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What Teachers Can Learn from Kony 2012

March 11, 2012

The internet exploded last week over the release of Invisible Children’s new documentary film, Kony 2012, which documents the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Joseph Kony. The goal of the film was to “make him famous” and the video has indeed become a viral hit.

While their message has resonated with some, as evidenced by the 5 million dollars they raised in two days, others have been more critical, citing how the film doesn’t portray an accurate picture, how Invisible Children is poorly run, and how the premise is based on the White Man’s Burden of saving Africa.

Regardless of your take on the issue, I think there are some valuable lessons that instructors can take away from this.

  • The Danger of a Single Narrative: There’s a fantastic TED talk out there by Chimamanda Adichie called the “The Danger of a Single Story” that is well worth a watch and highlights what I mean here, especially in terms of Africa. Kony 2012 is one story, told from the perspective of North American filmmakers – what other stories are not being told or are hidden by this narrative? Ugandans are criticizing the film for simplifying the situation, for using old footage that doesn’t accurately portray the situation, and for opening old wounds. In the classroom, reducing complex issues to simplistic answers is dangerous. It doesn’t encourage critical thinking and analysis. It reduces the complexities of the lived experiences that students bring to the classroom. It positions the teacher as able to distill complexity into simplicity, as if this were the end goal of knowledge. Teachers need to be willing to engage with different narratives, value them, and encourage students to bring their own stories into the classroom. Perspective matters, both our perspective as instructors, as well as the students’ perspective. Things like gender, race, sexuality, and disability matter in how they shape perspectives. Very few things in life or in the classroom are simple and to portray them as such does a disservice to the intelligence of the students.
  • The Power of the Storyteller: When you stand in front of the class or behind the camera, there is great power in being able to tell the story in your words and in your way. By remembering this, teachers can understand the effects of what they teach (and how they teach it) but also, hopefully, remember to share the power, to let others (especially students) also have the power to tell stories in their way. As teachers, you are in a position of power – how are you going to use that?
  • Knowledge is Political: Much of the discussion around the film has been about awareness, raising it being the specific goal of the film. But to what end? Awareness is good but what is the goal of that awareness? Much like the knowledge we teach, what is the end goal? Beyond test scores, what goals are we explicitly or implicitly looking to achieve with what we teach and how we teach? We can be more efficient in reaching our goals when we recognize them and, at times, when we reflect we can see how our methods actually detract from our goals.
  • Know Your Audience: Much of the success of the film can be attributed to the filmmakers knowing their audience (North American, college aged, etc…); their use of social media targeted this and how they made the film played on this. As instructors, we also need to know our audience. What excites them? What will engage them in the topic? What medium is best to do this? When students care about the material they’re studying they engage with it – also, we shouldn’t necessarily assume we can make them care about something we care about or think is important.
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