The Medium Or The Message – Where Should We Focus

In continuing with the question of what makes a show good educationally, today I’d like to consider the question of informational value vs. educational effectiveness. Is a show that is more educational from a technical standpoint of greater value than one that may have less absolute educational and informational value but that kids respond to better?

In the past the answer to this question likely would have largely depended to a great extent on the child’s age. The older a child was, the more likely it was that they would be capable of handling a stream of pure information and that the need for experientially inculcating devices would be reduced. This was never a hard and fast rule. There are shows for older kids that employ interactive devices to great effect and shows for younger kids that overuse the experiential to the point that it’s not always clear how much value they’re giving.

However an interesting thing is happening to this new generation in large part because of the evolving nature of TV itself. Today’s generation of kids (and grownups to some extent) is an ADD generation. They have trouble keeping their attention focused on any subject for any length of time. For a show to be successful it has to constantly grab hold and reengage its watchers every few minutes (if not more often) and recapture their attention again and again). This has changed the answer to the question posed and created an interesting phenomenon. While developmentally they should be able to receive more straight information, socially they’ve been acclimatized to a culture of instant entertainment. The evolution of television into a soundbyte oriented media means that a large percentage of the present generation will need at least some degree of constant reengagement to be part of the teaching strategy. This is not good or bad per se but it does mean that more effort and different strategies need to be invested in educational programming in order to be effective for such children.

At a younger age kids have always responded better to teaching methods that rely on interactivity more so than on language, mostly because their language is still at the developmental stage and so learning facts through a medium there only just beginning to learn is a lot for them to deal with. Of course, here too there are a range of teaching methods spanning from baby shows such as the Baby Einstein series on through basic interactive teaching for tots such as Teletubbies and Boohbahs and all the way through more interactive and complex programs such as Sesame Street, Blues Clues and Bear in the Big Blue House.

On the other hand if we look at older kids, the ones who traditionally would have been more apt to stay focused on more frontal shows such as Mister Wizard, many of them now seem more likely to need the likes of a Bill Nye or Beakman to keep them fixated on the subject matter. This is not to say that Mister Wizard is outdated or that its methodology is useless or that the information in Bill Nye and Beakman are necessarily as informative as Mister Wizard.  However methods of relaying (in this case scientific) facts to a new less focused generation have caused educators, or at least tv educators, to reevaluate their approach to educating with an eye towards greater interactivity. Mister Wizard is a perfect example of this. Don Herbert (aka Mister Wizard) actually produced two “Mister Wizard” shows in different eras. In his first show, , his lessons were almost completely frontal. He would engage his young assistants in limited dialogue but essentially it was him teaching them within the confines of the lab. The material was very interesting and still is today to those students with the interest and/or attention span for it. However a look at the format of his later, second show is telling. While the bulk of the action still happens in the lab, he does leave the laboratory at times to go perform experiments with his assistants. He also engages them more interactively in the lab than in his first series.

My personal conclusion to the initial question is that the nature of present society doesn’t really leave much choice. There may be more ‘meat’ in a program that’s purely instructional and frontal but without interactive engagement today’s kids won’t pay attention for long enough to reap the benefits of that information. The ultimate criterion for a good show for today’s kids is not programcentricity (by which I mean what does the programs provide objectively for those open to its lessons) the program but childcentricity. A show is only as educational as its target audience is able and willing to absorb its lessons and without being constantly refocused the programcentric show will be, however good objectively, unable to effectively achieve its aims.

Beeing Proud of my Daughter

I originally posted this on father’s day before this site was hit by a nefarious hacker and I’m reposting it because I want it to be somewhere on this site because it’s relevant to what I’m doing here.  That week my daughter, conscientious girl that she is, actually went ahead and made me a father’s day gift. But she didn’t have to. The academic pride she gave me that week would have been good enough by itself.

This isn’t to say I’m not proud of her at other times. I’m proud of all my kids and for so many reasons.  But that week, the week leading up to father’s day, she won her school “legal studies quiz” as well as the national board of education’s regional spelling bee. Those achievements specifically, particularly the second, made me proud in a way that’s specifically relevant to the topic of this site. She won the bee competing against kids from completely English speaking homes, many of whom were born and raised in English speaking countries. Did she work hard and learn word lists and have the help of a neurotic father? Yes. And those all certainly contributed. But to a large extent she did it through having gotten a solid grounding in the English Language from a young age and a large part of that was watching the right programs which gave her a love of the way language works.

