to raise its schools in a few years from traditional rote learning to modern enquiry and investigation; when Niger, with only 66 teachers in the entire country who have more than junior high education, has to share its best teaching in order to bring 100,000 more children into schools and bolster secondary education; when thousands of children have no schools and have to be taught by monitors plus television, or not at all. Then television attracts the support, the cooperation, the flexibility of procedure that it needs to do a truly distinguished job.

In this country, most schools have not felt any overpowering need for television. Indeed, the schools most likely to use it are those likely to need it least. But we have no problems worthy of a serious use of television? We, too, have our deprived schools, our inferior teachers. Many of them are Negro schools in the South, but there are some, also, in our cities. It seems to me that it will take something like what we have done with television in Samoa to break the awful circularity that imprisons some of those schools—deprived and bleak homes feeding pupils to deprived schools which in turn produce more graduates to become teachers and perpetuate the school level and other graduates to become parents and perpetuate the home level. If I were you, I believe I should think very seriously about what the new technology could do to break that pattern. We shall probably have to supply schools and teachers, before too many years, for almost everyone 3 to 20, and probably provide 13th and 15th grades in every city over 15,000. I don’t see how we can possibly get the quality teaching and the specialized courses for those junior colleges, unless we decide to share our teaching resources by something like television.

2. Where television is built into a teaching-learning system. Television isn’t enough by itself; nowhere in the world is it being asked to carry a serious educational responsibility alone. On the other hand, it doesn’t work well when it is used like films—at the call and option of the classroom teacher, program by program. Sometime in the future, cheap videotape recorders may be plentiful enough that some schools can use it that way. But at the present time, whenever you see an example of effective instructional television, you see it used as a part of a teaching teach—not the kind that is usually written about, but a team made up of a teacher in the studio, a teacher in the classroom, and sometimes a third teacher to prepare materials, all cooperating in the decisions on what shall be taught and how the necessary learning activity shall be induced in the pupils, and dividing the tasks.

The obviously represents a new teacher role. The teacher has to share his classroom and the attention of his pupils with someone else, and he must keep a schedule. The principal, too, finds himself with a somewhat altered role—no longer so concerned with content and schedule, and more concerned with supervising the teaching that goes on in his school. These roles are unfamiliar, and at first to some persons threatening. This and the absence of overwhelming need are the chief reasons for the resistance to instructional television in this country. There has been resistance even in the developing countries, but where the problems loom large and good teachers are in short supply, the resistance tends to melt away and be replaced by the problem of teaching little-trained teachers how to do their part of the job satisfactorily.

But here and in other countries there is hardly any training program to get school people for the new roles they must play. In this country, for the most part, instructional television has been charge of broadcasters who do not know education or educators who do not know much about broadcasting. We need, therefore, a new type, a new blend, with a new vision of how a teaching-learning system can be put together for the benefit of children who need it. If we were to try to use television seriously for the benefit of our deprived schools, we could never move into it satisfactorily without such a training program to produce at first a small number of educators to spread the contagion and manage the planning and organizing, and then a large number of individuals to manage the necessary in-service training and supervision. The problem of training for new roles and new organization patters, then, it seems to me, is another that you might think about.

3. Where it is adequately supported. Instructional television isn’t cheap. It doesn’t save money, except as measured against future expenses and the costs of possible expansion. Hagerstown, for example, says it saves $300,00 a year in specialized teachers of art, music, and science it would have to pay for (if it could recruit them), but no one knows whether Hagerstown would have recruited them. The really impressive economic evidence from Hagerstown is that the school board, after watching the experiment five years and obtaining anonymous opinions from all the teachers and administrators, decided unanimously to take over the entire budget when the Ford grant ended. But at Hagerstown and elsewhere, instructional television needs enough financial support to make excellent programs, distribute them dependably, and surround them with cooperative teaching and learning activity. It also needs firm administrative support, and teacher support and involvement. In most places where it has been used in this country, it has had lukewarm support from the men on top, and half-hearted compliance from teachers; and it has been budgeted in the way that the school has been used to budgeting for projectors. This is not adequate for television. Most of the horror stories about ITV from the developing countries have to do with inadequate financing or with a change of heart on the part of the Ministries when they got entertainment and persuasion television and no longer needed educational television as an excuse for introducing the medium.

