“Educational Media” vs. Learning from Media?

David Kleeman, SVP, Insights Programs and PlayVangelist, PlayCollective, delivered these provocative remarks at the Learning at Home Forum in New York on January 24. The text of his commentary is posted below the video.

You can read his blog post, “Kids and Educational Media: Desire to Learn vs. Design to Teach” on the Huffington Post.David Kleeman

Good morning, and thanks to the Michael and Vicky for inviting me to comment.  I’ve been outspoken about educational media before, and hope to be provocative today.

I’ll talk a lot about TV, but the strategy and policy implications are similar across platforms, because the educational value of media has as much to do with the child’s needs, interests and abilities as with the attributes of the program, game, app, or website.

I have two central points:

First, maybe kids stop consuming educational media because what we offer isn’t relevant or real to them, and before we pursue the report recommendation to create more content in curriculum areas parents rate as weak, we need to answer why what we have now doesn’t work for kids.

Second, many older kids are engaged with educational media, just not as defined by the research. Pursuit of media in the interest of a passion or curiosity – via resources like YouTube or Google – supplants consumption of packaged media designed to teach something. Interestingly, when the survey questioned parents about their own educational media use, the examples given were of self-directed, connected learning – looking up a recipe, getting health information or answering questions.

In some cases, kids feel they learn from media even when it has no educative intent. A German research institute asked 7-10 year olds which programs they learn from. Over 50% of the American boys talked about friendship and sharing lessons in “Spongebob.” We make meaning from media, based on our own needs.

Earlier this week, as a nominating juror for the international children’s TV festival, I watched over 200 shows from around the world.  Let me describe three that I found wonderfully educational, and ask whether they’d meet the study definition: “good for your child’s learning or growth, or that teaches some type of lesson, such as an academic or social skill.”

  • Canadian kids designed and built playgrounds for their communities and, yes, the kids used the power tools themselves;
  • Irish teens documented one day in their lives, via user-generated videos;
  • A Brazilian telenovela dramatized the different challenges faced by twins – one white and one black.

By and large – we don’t make shows like these.  When an American kid turns on TV, how often do they see any clue as to where they are, or who they are?  How often do they see news or documentaries made for them?  By the way, no American company entered a non-fiction program in the festival, except in the preschool category.

And here’s a conundrum. Most U.S. educational kids’ TV is curriculum-based, but in the German study I mentioned, American kids barely mentioned learning facts from TV. German kids – who get their own news, plus magazines and documentaries – listed factual learning first.

When the U.S. gets anxious about children’s time spent with media – and we do, moreso than any other country – we add education.  Other countries seek to draw their content closer to the audience.

The Children’s Television Act provides a cautionary tale about policy solutions. Broadcasters treated the 3-hour educational programming mandate as a ceiling, not a floor – kids got the minimum. When broadcasters called their shows “FCC friendly,” it was clear that regulators, not children, were their primary audience. “Educational” TV isn’t necessarily “quality” TV and, while the government can shows with educational goals, it can’t demand that the show be any good. After a few innovative efforts at the start, broadcasters found they had no incentive to invest – financially or creatively – in their E/I shows for older kids, and ratings flatlined.

Yes, educational content on free media is important, but it’s condescending and wasteful to give mediocre content to those with the fewest resources. Perhaps it’s time to revisit the option of commercial broadcasters supporting public service media instead of airing unwatched programs.

By contrast, when Australia sought to enhance children’s TV, the government mandated home-produced content, but also created production grants and tax credits. Producers competed for funds and commissions, and Australia now has a reputation for high-quality “small e” educational programming.

There are a few important questions that this study didn’t ask:

  • Do parents see and value learning from media beyond explicit curriculum – 21st Century skills like collaboration, communication, perspective-taking or lateral thinking?
  • Do parents see and value meta-learning from media engagement – media literacy and critical thinking; logic, programming or technology skills?
  • Does parental experience result in higher opinion of educational value? Minecraft scored poorly, but nearly half of all parents didn’t know enough to rate it. Video games got low marks for social skills learning; do gamer parents better see games’ potential for collaboration or communication?

So, how can we help parents see and extract the educational value in a wider range of media? Good tools exist, like Common Sense Media and Children’s Technology Review. We need a wide range of resources, though, so parents can find the ones that match their values and media matrix.

While the study recommends engaging an independent organization to code media for educational content, I’d be concerned about creating one box, where what fits inside is educational and the rest is not. This doesn’t consider the needs of the child or the whole-child view of learning.  It also can stifle innovation and lead to regression to the mean creatively, as producers chase a stamp of approval by producing to the rubric.

In closing, content creators need to communicate better why their products are educational. I counsel them to talk about what they’ve put in – their teaching philosophy and how they mean for the product to be used – rather than promising or suggesting outcomes. To say what you are teaching is a statement of intent, but learning is a complex process with external and contextual forces that media makers can’t control.

I look forward to the discussion!


Special thanks to Scott Traylor of 360kid.com for the video.