You’re likely thinking “well that’s all very well – you’re clearly a father that’s very into education and wanted her to excel and so you sat down with workbooks and drilled these rules into her. But not everyone has that kind of personality or time.” You’d be right about my being into education (obviously or this blog would not exist) but you’d be dead wrong about the rest. My daughter has been a big fan of such shows as Sesame Street, Between the Lions, and the Leapfrog learning videos from the get go. I never asked her to pick up a phonics workbook – I didn’t need to. Not because she was necessarily a focused type of student who can block out other stimuli such as TV but because she watched the type of shows that turned those stimuli to her advantage. Her adversaries knew how to speak the language – but she understands the way the language functions and what its rules are.

Is your direct input necessary to your child’s becoming academically successful? Well, certainly it helps, but no, it’s not necessary. What is necessary is that they get positive input at all and that they get it in an enjoyable and interesting way. And if you can give it to them in place of an activity that’s generally considered a negative, mind numbing one, an activity that they’re eager to participate in and possibly even addicted to at a low level (obviously if it becomes too serious you should seek help but most kids have a tolerable low level addiction to the screen) then you’ve turned your child’s liability into an advantage and broadened their education where before it might have suffered. The same half hour I imbued my daughter with a love of mathematics by letting her watch Cyberchase or science watching the Magic Schoolbus could have been just as easily invested in having her watch Bratz. Maybe she’d have enjoyed it as much (I find it hard to believe she’d have enjoyed it more). I didn’t even need to spend time on either one beyond choosing what DVD to show her. But several years down the line my daughter has brought home a regional spelling trophy for father’s day. The Bratz watchers? They’re bringing home the receipt for the new summer outfits they ‘had to have at the mall or they’d absolutely like just totally die’.  I don’t know whether or not those fathers would prefer to be in my place – but I do know I’m glad I’m not in theirs.

The fact that her brother is now already asking her to prepare him for two years down the line when he’ll be the minimum age to compete is an added bonus. Certainly the cheers of her schoolmates that rocked the hall where the contest was held had a role to play in that. But the main achievement for me is that her understanding of language and the way it works paid off dividends in a very real and immediate way that in turn will encourage her to continue investing her time in expanding her knowledge base. Having won the contest this year already in fifth grade (the contest is open only to 5th and 6th graders and generally won as a matter of course by 6th graders who have a larger vocabulary) she’s in the rare position of being able to defend her crown next year – and she’s already planning to do so. And for me? My job is to facilitate that by providing her with access to material that will make it easier for her to learn on her own even when I’m not around to help her study.  I guess I’d better go hunt down some TV program that helps build vocabulary and language skills for sixth graders. If anyone has any suggestions feel free to post them. But even if you don’t, if such a thing exists I will keep searching till I find it.

Educational Shows Kids Love And Shows Parents Love To Educate With

In today’s posting I’m going to take a break from what I’ve been doing so far, which is reviewing individual educational TV shows. Acquainting you with good television programs for your kids is of course a main goal of my site. But it’s not the only goal. A large part of my focus is on considering the philosophy inherent in determining what makes a TV program useful for expanding your kids’ education. What are the criteria that ought to be considered in determining whether a show is educationally good or bad? Good for whom? Good how? Over the next few postings I’d like to consider issues of how we use TV as a tool and how that informs our choices of the  programs we use for TV education.

In this first posting I’d like to pick up on an issue I discussed in my last piece, my review of the show Boohbahs, and consider the issue of educational shows kids like vs. shows adults like to use to educate their kids. These groups certainly overlap but are by no means the same. Adults and children apply different criteria to judging content and their approval or disapproval rests largely on how closely the program conforms to those criteria. If the adult’s main criterion is education and the child’s is enjoyment, a balance has to be struck for the show to get high marks from both rating systems.

There are many programs which are clearly educational and will impart positive values and messages to the kids that watch them. However, some of these shows are disliked by parents for various reasons and ironically these are often shows that children respond to particularly well. This may be for a variety of reasons such as

  • the program’s creators designed the program to appeal to the children’s level without taking the parent into account at all
  • the parent feels that there are harmful elements in the program or that
  • the parent disagrees with the show’s philosophy of relating to kids by ‘dumbing down’ the material or ‘talking down’ to the kids.

Whatever the reasons, it almost inevitably creates situations where we are either depriving our children of something valuable because of our own prejudices or, alternatively, that we expose the child to influences we consider negative because they respond so well to the program and so we make a sacrifice for the sake of the positive elements in the program.

In approaching these questions we need ask ourselves two larger questions in regards to our use of TV as an educational medium, to wit

  1. What is the purpose of using TV as an educational tool at all?
  2. Is it preferable that a program be informationcentric or childcentric?

