Monday, October 17, 2011

Radical Tuesdays- How Educational is Educational Tv

Radical Tuesdays will be about all things Radical Unschooling.  In other words, those things which are the sticking points for academic unschoolers to really unschool all of life- tv, food, sleep, manners and social interactions, and other stickiness.  

Other unschooling moms, many years more experienced than me, have already written a wealth of information on Tv and Movies in the unschooling home.  And I have written in the past about my growth from a total anti-tv mom to seeing it as valuable for learning.  So I am just going to add a few observations from this week.

This is in response to something I have heard many times from moms who are feeling guilty about letting their kids watch any tv at all.  They say that their kids only watch educational shows and no commercials, and that feels like justification, to themselves or critical others, for letting them watch hours of it at a time.  At least maybe they are learning *something* from it, they say hopefully.    

"Educational" tv shows can potentially be less educational than pure entertainment....
especially when comparing the two genres of preschool shows. 

Tv shows that are intended to be educational, especially ones for preschoolers, often lack the real world references and connections that are usually in shows that are intended purely for entertainment.  For example, my kids have watched a movie called The Letters from the library.  It is intended for toddlers to learn their letters and that is all that is in the movie- letters with faces, letters dancing, letters jumping, and an obnoxious woman saying each letter repeatedly with a variety of inflections.  Oh and it has music.  Nothing in the movie connects the letters to any use of them in the real world.  There is nothing in the movie that kids can latch on to and want to learn more about except the sole star of the movie- the alphabet.

Another example is the show Dora the Explorer.  It's not nearly as one-dimensional as the letters movie, but when compared to something that is intended purely for entertainment like Spongebob, it comes up lacking.  I know, I know, Spongebob is obnoxious and really what can kids *possibly* learn from him making the same annoying noise for 3 minutes straight?!  But if you pay attention, there are historical, political, religious, musical and other references all throughout!  And the same is true for many other entertainment intended shows.  Pixar and other film makers have done a great job of making kids' movies entertaining for adults by throwing in things we will understand and find funny, and this is useful for kids too because we are raising them to live in the real, adult world after all.  Also, shows with an actual plot, instead of a one or two subject focus, offer many more potential connections to things that kids have seen before in other places.  Shows that are just trying to get a single lesson across, often don't have many places, things, animals or people that aren't directly related to the lesson, whereas shows for entertainment often have a variety of characters, locations and things that can spark a new interest and lead to exploration.
Despite how it might sound, I'm not really knocking educational shows overall.  My girls like Dora and their enjoyment of the show is reason enough to watch it.  They've even learned a few things from it.  Educational tv has it's place- if I want to learn how to cook a 5 course French dinner, I want to watch something dedicated to that subject.  It doesn't need to have a plot or to reference lots of other things, it just needs to clearly explain how to do what I want to do.  In order to understand it, however, I will need to already have some references and connections in my head, as well as experience looking up things I don't understand.  I might need to know what escargot and souffle are and how to convert metric measurements.  If my 3 year old watches it, it will not have much meaning to her.  In the same way, watching a show about the nuances of letters, without any idea what those things are or for what purpose they are used or how they connect to the world, is like doing a doctoral dissertation before getting a highschool diploma.     

I will also say that some educational shows do a good job of connecting things to the bigger picture.  One of those is Curious George (who is totally an unschooler).  And therein lies the irony- if parents are going to let their kids watch Curious George just because it is advertised by PBS (one of those evil corporations that uses advertising to control people) as "educational,"- where George runs around getting into all kinds of mischief, making a mess and learning from it- why not just let them watch the many shows advertised only as entertainment that have an actual plot and real world references?  

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