Breaking the Blockbuster Model

In 1905, the first Nickelodeon opened in Columbus, Ohio and charged a large crowd of several hundred people 5¢ each to see a movie. (Get it--a “nickle”odeon?)
Since then, movies have changed a lot, and so has education too. Recently, I’ve been a part of some really good conversations around trends in grading practices, parent access to the classroom curriculum, and use of UDL. After meditating on it for awhile, I think I’ve finally come up with a metaphor that captures my ideal approach to teaching and learning.

I think it’s time to teach more like Netflix.

My wife asked me a really good question when I showed her the idea for this blog post: “What do you want from your readers?”. And the honest answer is I’m not sure. Perhaps it will cause a paradigm shift for some. For others, maybe it won’t. Ultimately though, I think what I want out of it most of all is a chance to start a conversation around the traditional ways we’ve thought about teaching, learning, creating, and consuming content in our classroom. First, I want to think about this model of schooling: the classic lecture-based classroom. I think it symbolizes an older way of teaching & learning,  and it’s not necessarily wrong, just out-of-date.

Now, this isn’t to say that there aren’t some redeeming things about  “movie theatres”. There’s a time and place for the occasional, high-quality experience that it can provide. I had a couple of high-school and college professors who were amazing lecturers, but that experience definitely wasn’t accessible--nor enjoyable--for a lot of my peers. You can’t “rewind” a lecture to catch what you missed or didn’t understand, or get some “closed captions” or “annotations” to make it more accessible for foreign language learners.

I think about this kind of teaching a lot as I use mini-lessons very consistently in my classroom for about 15-20 minutes each day. After talking to many years of students, some of them like this direct approach, others say that it moves too fast for them to be able to comprehend in a meaningful way.

Hence, here’s my list of recommendations to get the most “bang for your buck” with a “movie-theatre” kind of instruction:
  • Provide scaffolded notes-- I do four different tiers myself (completely independent, blank outline online, blank outline on paper, and fill-in-the-blank) almost every day for students. Over the course of the year, I gradually remove the fill-in-the-blank option and teach note-taking strategies to push students towards greater independence. For those students with IEP’s or whom are ELL’s, I still provide the fill-in-the-blank option upon request.
  • Make your “movie” as interactive as possible (IMAX and 3D, right?). Toss in relevant StoryMaps, short YouTube clips, Flocabulary raps, checks for understanding with NearPod or PearDeck, or anything you can get your hands on. Here’s an example of how I tried to do so in one lesson:
  • Turn on closed captions on Google Slides (if you’re using that as your presentation app). I’ve had some students say that it’s distracting and others have been fine with it, but if you can make it work successfully, do it.
  • The most important thing is to make your direct instruction as meaningful as possible. Have students make connections, draw pictures (see the space on the notes where I have students do so), or construct predictions. Give them the time they need to process their learning to construct something memorable and lasting.

It took quite a while, but the next video format to come out--in terms of how audiences could get their hands on content--was the home movie theatre (either laser disks or VCR’s) and Blockbuster (remember those?). Together, they provided a revolutionary way for people to consume media. Like the Nickelodeon model above, I’ve tried in the graphic below to demonstrate how this metaphor extends to common practices in the classroom too.

Being completely honest, I think I’m still mostly in the “blockbuster” stage of teaching-- I still really struggle to create time for my students to return to prior work or to make resources available in multiple languages. 

The idea of late work is a particularly difficult one for me. On the one hand, I want to instill in my students the idea that due dates exist in life and that work ethic matters, but I’ve found that due dates can discourage students with already low grades from turning in work (especially if I put in place limits such as “you can’t turn in work after a unit test”). If this reason doesn’t make sense at first, consider the parallel for forgetting to return a video to Blockbuster: if you know you’ve incurred $50’s worth of late fees, what would ever make you want to go back and have to pay it?

Anyhow, here’s a few tips and tricks to get the best out of a blockbuster classroom that I’ve found:
  • If students are working on a Chromebook, have them enable offline access for Google Drive so that they can complete work at home, if need be. Otherwise, provide physical copies of materials so that their access isn’t curtailed.
  • Give students curated choices between a variety of content, processes,or products. For example, to learn about the story of the Indian emperor Ashoka, I give students the two (processing) options:
  • Utilize Google Translate (or other translation software) to the best of your ability. Although there’s much to be desired with these products, making any kind of effort with them matters. Translating a Google Doc is simple (just go to “Tools”, then “Translate Document”), but doing so for Google Slides requires line-by-line editing. Is the 20 minutes of copy/pasting from one Google Slide into another worth it? I’d argue yes:

When Netflix started catching on in the early 2000’s, Blockbuster’s days were numbered. The reasoning was pretty simple: here was a service that 1) didn’t require travel to a store 2) only charged a simple, flat fee that was easy for consumers to understand, and 3) allowed for monstrous amount of access to thousands of movies, documentaries, and TV shows.

I’m not sure what a Netflix / Amazon Prime / Hulu, etc. classroom might look like, but I think that it’s the next step for us as educators. I imagine that every teacher will have their own spin and personality on it--as they should--but that they will all echo a similar theme:

There’s no such thing as too much access.

See if you catch on to why these streaming services might be a good metaphor for the next step in opening up access to learning:

Some of these possibilities for the classroom don’t exist yet--such as content being available quickly and accurately in another language. Or, philosophical beliefs, developmental appropriateness, and technological limitations may influence how these ideas manifest themselves too.

There’s a few ways in my classroom that I’ve made it a little more “Netflix-like”. I’d recommend:
  • Using an LMS (or a HyperDoc, Google Doc calendar, Wakelet, Dropbox, etc), make your entire curriculum available to students and parents anytime. Yes, I’ve actually done this in my own room. Be transparent about when quizzes and tests are, due dates for assignments, etc. No doubt,  it certainly takes time to provide links to every activity, worksheet etc, but the end result is worth it.
  • Have students help create classroom content for you that you utilize in other classes. For example, I ask my juniors in Dual Credit U.S. History to create metaphorical posters that help explain the hard-to-grasp philosophy of mercantilism for my sophomore World History students. The results have been pretty awesome!
  • Utilize iorad to create interactive, immersive tutorials for students who want to work at their own pace or need additional support. It’s amazing and has some awesome functions like voice-over integration & text-to-speech functions, but best of all, it’s FREE. Here’s a link to one iorad tutorial I put together. You’ll see the use for it instantaneously. 
  • Consider using additional supports for students like SeeSaw, Remind, and FlipGrid. In the right hands, they’re powerful tools that can transform your classroom. Video recording your lessons using Quicktime (my preference because it’s free) or apps like Screencastify can also make learning more accessible. 
How do you envision breaking a “blockbuster” model to make learning more accessible? Post your ideas in the ideas below!


You’ll notice that a lot in the last third of this blog was sounding a lot like a “flipped classroom”. Here’s 8+ tips for ensuring success if you’d like to give this a try.

There’s a lot of tech that was mentioned in this blog. Sound overwhelming and don’t know where to start with the whole edtech thing? Check out this FREE e-book.

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