Before proceeding, I’d like to say that I don’t have definitive answers to the questions just posed. I have opinions, of course, but along with those opinions I also hold the overriding convictions that

  • the answers will differ from parent to parent, child to child and environment to environment and even from one time to another
  • there is no one answer that works across the board for any one child in all situations and even if there were it would likely be completely different for the sibling of that same child.

That said, there should be general guidelines of what to consider when approaching each question with regards to our children and that’s what I want to discuss and I hope people will feel free to comment on (there IS a reason for the comments box on my pages – I want you to think of this as an interactive site where you can feel free to put in your 2 cents and contribute thoughts which will I’m sure illuminate me as well as other readers). I’ve always greatly respected the adage that “sometimes asking the right questions is as important as (or more important than) the answers.”

So let’s consider the issues point by point. What exactly is the purpose of using TV as a teaching medium? Well first of all, of course (and to paraphrase Sir Edmund Hilary’s famous quote about Mount Everest) because it’s there! TV is a near inescapable part of our lives. Sure there are people who manage to cancel out a great deal of the mainstream media power inherent in it. I, for example have no TV reception and live solely with DVDs and streamed internet content which gives me a huge measure of control over what my kids have access to. But even that’s not hermetic. Most of us who do that have friends and relatives who have and watch TVs and our kids have friends at school who watch it as well. So there is always going to be some exposure. True there exist some insular communities (ultra-orthodox Jews in areas of Brooklyn and Amish in Pennsylvania) that have created a complete bubble but that’s a tiny percentage of western civilization. For the majority of us TV is a reality and we need to balance out its negative influence and turn it to positive use to the best of our abilities.

TV’s strength, obviously, lies in its ability to capture a child’s complete attention and indoctrinate him or her with anything the material’s creator chooses. This is its greatest danger when left in the hands of the consumer minded creative directors of general television. However it is its greatest value in the hands of responsible education minded parents and teachers. The question then becomes to what extent we use that hypnotic power as part of our educating toolbox.  Yes it’s true that to some extent children will absorb material thrown at them by a TV program simply by virtue of its being there on the screen. However it’s also true that the more the child relates to the specific program the more thoroughly they’re likely to absorb the show. A child will absorb a certain amount of information from a show even if all the characters do is speak directly to them spouting information. However if the show tells a story, if the characters interact with each other and illustrate the lessons they’re trying to teach the message is likely to be more memorable and stick more thoroughly.

This brings us to our next point – whether a child gains more from a program that focuses on imparting information to them or from one whose focus is on connecting with them and imparting information through that connection. One of course does not negate the other. Obviously the ultimate goal is to connect with the child and through that connection and relying on his or her focus imbue them with the maximum amount of information and values to them. However, because of the natural tension between directed information and the natural flow of experiential learning children respond to most naturally these two goals are usually at odds to some extent. A child may be given more information about healthy eating from a person with a chart explaining food groups, building blocks of proteins, fats and carbs etc. than they will from Barney singing a song about the foods he eats. However in measuring the percentage of total information retained an hour or so later you may well find he can’t remember much about the chart except that there was a picture of cheese somewhere near the top while he can remember lots of facts that appeared in the Barney song.

In considering what programs are educational and for what ages I try and take into account the general development of children and their ability to learn from the more informationcentric frontal method of giving them information on the one hand while taking into account their tendency to dismiss certain types of experiential learning as ‘babyish’ on the other.

But while I can give general guidelines, you, of course, know your child best. When considering a show’s likely appeal to your child you’d do well to consider the following questions

  • Does my child have a short attention span or an ability to stay focused for long periods
  • How  receptive does my child tend to be regarding the type of information the show’s trying to impart (for example if it’s a math show is the child fascinated, bored or averse to math)?
  • Does my child like mnemonics such as songs and rhymes or does she resist them, considering them ‘babyish’
  • Is my child patient about information that takes time for him to absorb and pay attention even if he doesn’t completely understand it right now or does he just tune out completely if there are things that he can’t fully relate to immediately
  • Am I looking to educate my kid right now on a specific subject or am I looking to build up a long term interest in and enjoyment of the program in general and using it for targeted learning can wait for another time?

Your answers to these and similar questions (hopefully my readers will have additional suggestions) will likely inform your decision as to whether a specific program suits your child’s educational needs both immediately and for the future. Remember that s your child is constantly developing what’s useless for her now may be perfect for where she’s at a few months down the line and what he responds to now may be sneered at as being ‘for babies’ a few months down the line.  While there may be (in fact likely will be) shows you’ll dismiss entirely, any program that you like but your child fails to respond to should be filed away for a future revisit.