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.

Bill Nye The Science Guy Who Always Knows Why

Age Levels targeted:
8-18

Background:
Bill Nye the Science Guy is a PBS educational TV program about science that was created and ran on television in the mid 1990s. The show was produced by Walt Disney’s educational division and hosted by scientist Bill Nye, a former assistant of Christopher Lloyd’s when he’d perform his experiments on the animated series version of ‘Back to the future.’ The show is still used in many schools, having been designed as an in-school program to be used by instructors as part of the classroom curriculum. The show is applicable to a wide range of ages.

Bill Nye the Science Guy ran for 100 episodes and has spanned three spinoff science shows (so far) also hosted by Bill Nye: The Eyes of Nye, 100 Greatest Discoveries, and Stuff Happens. The original Bill Nye the Science Guy show covered topics similar to those discussed in Beakman’s World, another science show that I have discussed, that ran at around the same time and even shared a writer/director. Both shows have a great sense of humor and a fast paced method of coming directly at the young watcher and keeping him constantly engaged with the subject material thus keeping him focused.

Overview of the show:
I’ve already noted in the last section, the connection between Bill Nye the Science Guy and Beakman’s World. Another comparison that has often been made is between Bill Nye and Don Herbert, the famed Mr. Wizard, the ‘father’ of science teaching on TV who had two popular series of this sort. Bill onscreen is dressed as a typical scientist wearing a bow tie and lab coat and teaching people, mixing in humor while teaching the science of everyday objects and phenomena. To that extent he is similar to Herbert. But there the similarity between Herbert and his followers end. Mister Wizard is a much more straightforward ‘pure’ hands-on science show which is slower paced and thus very different from his later follower hosts such as Bill Nye and Beakman. I plan to discuss him and his shows in another entry on the site in future.
As with Beakman’s World and the Mister Wizard shows, Bill Nye the Science Guy is a show geared for the elementary school set to teach them scientific topics – and yet it’s very different from either show. For starters, it’s more focused than Beakman’s World. While Beakman’s World would try and give a taste of two or three unrelated topics on each show (for example ‘vaccinations’ and ‘friction’), Bill Nye the Science Guy almost always focused on a single topic which Nye would come at from a wide variety of angles and in a varied selection of places. Location is another major difference. On Beakman’s World, all the action happens inside Beakman’s laboratory. Bill Nye the Science Guy couldn’t be more different in this respect. Bill does spend a fair amount of time in the lab, with most shows starting with him walking onto the set, known as “Nye Labs.” However, large sections of the show involve his getting outside. He won’t just create you a model volcano – he goes out to Mount Saint Helens to show the effects of an actual volcanic explosion.

He won’t just stick on a pair of goggles and pretend he’s flying to discuss flight – he’ll actually spend time in a plane.

Bill Nye the Science Guy is also far less insular than Beakman’s World in the matter of scientific expertise. Beakman’s lab consists of only himself, his assistant and Lester. Even when he brings so-called ‘experts’ to explain the concepts he’s teaching, the ‘experts’ are actually (and obviously) he himself, in costume. Bill Nye, on the other hand, constantly interacts with people of all ages and backgrounds outside his lab. He also works with and interviews people from outside his show, each of whom is expert in fields of study relevant to the episode’s topic of study.

Another nice touch Bill Nye the Science Guy features is the inclusion of parodied spoof song videos, wherein he takes a popular song and changes its words to explain the concept he’s been teaching during the course of the episode. This culminates in an entire episode devoted just to science through song entitled “NTV Top 11 Video Countdown.”

None of what I’ve said above, of course, should be misconstrued as an attempt to criticize either Beakman’s world, a wonderful show unto itself which I have nothing but the highest praise for, or Mister Wizard which is the pioneer of TV science shows. My point is that despite the shows’ similarity they also have a great number of differences and each of the shows, while appealing to many of the same target audiences, may strike more of a chord with different viewers so that the shows all essentially complement each other and are best used together to demonstrate various principles as I’ll note below in my anecdotal section.

