‘Bart Gets an F’ is the first episode of ‘The Simpsons’ Series 2; airing in the US on the 11th October 1990. The episode that prominently features everyone’s favourite 4th Grade hell raiser, Bart Simpson, is generally seen as a ‘classic’ episode of the beloved show. Here’s a quick run-down of the episode to give you some context (so if you haven’t seen the episode yet, and want a surprise, spoiler alert!).
Bart fails four History examinations and is given an ultimatum: pass his re-test or repeat the fourth grade. Horrified, Bart finally attempts to apply himself by roping in class boffin Martin Prince to teach him how to study, in exchange for Bart teaching Martin how to be ‘cool.’ The plan goes awry, however, when Martin becomes too cool to assist Bart in his studies, hanging him out to dry. After a desperate prayer, Bart is seemingly granted, by God Himself no less, one extra day in which to study. The snow day is spent in his room, reading his text books and making notes, while trying his best not to become distracted.
The following day, Bart takes the test again, and fails. In a very touching scene, Bart weeps over his failure, claiming that he ‘really tried,’ yet ‘still failed.’ Fortunately, Mrs Krabappel awards Bart an extra mark on his paper after Bart is able to link his own feelings of despair to that of a historical figure he came across as part of his studies. As Mrs Krabappel puts it, he’s passed, but ‘just barely.’ The end of the episode sees Bart dancing home and joyously displaying his D- paper on the fridge.
What can we learn from this episode?
I loved this episode as a kid, finding it both hilariously funny and painfully sad. But, years later, watching this episode has given me food-for-thought. What can we, as educators, learn from this episode?
What strikes me strongly is that students want to learn as long as the learning is meaningful for them and they are aware of the big-picture. Bart struggles mightily in school and is repeatedly shown as being the ‘class clown’ who finds his lessons both boring and difficult. However, when he is able to relate to a situation in his History topic, he is able to then apply his knowledge successfully. Making lessons meaningful for students must always be a cornerstone of our practice. After all, as Daniel Willingham puts it in his book, Why Don’t Students Like School, “memory is the residue of thought”. In other words, learning happens when students think about meaning. For material to be learned it must reside in the working memory – students must pay attention to it, as Bart eventually does when he showcases his knowledge to Mrs Krabappel.
Next, perhaps it is somewhat unrealistic to expect Bart Simpson, a boy who readily (but perhaps wrongly) refers to himself as ‘dumb as a post’, to show the exact same level of ability, engagement and achievement of that of his more able classmates. Less able students can achieve, and achieve well, but parameters generally have to be shifted in order to see that level of progress. Differentiation, as far as Mrs Krabappel is concerned, does not happen.
Finally, a wonderfully positive message is that success, no matter what the grade, should be celebrated, with real joy, excitement and sincerity. This is something that most modern teachers are (thankfully!) very keen to do.
Evaluating Krabappel’s ‘old-school’ practice!
Yes, this ‘old-school’ style of teaching is just that – old school, and nearly 30 years old at that (and now I feel like a serious crumbly). I recall my own days at Primary and Secondary school, and don’t recall differentiation being utilised as often as it is now. In my own experience, less able children were either repeatedly sent out of class with a TA, or simply left to struggle (that was me, with Maths, sadly). So perhaps it’s unfair to examine Edna Krabappel’s lacklustre teaching through our 2018 lens and criticise, but hey, it’s fun, and she’s not real, so that’s OK!
So how could Krabappel have developed her practice? How could she have helped Bart make small-step improvements? Well, here’s some questions which provide something to think about:
1. Could Krabappel have given Bart regular feedback before the test?
As all teachers know, formative assessment is your best friend – and your students’ best friend too. Timely, appropriate feedback is essential for showing children where they have done well, and where they need to improve. Feedback also shows students how they can improve: do their answers lack detail? Do they need to cite their sources? Do they need to show their working? Do they need to evaluate their learning in a more meaningful fashion? As the test Mrs Krabappel gives to Bart appears to be a standardised test assessing learning at the end of a History unit, it is certain that Bart would have written papers or answered questions on this topic prior to the test. His misconceptions could have been addressed earlier on. He should have been given advice on how to improve. Perhaps, he could have been given an opportunity to show what he knows in a different, less formal way. (For the sake of this post, I’m assuming Mrs Krabappel didn’t do any of these things, of course!).
