The Educational Value in (some) Reality TV Shows

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Though I’ve always been interested in keeping abreast of pop culture throughout my life, I was never really a fan of reality TV shows. Upon moving to China in 2004 where English language channels were limited, I was forced to watch whatever was on the few English channels I had. One of those channels, Star World, shows a variety of mostly American TV shows with some British and Australian ones mixed in at times. Reality shows have comprised a good chunk of Star World’s repertoire the past few years. Most of the time those shows were just background while I was working or playing guitar, but eventually I started watching them a little more closely and noticed that some of them were actually educational in an authentic, real-world way (you anti-TV peeps out there, please hear me out!).

First, let me list which shows I feel are worthy examples, because I’m definitely not espousing all reality shows here:

  • American Idol (music industry – recording artist/singer)
  • Master Chef (food industry – chef)
  • America’s Next Top Model (fashion industry – model)
  • Got To Dance/Live to Dance (entertainment industry – dancer)
  • The Apprentice (business industry – management)
  • Project Runway – (fashion industry – fashion designer)
  • DC Cupcakes (business industry – entrepreneur)

Yes, inane and, at times, unnecessary drama is added to keep viewers interested (this is what often turns many people away from these shows), but in between those moments, there are often great educational things going on. Those things are:

  • Real world professions are portrayed, giving strong insight to what is needed to be successful in that industry;
  • They allow and encourage creativity and risk-taking;
  • The judges/hosts give authentic (and sometimes brutally honest) feedback and constructive criticism that doesn’t reward mediocrity, but they also realize that people will experience failure at times and don’t always hold a failure against them;
  • Almost all activities are challenge-based, and participants are expected to collaborate and communicate effectively with other participants throughout the series;
  • Problems arise and participants are expected to solve them;
  • There is a clear expectation for excellence with support provided to achieve it, allowing people to better themselves to actualize their potential (yes, think Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs) and achieve their goals/dreams;
  • Individual reflection is frequently required and presented in the talking-head segments;
  • Even though it’s billed as a competition, participants are expected to support and respect each other (most of the time).

Due to time constraints at the moment, I’m going to stop short of giving a play-by-play of how these qualities occur in each show, but I challenge you to watch any of the shows with these things in mind and see for yourself.

In thinking about how we want to transform K-12 education to be more relevant in preparing students for their future, all of these skills and processes presented in these shows come up as practices we want to do more often in 21st century teaching and learning. So, when we talk about giving our students real-world learning experiences and facilitating authentic assessment, I think looking to some of these reality shows can provide good inspiration. At the same time, if we watch these shows with our children and/or students, pointing out and reflecting on the educational qualities these shows provide, that would make for some enriching family time and learning.


About togalearning

Technology Learning Coach, High School Social Studies and online IB Psychology teacher

Posted on May 7, 2011, in Education and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I enjoy some of those reality shows you speak of Tom, however, I’ve not looked at them with the insight you mention. Thinking about you’re analysis though, it makes a lot of sense.

  1. Pingback: Making Environmentalism Accessible through Reality TV | Green Society

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