The Main Characters
The two main characters on the show are Bill Nye a.k.a. ‘ Bill Nye the Science Guy ‘ and Pat Cashman who is the show’s announcer. We never see him on the show but he often interacts with Bill from offscreen. In addition to this there’s a ‘typical American family’ who appears in several episodes in comic relief. Other than that though, the characters tend to change completely from one episode to the next depending on the topic.
Types of skills the show teaches:
Bill Nye the Science Guy is a show that teaches scientific concepts and does so in a fun and engaging way that keeps kids attention focused so that they absorb a lot of useful educational material without feeling bored or overwhelmed. The show is appropriate for a wide range of ages. My kids started enjoying it even before they entered elementary school but I recently had someone who goes to one of the top high schools in the US tell me that they used it in his high school as well. I don’t claim to be a science expert by any means but I do find the show personally interesting, informative, and witty. It will stimulate your child to be more inquisitive about the world around him if he’s not already and will answer questions for them if they’re inquisitive already.
Site review:
To my mind this is probably the best science show out there for school level kids of the present generation. The fast pace, different ways of getting at serious subject material, the songs, and the humor all combine to create a wonderful learning environment that kids used to that kind of television can relate to. It’s real people as opposed to the animation style of the magic schoolbus (another wonderful show) which while excellent is likely to be considered babyish around the time they hit junior high. It has a wider range and scope of place then either of the other two shows I’ve mentioned in this review, Mister Wizard and Beakman’s World, which are both in-lab shows. Another major advantage is that the show was designed to be an in-school program meaning that its subject matter is likely to apply fairly specifically to subjects your kids will be taught in class.

My Kids Perspective:
My kids constantly watch and rewatch the episodes of this show and ask me to find out if there are more episodes out there that they haven’t watched yet, This has been true of all my kids at all ages. Even the youngest, who isn’t up to understanding anything in it at this point, still loves to watch it with his siblings because of the catchy music and fast moving action. They’ve constantly drawn upon facts they learned from the show in real life situations and I’ll often hear them debating scientific subjects only to have one or the other of them bring something from Bill Nye the Science Guy.

The one time my kids are definitely not free to choose their TV preferences is when they have a test to study for. That is unless it’s a show where TV can help in studying for a test. I’ve found Bill Nye the Science Guy to be one of the best shows for this. Naturally this isn’t in place of their actual study material. But rare is the child who is going to study their test material non-stop before a test. They need breaks. And if they’re willing to spend the break watching TV and the program they happen to watch is an episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy dealing with the test topic it can only help. Mister Wizard is also a pretty useful show for study purposes though Beakman, (except when the topic’s a perfect fit) less so. As of the time of the writing of this piece, my children have always received exceptionally high grades in science so I figure it can’t be hurting!

Anecdotal: Two or three years back, my daughter was standing with a parent who homeschools and whose kids are quite advanced educationally and her son (a high school graduate by age 14). As they were standing there a helicopter passed overhead and my friend asked “do you know what’s keeping that up?” to which her son replied ‘the rotors’ upon which my daughter, at the time around 8 piped up “no –it’s lift…and the Bernoulli effect.” I didn’t have a clue what she was talking about (though I made a point to look it up afterwards – nothing wrong with learning from our kids even if they’re third graders and what they’re teaching us are principles of aerodynamic theory) but she did because she’d been watching the episode about flight

and my friend apparently did and was clearly impressed.

Another time my kids asked a friend’s father to give them trivia questions. “on what subject?” he asked. “Ask us science questions,” they begged. Jokingly he asked them “ok what’s DNA.” in unison they replied “Deoxyribonucleic acid.” It’s not often you see a man’s jaw literally drop and as he sat there agape they went onto explain to him exactly what it is and how scientists use it.