2. Could Bart have been given intervention and support prior to the test?
Internal and external intervention happens in all public schools, with children selected for this support after rigorous examination of data and individual needs. Teachers have different views on intervention – some prefer groups to go out of class where they can concentrate away from the hustle and bustle of the classroom, while others favour keeping students in class to receive quality first teaching and (in the views of some teachers I have spoken to personally) to avoid ostracising certain students. Either way, most teachers agree that intervention and support needs to happen with any student showing signs of educational risk. Support could be anything from assigning TA time to certain students, to periods of teacher-lead learning, to differentiated work. Maybe Bart could have received assistance in a small group of less able students, focusing on learning dates and figures relating to the topic. Mrs Krabappel could have given Bart (and other struggling students) explicit teaching in a small group setting while the other children worked independently. Perhaps, even some simple graphic-organisers, flash cards or cloze-activities could have helped Bart arrange his thoughts and memorise facts. Nowadays, there are many possibilities.
3. Could Krabappel have taught the class about the importance of failure?
Another popular concept considered and used in schools is that of growth mindset. Put simply, a ‘fixed mindset’ is believing that all traits within an individual are fixed and unable to change. People with a fixed mindset tend to believe that they are either smart or dumb, talented or untalented, and document their intelligence or talents without trying to develop them. The person behind the idea of fixed and growth mindsets, psychologist Carol Dweck, found that students with fixed mindsets tended to fail at tasks, were slower to learn, and shied away from challenges. They were also more likely to blame themselves or other factors for their lack of success: ‘I’ll never be able to learn cross-cancelling equations……’ ‘If I’d had more time to study, I’d have passed that test.’ Who does this remind you of? Bart’s miserable and frustrated assertion – “You know it, I know it…I am dumb, OK? Dumb as a post’ – is a perfect example of a student with a fixed mindset rationalising their own failure. I just can’t do it. I’m not smart enough.
Conversely, growth mindset teaches students that brains and talents are just the starting points, and that hard work and perseverance are also important. As Dweck writes: “This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” Over time, Mrs Krabappel could have instilled this concept into her students by emphasising how challenges and failures are crucial to a learning journey, and key opportunities to improve learning and skills. As a last example, take the character of Lisa Simpson, a gold-star overachiever. A Series 6 episode, ‘Lisa’s Rival,’ sees Lisa discovering that she may no longer be the ‘smartest’ in class. On making this discovery and no longer feeling that she is the ‘perfect’ student, Lisa proceeds to hyperventilate into her paper lunch bag. It’s a hilarious but telling illustration that shows us fixed mindset can occur at either end of the intelligence spectrum.
4. Could Krabappel have modelled higher expectations?
It is obvious that Mrs Krabappel is a jokey parody of an elementary school teacher, complete with all the trimmings: she’s a jaded, sarcastic, bitter, underpaid chain-smoker with a miserable home-life, and it shows in her teaching. The idea of the less-than-inspirational teacher is again used in The Simpsons in the character of Miss Hoover, Lisa’s 3rd Grade Teacher, who frequently smokes at the back of the auditorium and bores the class to tears with endless movie reels. And then there’s Principal Skinner, a well-meaning but rather ineffectual square who is roundly mocked by the pupils and sneered at by his staff. These are all tropes, sure, but be honest (and you’ll have to be honest with yourself here) you’ve probably been a little guilty of pulling a ‘Mrs Krabappel’ yourself at times.
Think of those days you’ve gone into school running a bit of a virus, or frightfully tired, or worrying about something at home or even – cough, gasp – a little hung-over from the staff Thursday night blow-out. Have you taught to your best standard? Of course not, you’re only human. Apart from the hangover example (come now!) you could argue that the other cases aren’t even down to your own fault or lack of interest. Well, they’re not, you can’t help being sick, but consider the effect on your teaching. It was less than spectacular, wasn’t it? Now, rack your brains for perhaps a more egregious example. A time when lacklustre teaching really was your fault. Perhaps, you had to teach a unit you found really tricky, or boring, or irrelevant. Perhaps you simply hated the unit in question. What was your teaching like? Did you approach the topic with the same flare? Were you as hyped as you normally are? Did your excitement and enthusiasm rub off on the class? Well, perhaps it did… if you’re an exceptional actor. But I feel we’ve all been guilty of teaching a few topics in our careers that just haven’t been as engaging or inspiring, and sometimes we have to blame that on our attitude.
Think of Mrs Krabappel with her cynical laugh (Ha!) her sighing, her eye rolling, her barbed remarks to the class, and ask yourself if you could find anything she had to say interesting. As teachers, we’re the starting point. We’re the role-models. And if we’re not invested, the kids sure as heck aren’t going to be either.
I hope you found this post remotely entertaining and perhaps even helpful. What do you think of the character of Mrs Krabappel? Can you think of any more inspirational fictional educators in popular culture? Is there anything in your own practice that is remotely, possibly a little Edna Krabappel-like? (Be honest!) What’s your favourite education-related Simpsons episode?
Feel free to leave a comment and d’ohn’t forget to check out this blog again for more content. Thanks for reading.