Who Killed Educational Television?

When I was born in 1985 this song was already 6 years old.  When I first heard it in the mid 90’s I found the lyrics intriguing.  It’s a classic example of the rate at which technology changes.  In the end as we all know, radio has never succumbed to the power of video and it could be argued that radio and video have both been given an incredible boost by their younger brother; the internet.  It may not be in the same format but online/streaming radio content and podcasts are are available at the click of a button on any device.  Video has seen a similar boost as more and more people cut their cable and move to online streaming video content providers.  Netflix, Hulu, Crave, the list goes on and on.  Even traditional TV service providers are migrating their content online.  So what about educational content on television/radio?  Is it still an effective means of delivering supplemental educational content?  Who are the major players and what is their end game?

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It’s clear that from it’s inception, the idea of delivering educational content via radio and television waves was novel and exciting.  This was true for a number of reasons.  Firstly, the ability to reach a wide audience.  Educational content could be seamlessly beamed into homes and schools across the world through radios and TV’s.  Programs created by different companies and broadcasters looked at ways to engage kids and deliver some additional educational content.  It can’t be argued that educational television and radio was ever meant to replace traditional public schooling.  However, it became very apparent with the emergence of television in the 40’s and 50’s that the potential to reach a wide audience of children would mean a uniform message could be transmitted to the general public.  If you think about it, even PSA’s followed this same pattern.  When it was decided by research firms or government agencies that a message needed to be delivered, a PSA was recorded and broadcast.  The same went for televised educational content such as Sesame Street, Reading Rainbow, or SchoolHouse Rock.  The wide array of possibilities that lay before broadcasters was unprecedented.     reading-rainbow

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Secondly, the access to popular music and culture lent itself to the incorporation of these pop culture elements into the content being broadcast.  This was the story behind SchoolHouse Rock.  It’s creator David McCall noticed his son having trouble with multiplication tables but he seemed to be able to remember popular rock songs.  He began writing and producing animated shorts covering topics like science, math, social studies, etc.  Personally I still remember some of these classic songs such as “Conjunction Junction” and “Electricity”.  They were short, catchy, and I would often find myself humming them as I went about my day.

ABC also had a huge success in Reading Rainbow, a program that encouraged reading among young viewers through themed episodes.  The award winning and long running program has now been released as an IOS and Android app.  Sesame Street is another perfect example of the use of popular culture, songs and educational content to teach life lessons as well as core content.  From puppets to famous actors and pop stars appearing alongside beloved characters, Sesame Street captured the hearts of generations of kids and taught countless lessons.  In this example, Robin Williams discusses and demonstrates conflict with the puppets.

Mr. Dressup, and Mr Rogers Neighbourhood were also amazing examples of children’s educational programming that sought to engage, dazzle and release the creative potential of children.  So what is the state of educational Audio/Visual in the 21st century?  Are these types of shows still being created? And, what is the true educational value of such programming?

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It seems as though there is less and less quality educational programming being produced these days.  Especially of the nature that was seen in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s.  Through examination of educational programming that is currently on the air, it is difficult to gauge the educational value of some of the programs now being offered to children.  I have a 2 year old and a 4 year old and there are several things we have noticed recently when it comes to educational television offerings.  The first thing we noticed when we started exploring TV shows to watch with our kids was that there are very few that offer children live action or real world characters to engage with.  The vast majority of the shows for ages 5 and under are flashy, high paced, fast cut, loud and repetitive cartoons or computer animations.  It could be argued that this is vastly more engaging to kids than listening to a live human being.  That may be true to some extent, but I still think that sometimes it’s important for kids to see interactions between real people.  I would argue that students need more and more stimuli in this day and age in order for them to stay engaged.  Why do you think kids have such a hard time listening in class?  I love pulling up old Sesame Street clips on Youtube and my kids love them too.  Secondly, the majority of children’s television shows today have very little content directly related to what I would call values teaching.  Sure some of the shows talk about colours, numbers and shapes but what about teaching things like, empathy, kindness, sharing, and hard work.  Themes that used to be staples of shows like Mr. Dressup are being replaced with limited educational content and flashy adventures that are just meant to sell action figures and video games.  Of course TV shows from my generation also marketed their characters as toys, lunch boxes etc.  However, I see a fundamental difference in the deliberate choices being made by producers of some of these new children’s shows.

Now clearly it is the parents job to be teaching their kids and no TV show could ever replace the real-world lessons that come from good parenting practices.  However, I do wish that more children’s shows incorporated positive values teaching into their programming.  One example of a show that does focus on a mixture of values education and basic skills knowledge is Daniel Tiger’s Neighbourhood, a spinoff of Mr. Roger’s Neighbourhood.  In the show, which features decoupage, and animation mixed with live interviews with kids and parents, the kids learn valuable problem solving and life skills.  Our kids still sing the songs to remember things like sharing, showing kindness, helping others and even when to go potty.  “If you have to go potty, stop and and go right away.  Flush and wash and be on your way!”

So is Educational Television dead?  I don’t think so but it certainly seems to be moving in a more commercialized direction.  If the goal of the producer and broadcaster is marketing and making money off of the program, it may mean that the content is suffering or lacking altogether.  If you’re not sure about the content of a show, check out Common Sense.  The site allows parents to see evaluations of popular kids shows and media broken down by age level.  It’s a good start for parents or educators who are unsure if the benefits of a certain show outweigh the costs.  In addition, we perhaps need to remember some key questions to ask when evaluating educational audio/visual.

  1. Who is producing the content and what are their underlying motivations?
  2. What messages are being transmitted?
  3. Is this lesson teachable through some other means? ie) Real World examples or hands on problem solving?
  4. Parents should set limits on the amount of TV per day.
  5. Teachers should use audio/visual as an aid, not a replacement for quality designed learning activities.

What do you think?  Is the quality of educational television lacking today?  Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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2 thoughts on “Who Killed Educational Television?

  1. Great post Luke, I think that those questions you posed are very relevant. I also think that there needs to be more dialogue between parent and child about the content they are viewing.
    From my limited exposure to children’s TV I do agree that the new faced paced, colorful and sometimes violent content does not compare to the wonderful Mr. Dressup that I also grew up enjoying. Therefore there is a big responsibility on the parents to set limits, and talk with their kids about what they are watching.

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  2. Thanks for the post Luke.
    I hadn’t heard of Daniel Tiger’s show – I’m going to check it out as (it’s like no surprise) I loved the ethos of Fred Rogers’ show.

    Also, you’ve provided an excellent set of thoughtful question to assess children’s programming (although I’d rephrase the last two as questions to be perfect). I think #5 is the most important piece but it’s difficult as you know – we live in a world where is quality early childhood education/care competes with the Potty iPad, metaphorically. (You’ve seen this – but for others’ reference https://www.amazon.ca/CTA-Digital-iPotty-Activity-Seat/dp/B00B3G8UGQ )

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