Similar shows
Beakman’s World, Mister Wizard, The Magic School Bus

Once Upon a Time…Man

Age Levels targeted:
8-18

Background:
Once upon a time…Man is better known by its original French title Il était une fois… l’homme. An animated series, it was produced by Albert Barillé.in 1978 and is without a doubt one of the most thorough and engaging reviews of western history I have ever seen. I say this speaking as someone who believes very strongly that kids knowledge of their national history ought to be further rounded out by a broader knowledge of world history. While the fact that the show is presented in an animated form to better engage children’s interest might cause one to be dismissive at first, the content is anything but abridged as the series methodically traces the history of western civilization from its earliest eastern origins through its expansion westward. It is thereby not only completely suitable for adults but even recommended.
Admittedly there does appear to be a strong Eurocentric focus (this is French made after all) to the series but without a bias in favor of any specific country (which is impressive considering that the show was produced long before the existence of the EU which might be presumed to have influence in such a show produced today. Moreover, despite the considerable amount of time spent on Europe there is a great deal of attention paid elsewhere as well when showing the shows roots and to be fair much of the development of Western civilization, both positive and negative did happen in Europe. The series doesn’t, as one might expect, end in our age but actually goes on to project what the future will likely be like based on present developments and trends and deals with such issues as ecological decimation, space travel, wars, and disappearing resources.
Overview of the show:
The show’s two minute opening segment is backed by a rendition of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor by J.S. Bach. The segment’s finale, the earth’s destruction is timed to coincide with the Tocata’s striking ending.

The show then proceeds to cover a broad spectrum of events taking place around the globe in a temporally linear and geographically western direction. The events are shown through the point of view of a collection of characters who appear repeatedly throughout the series, taking on relevantly archetypal roles in different times and places. This achieves two things. Firstly it allows us to get to know the characters throughout the series, even if on some level they’re also meant to be different people living at a different time. Secondly it enables the creators to suggest that even as things change in the world in many basic ways they remain the same with the same types of people undergoing variations of the same types of experiences, trials and tribulations from one generation and geographic location to the next. The events portrayed are those that would later have proven to have had major effects on the world’s history. The events are covered on a year by year basis, thereby promoting a broad understanding of what the world was like at this time and what social, political, religious, scientific and other event shaping currents were affecting the world at any given time.

The series covers the various events from a highly objective point of view. It takes into account both scientific and religious developments without making a judgment in favor of either side. Beginning with the Big Bang, we’re taken through the scientifically posited stages of evolution, and prehistoric times, on through the early days of civilizations with its religious beliefs, rituals and figures. Although there were countries that had problems with the shows representations (primarily those where the church was strong and took exception to both evolution and the depictions of the church in the Middle Ages) both evolution and religion are handled sensitively throughout. Muhammad, for example, is always portrayed from behind out of respect for the Islamic belief that it is sacrilegious to draw pictures of him. Evolution is presented as part of the historical matrix without dwelling on its scientific basis while the religious events are also handled from a purely historical point of view. Events such as the birth of Jesus and Muhammad’s ascension in the Arab world being looked at from the point of view of how those events affected geopolitical events and not in terms of Xmas celebrations or final prophets. The series then moves westward and onward until finally it is looking into the future and forecasting mankind’s fate as time marches on.

The Main Characters
As mentioned in the overview (above), Once Upon a Time… Man features a set collection of archetypal characters that repeat their existences in different places and settings throughout time. This technique is common to History series, and we can see a similar use of it in the humorous educational series Histeria!, which I plan on discussing in another piece, the idea presumably being that every age has its archetypal figures that assume the same or similar relationship towards the events being portrayed. The main figures in Once Upon a Time… Man are:
• Maestro – He is portrayed as a elderly wise man with a beard so long he frequently hides objects in it or takes objects out from it. He has long white hair that almost completely covers him. He generally holds a position of power or influence without being the main power holder (after all these are meant to be archetypal figures of centrality but the actuial positions of power were held in every age by real recorded historical figures). He generally serves in a religious, royal court or other political position.

