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.