It was the end of the first week back on site, and I was trying to get my Year 11 Media class to go over what they had learned in lockdown. This was no meta-analysis of remote teaching; we had all had enough of that. Our topic of analysis was far simpler: Men at Work’s 1981 music video for Down Under, one of the key texts for an Australian Stories unit of work.
I had delivered the content virtually, but it was clear from their vacant eyes that, despite my interactive presentation and self-grading comprehension quiz, most of the students were still lost. The first lockdown, it seemed, had not only shut down their senses, but had also encouraged the kind of prescriptive teaching that obfuscates critical and creative thinking. It was also clear that to wake them up, I was going to need to use some tricks that virtual education had made nearly impossible for teachers. The first: Hide a metaphorical lesson inside an entertaining anecdote.
So I paused Down Under and started telling them how my partner (also a teacher) and I had struggled through the lockdown. Juggling our classes, as well as facilitating those of our two primary school-aged children had proved impossible, and by the end of week one, we had abandoned our principles and let the TV do some childcare.
You have to have the courage to break the model then make something new from the pieces.
One show appealed to both our five-year-old daughter and eleven-year-old son: Lego Masters Season 2. This was a little surprising for, despite the many expensive sets I’d bought them, my children had never caught the Lego bug. I was also dubious of a reality TV show, worried it might corrupt wholesome play with forced competition. Instead, it made me realise what had changed in my favourite childhood toy.
Back in the 80s, Lego instructions did not exist as much to build detailed models to keep on display; they were there to teach the techniques of construction. The real value of Lego was to break the model and use the pieces to make something new. I realised now that all the intricate pop culture sets I had bought for my children had only taught them to follow the instructions.
It turns out you don’t need superglue or (The Lego Movie villain) Lord Business to kill creativity; the system will do this all on its own. But after watching people working together on Lego Masters without any instructions at all, our lounge room floor transformed into a minefield of jagged plastic as we all got busy making weird things again.
Making sense of something as complex as a music video, I told my class, is precisely the same. You have to have the courage to break the model then make something new from the pieces. And while they were still processing this leap from narrative metaphor back to reality, I played the last moments of Down Under, where Men at Work, dressed in white, walk across the Cronulla sand dunes.
This time, when I asked the class what they thought the clip might be saying, one student who had disengaged completely during remote learning put up his hand only to immediately drop it and sink back into his chair. Fear had replaced his blank stare.
Time for another trick we couldn’t use in lockdown: notice when the intricacies of body language tell us a student is ready to be pushed. He was hesitant, not wanting to share, certain he was ‘wrong’. Critical analysis, I reminded him, is not about being ‘right’. And so he took a risk.
“Those guys in the white,” he said, “look like they are in some crazy cult. It’s like the song is trying to warn us not to become an Aussie stereotype or something.”
His excellent insight sparked a flurry of arguments and discussions, as suddenly everyone wanted to say what they thought too. It was the opposite of a virtual class, and I was almost forgotten as the students took over, adding their pieces to a new understanding they were building together.
Returning to lockdown feels as if the classes we had almost put back together just fell on the floor again. It is easy to despair, but if we trust each other and our students, what we build from the pieces this time could be better than before. At least this time we know the weak points.