He is also often to be found in a teaching role, instructing the young in a variety of subjects.
• Le Gros (Jumbo) – Jumbo is a strong redheaded young fellow whose best friend is Peter (see below). A hulk of a person, with tremendous strength, albeit a bit on the clumsy side, Jumbo frequently is called upon to help defend Peter and Pierrette from the evildoers in the community.
• Pierre (Peter) – Peter is a good looking and brave fellow, the archetype of the good person.
• Young Jumbo and Young Peter – the characters mentioned above occasionally have younger versions of themselves that appear at times in the series in order to follow typical maturation process of a person of the era being dealt with as we see them grow from children to teens. Young Jumbo and Pierrot are cousins and young Jumbo is his cousin’s guardian against bullies.
• Nabot (The Dwarf) – Nabot, the dwarf with the evil little laugh, is ‘The Pest’s friend and fellow bully. He is weaker than The Pest but more intelligent and calculating. One can count on the two of them to ignite an argument among the kids.
• Le Teigneux (The Pest) – ‘The Dwarf”s friend, this big powerful bully always likes to attack and pick on others. Luckily, he is offset by Jumbo who is stronger than he is and provides a counterforce to his behavior. The Pest and the Dwarf always fill the roles of negative archetypal characters. At their best they’re provocateurs, naysayers or duplicitous. At their worst they portray the killers, plotters, treasonous louts or other similarly degenerate character types that have existed throughout history.
• Psi – Dark haired Psi is the archetypal nice, kind young girl. She generally fills the role of her male counterpart Peter’s girlfriend or wife.
• Pierrette – Blonde Pierrette is an archetypal nice, kind young woman. She is generally cast in the role of Jumbo’s wife or Peter’s mother.
• The Clock – The Clock appears to show the years as the events unfold. Generally it’s just a clock but at time it takes on anthropomorphic tendencies and adapts itself, taking an interest in the events being shown or expressing annoyance if too great a gap appears in the historical narrative.
In addition to the repeating characters, every generation has its actual major historical characters that are key players on the world scene for that generation. Sometimes the characters above play those figures, such as young Peter and Pest facing off as David and Goliath. At other times these historical figures have their own individual characters and appear only in their historical context.
What Your child can learn from the show:
Obviously the main thing your kids (and you) will learn from this show is history; specifically the history of Western civilization. In addition to this however, one also learns some geography simply as a result of seeing which countries are arguing over what borders. On the social side the use of a repeating cast of archetypal characters in each period makes the show a useful tool for parents to show how different people react to the same situation as well as how the same person reacts in different situations and to consider how times and circumstances affect people’s behavior.

Site review:
Once Upon a Time… Man is wonderful in that it lets you actually see history as it unfolds. Think of those “this year in review” type shows that news stations now routinely do at the end of December and then (while albeit shrinking the number of events you might see for a given year) expand that to include all of Western history from its early roots in the east to its expansion westward to Europe and the Americas.

Another impressive feature of this show, is its objective approach to history. Rather than taking a moral stand, as many historians are wont to do when reviewing events, the show carefully attempts to steer clear of judgment. Every set of countries, cultures and ethnicities display a set of prejudices and fears, and are motivated by goals and desires that are shown to be not that different from those of their (often constantly changing) enemies and friends. Rather than attempting to create some sort of polarized view of Western history the creators offer us a holistic view of the various periods and allow us to see the positive and negative inherent in the various events.

My kids review:
My kids have constantly watched and rewatched this series ever since their mother got it for them. This was actually a series that she had grown up with and that I was unfamiliar with until she brought home the DVDs. While this is a rare occurrence with us I was thrilled that thanks to her I discovered it at all. Once Upon a Time… Man wasn’t well known in the US (perhaps because of the Eurocentricism) and so I missed out on it in my youth. My older son who’s very into anything to do with history (and even if only for what it has given him I’m planning a review of Little House on the Prairie for this site somewhere down the road) especially took to it and made sure we got all the DVDs available. All the older kids especially liked the group of archetypal characters and discuss them in different situations amongst themselves, laughing at the amusing parts and saying things like “you remember when the big good guy did such and such.”

Anecdotal:

My son was so taken by the history series, that he naturally gravitated towards the medical series Once Upon a Time…Life put out by the same people in the same style. Instead of going to soccer or basketball camp, my little jock has been begging all year to go to “young doctors camp” this summer. When a talented athletic third grader begs to spend his summer doing things like dissecting pig’s hearts and lungs (yes they really did that among other things) you know that something’s made a strong impression on him. Clearly the producers of these series know how to capture a child’s imagination.

Similar shows
Once upon a time… life, Liberty’s Kids, This is America, Charlie Brown, Histeria!, Schoolhouse Rock

Beakman’s World – Inside The Glad Scientist’s Laboratory

Age Levels targeted:
8 and up

Background:
Beakman’s World is based on a comic strip called “You can with Beakman and Jax” created by Cartoonist Jok Church in 1991 for his local paper in Marin California and quickly became syndicated in hundreds of newspapers. The TV show first aired in the 1992 fall season on The Learning Channel and, like its comic strip predecessor, quickly became a hit. Just a year after its premiere, it moved to CBS Saturday morning kid’s television lineup. The program garnered 3 Daytime Emmys during its relatively short stint on television (it ended in 1998) and was nominated for several more Daytime Emmy awards.