Therefore, effective instructional television seems to require a problem big enough to attract support enough to provide adequately for good programming and good technology and to encourage teachers to involve themselves and learn new roles.

One corner of this area you might think about, beyond technical support which the new Acts have been providing generously, and we expect more of television teaching and face-to-face teaching. The other day I talked to an innovation-minded educator who told me he had been viewing samples of the National Library teaching programs. He was disappointed. “Some of them are only a little better than what you see in the classroom,” he said. This standard may seem unfair to the people making the programs, but for all of us it is good, because it challenges us to produce really excellent programs. Well, now, how does the federal government fit into that? Schools and school boards don’t want government programming. But there inevitably will be some programs, made by national educational organizations, widely supported by schools, that could be helped toward excellent without exerting any control over their content. It took the new math five years to penetrate into many schools; it will take 50 years before it reaches most schools. Could this rate of innovation be speeded up with truly excellent television materials? It is worth thinking about.

4. Where it is used in adequate size. Nowhere in the world do you see any very significant small uses of instructional television. It is a big medium. It isn’t worth the cost and the effort to gear up to do a tiny job. Furthermore, the unit costs in a small operation don’t reflect the possible economies of scale. Colombia can deliver instructional television over its elementary grades for 5 cents per pupil per hour, which is a unit cost no country need worry about, but Colombia is teaching a quarter of a million children by television. On the other hand, some countries, if they studied their expenditures, would find they were spending over two dollars per pupil hour. Beyond the financial savings, though, there seems to be a certain critical mass below which the medium doesn’t loom important enough to attract the involvement and challenge that it needs. It just seems insignificant, not something that requires us to look with new eyes at what we are teaching and what effect we are having.

The implications of this, it seems to me, are that we should support—domestically and in foreign countries—fewer small and short-term activities in this field. Rather, we should concentrate on large projects, and support them for a sufficient number of years to let them pick up momentum. This leads us again to think of what should be done if we were to face up to a problem like that of our deprived schools.

5. And finally, when it is planned. All over the world, people bumble into television teaching into television teaching. They get some equipment, or they follow a fashion, or they are so overwhelmed by the problems of getting on the air that they have no time to think what they are doing it for, what they want to teach, what training and explaining will be required, and all the long list of questions of which I don’t have to remind you. The point is that this happens here as well as in the developing countries. The introduction of television could be a time to review what goes on in the schools, what outputs are desired, and what inputs are necessary, as never before. But it usually isn’t.

What does this mean in the terms in which we are talking? One thing to note is certainly that we do not make full use of the resources we have at hand for deciding upon and then planning the use of new educational technology. There is a rich fund of experience in the world—some of the most interesting experiences being in the developing countries, and a few of them in the Communist countries. We should be sitting on top of this experience, evaluating it, collecting it, and making it available. A Latin American came into see me yesterday to ask some questions, and I realized he was trying to do with literacy exactly what the Ivory Coast has done, but he didn’t even know they had a literacy program. He could learn a great deal, and save himself some grief, from their experience if it were easily available to him.

We can make a great deal more use of some of our own laboratories, such as Samoa and Hagerstown, for internships, for workshop sites, for experimental activities, for demonstrations. One tiny inexpensive example: Wouldn’t you like to see a film of one of those Samoa television classes, and what lies behind it? No one would ever again think of television as a passive experience after seeing one of those active classes, or ever again think that television is really just movies after seeing how a television teaching team works. And how else is he likely to see that?

There should be a summary here. And of course it would be possible to be more specific. But I am not trying to make a speech to you or tell you and what you ought to do. I am merely writing a letter on invitation to a friend who has to face all the difficulties of shaping governmental policy and bringing about bureaucratic action, while I have merely to stand outside and say Tsk, tsk. It is an unfair division of labor. But if you have got this far, let me point out that this Stanford paper probably has some rag content, and therefore will be excellent for such uses as mopping up coffee on a desk, or even lining a small wastebasket or garbage can.

With best and warming wishes, I am

Sincerely yours,

Wilbur Schramm