Vanguard Teaching

Front and center of tomorrow's society – learn smarter, teach harder

Project-Based Realities – Learning from the Idiot Savant Box

I used to want my MTV. But now, I say bring on the reality TV. I think I’ve found my niche of reality television. In fact, I actually use the reality TV shows as educational resources in the aspect of lesson ideas and professional development. The television programming directors have yet to create an “American Teacher Idol” or “Are You Smarter Than a Master Teacher” so I have chosen to scavenge as much pertinent information and ideas from a swathe of reality shows. Reality shows like Project Runway, The Apprentice, Shark Tank and other project-based competition shows are underappreciated as being educational gems.

With these reality shows, you get a two-for-one deal: the educator masses can smoke their entertainment opium while learning how they may enhance their craft (or at least get 21st-century ideas for their classes).

Why do these shows blow my mind and serve as a foundation to the lessons I create for class?

Simple. Many of these shows are set up like this:

  1. A business enterprise (stakeholder) presents a task based on a set of specific criteria (to meet the wants of the stakeholder, of course).
  2. Individuals or groups complete the task(s) using their creativity, swag and intelligence.
  3. A person or body of people will assess their performance and/or product using the criteria.

This sounds familiar…oh yeah, this is the 21st-century classroom!

You want 21st-century classroom examples? Then watch what you see on these shows. Of course, the zero-sum element on many of these shows raises the competitive stakes of the contestants, but you can dictate how you want that to play out in your class. For me, I try to take note of the skills employers desire from the contestants. It forces me to ask myself, am I building these skills among my students?

When I have used these shows as learning tools, I have posed questions such as:

  • What common themes do you see between show winners and losers?
  • What do the assessors value and what common and specific skills do contestants achieve?

If anything, these TV classes may be the future of education – they’re just packaged as entertainment.

Project-Based Learning Reality Shows

Take for example Heidi Klum’s Project Runway. This show has taught me that the $300-plus clothes that my wife purchases can be made in one day with $10 of material (definitely gives me an upper hand when she tries to get me to buy expensive threads). Jokes aside, the show is highly entertaining and filled with educational treasure. Project Runway is in the same vein as The Apprentice (another class favorite) because they provide examples of how to structure and assess project-based lessons. As stated in the simple 1-2-3 method of before (stakeholders present need criteria for their creative product, producers work feverishly to beat expectations and a hard deadline, and final products are critically assessed. This setup can go a long way in the classroom.

Project-based learning is not a new concept and provides an excellent alternative and/or supplement to direct teaching in a test driven culture. Displaying how these shows can reflect real-life business culture can give students valid reasons of why they should participate in these classroom projects (because yes, students, you can transfer them into the “real world”). For instance, my high school English language-learning students and I watching The Apprentice to write reviews on how the teams interacted with each other and discussing how to deal with difficult teammates and project managers. We killed three little language skill sets with one pebble in this two-day lesson – listening for a purpose, speaking on a specific topic, and writing an analytical paper – while learning essential entrepreneurial skills.

The lack of resources on campus or among the student populace usually is a major hindrance that keeps teachers from implementing project-based learning. Available, ready-made are a luxury to most but resourcefulness is the name of the game. Watch The Apprentice or Project Runway and you will quickly notice that the contestants usually are not provided many resources or opportunities to easily obtain them. The ability to think on one’s feet and let those fluid intelligence juices flow is what makes a competitor shine. [If you agree with the Sternberg Triarchic Model of Intelligence, then you’d know that resourcefulness is an intelligence in its own right]. Try not to let the lack of resources be a hindrance but let it become a challenge to get students motivated to work with what they have – their intelligence.

Lastly, the product assessment stages of these shows are insightful just as much as they are comical. I assume that producers want the crude and snide comments to emerge from judges to get the Simon Cowell –effect (which equals juicy ratings) however, the product reviews are usually succinct, direct, and thorough. This is what our Millennial students want. Many business reviews and research point to the fact that Millennials in the workplace want feedback (assessment of performance and products) more than most other age groups. Both shows provide great ways to create project rubrics for assessment and how to verbally coach and review student work (minus the snarky comment minefields of course).

Students as business consultants

“Fish are the last to discover water.” This quote is quite fitting to the “business makeover” category of reality TV and in the business of improving the classroom experience. These shows, like Restaurant Makeover and, my favorite, Tabatha’s Salon Takeover, deal with business experts reviewing and then consulting with failing businesses on how to significantly enhance their firm. I have personally used Tabatha’s Salon Takeover episodes to explain microeconomic theories of economies and diseconomies of scale – let your students see the businesses before the makeover and I will guarantee they will understand what are diseconomies of scale.

Most importantly, I use the makeover shows as a way to help improve my consulting skills and help me become a better listening to feedback from students and teachers. Having fresh eyes observe what you are doing and not doing in the classroom can be a key to success that you may not see since you are surrounded by water. Seeing the different interactions between expert consultants and their subjects are quite interesting especially when the business owners reach a stage of self-awareness that leads to a business paradigm shift. From a consulting aspect, I want to help get clients to that stage of realization and from a classroom teacher’s perspective, I want to be able to take in advice to get to the next level.

Give it a go!

I think you should shell out the extra cash and/or time to watch one of the many competitive, project-based reality TV shows. There are many more than the few I discussed. For example, Shark Tank is great to get your students thinking about entrepreneurship and how to effectively present ideas in public. Moreover, bargain-hunting shows like Auction Kings, Pawn Stars, and Auction Hunters could help history, economics and speech communications teachers spice up lessons about authentication of historical products, price discrimination, and bargaining skills. The possibilities for these shows to help improve the classroom setting are endless. Give any one of these shows a chance to help you reflect on your teaching practice and curriculum. Let’s give the classroom the privilege to integrate some of the positive learning aspects of reality television.


High School Teachers Economics Teachers!  Try this microeconomics lesson that uses Tabatha’s Salon Takeover

Lesson Plan – Tabatha’s Salon Takeover

Link to Tabatha’s Salon Takeover

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This entry was posted on October 6, 2015 by in For Instructional Coaches and tagged , , , , , .
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