Overview of the show:
Eccentric scientist Beakman (played by Paul Zaloom) works in a lab in which he’s constantly performing wild and wacky experiments and exploring scientific concepts. Each show explores one or several scientific concepts through experiments and explanations. Often Beakman will teach his concept by creating ‘the Beakman challenge’ wherein he’ll bet Lester to perform a seemingly difficult feat which he is inevitably unable to do. Beakman will then show him how it can be done using science. The concepts explored come either from Beakman himself or in answer to a viewer letter (read by his female assistant) addressed to him.

The Main Characters
The main character of the show is, of course, Beakman himself, an offbeat scientist with a wild hairdo and sense of humor who fearlessly tackles a range of scientific explorations of his own, as well as those his audience at home writes in to ask him about. Besides being himself, Beakman also doubles as other characters at times in order to get his points across, some of whom can be seen in the montage below.

Aiding Beakman in his experiments is his trusty sidekick Lester, a man in a rat suit. Lester serves as the foil for Beakman’s sense of humor and is all too often the victim of his scientific pranks. Commonly Beakman will challenge Lester to do something seemingly which Lester fails at only to be shown how he could have done it using science. Much comic relief is also provided by personal jokes made by Beakman, and Lester himself, regarding Lester’s personal habits, looks and intelligence.
The other main character of the show is the role of Beakman’s female assistant, taken on in different seasons by different actresses. They served as a counterbalance to Lester, aiding Beakman with the more serious aspects of the experiments he performed and providing other technical tasks such as reading aloud the letters from the viewers at home.
Two other characters that are minor, yet appear in every show, are a pair of penguin puppets, Don and Herb (named after television’s famed Mister Wizard Don Herbert) who appear at the beginning and/or end of the show (sometimes in the middle as well watching the show on their TV at the south pole. They’re Beakman’s ‘biggest fans’ and their purpose of their segments are solely comic.

Types of skills the show teaches:
Beakman’s world is first and foremost a Science show. However mundane or wacky the experiments he performs and the facts he presents are they are all borne out by scientific experiment. The goal of the show is to show kids how to see the scientific workings of the world in virtually everything in their environment and to stimulate their curiosity and wonder about why the world around them operates and functions as it does..

Site review: This is a show that kids can really connect to and get enthusiastic about regardless of the level of scientific interest with which they initially approach it. Kids who are more scientifically minded will get swept in immediately by the varied and often unorthodox and unusual experiments performed on the show.

Kids who are less scientific minded will be so drawn in by the high concentration of humor packed into the show keeping it constantly funny even when serious scientific principles are being discussed that they tend to want to watch more. And of course as with any program you watch, you tend to pick up facts, even incidentally, while concentrating on the humor. I’ve often had my kids wanting to try out experiments they’d seen on Beakman, telling us about them or discussing it amongst themselves.

My kids perspective: My kids are constantly asking me to try and find them more episodes of this show. Unfortunately, the supply appears to be limited. I’ve put everything that I’ve managed to find in the Kiducation Corner but even so I’ve had trouble finding anything from seasons 2, 3, and 5. If anyone knows where I could get ahold of them you’ll have a thankful father here. It doesn’t matter when you see this, let me know as my kids will still probably want to watch Beakman when they’re in their 30s!

Anecdotal:

Just this past week my kids tried a “recipe” Beakman had mentioned in one of the episodes in which he created apple Jello using unflavored gelatin and apple juice. Now I don’t know what exactly went wrong but it came out tasting more like apple flavored rubber than jello. The point is that even though this was just an incidental mention in the Beakman episode in question, the moment they heard we had unflavored gelatin they rushed to try out this recipe simply because they’d ‘heard Beakman mention it’ and they wanted to see if it would taste good. Regardless of whether the failure was theirs or Beakman’s, the very fact that having gelatin in the house caused them to say ‘let’s experiment with it’ already shows a positive influence at work.

Similar shows:
Bill Nye the Science Guy, Mister Wizard