Let’s talk “edutainment”

flickr photo shared by videocrab under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

Last week’s class for EC&I 833 was about audio visual materials for education and a lot of it was about educational television. Katia Hildebrandt joined us and gave us a bit of trauma with a few Sesame Street clips (like one about Mr. Hooper’s death) as well as bringing up some more current shows to get us thinking about the role of television and education. She raised a concern that came from Neil Postman who wrote: “…We now know that ‘Sesame Street’ encourages children to love school only if school is like “’Sesame Street.’”

Logo for Sesame Street
Logo for Sesame Street

Clearly the implication is that traditional education is not like Sesame Street. Being exposed to shows like that would obviously keep children from loving school as it was (or perhaps he really means more as it should be?). Well, how exactly are they different?

The main issue seems to be that educational television for children needs to be entertaining. It needs to fall into the realm of “edutainment,” or “infotainment” as Finch (2004) refers to it (p. 7), which today has expanded to various forms of media that are traditionally not educational but have been used as a vehicle for education. These terms might be used slightly differently, assuming that you can get information out of infotainment but it is not really about education, but I would argue given the extensive work that went into Sesame Street as education that it is edutainment. Edutainment is more likely to refer to computer games but from what I remember about Sesame Street, it felt more interactive. At least some of the characters break the fourth wall (the tv screen) and talk to the viewers. They get them engaged. So if Sesame Street is entertaining with the intent of making kids love it (I know I sure loved it – much less love for Sesame Park, the Canadian version that replaced Sesame Street a while back), does that suggest school is not entertaining?

Yes. For many people, there is a feeling that school cannot nor should it be entertaining. It is not a teacher’s job to entertain students, it is their job to teach and students’ job to learn. Note the use of the word “job” there in reference to students. That was intentional. School has been, to some extent, job training. With the hidden curriculum, the point was to train students to accept factory conditions, to teach them to accept authority, deal with structured days, be prepared for what the “real world” will be like. And for the most part, many schools are still like this today even though very few of the students will work in factories and many of them will work under very different conditions.

Students were supposed to learn to buckle down and learn, whether they liked it or not.

I was lucky (? really?) that I was a student who could conform to that model, who was able to be successful. I also later learned to question authority, work in different ways, fight for control of my education. I did not, however, love school much of the time. It was boring or I had a teacher I didn’t necessarily like. We had to learn things I had no interest in learning, read and do things I was not excited about. They were, however, required. Sure, Kindergarten and grade one had some entertainment value. There was an urge to make things fun but the older we got, the less our teachers felt that was necessary. Now I work at a university and time and again I hear someone say or read an instructor lament that students expect to be entertained in the classroom. That is clearly not what instructors are there for. They should not have to be entertaining to have students choose to pay attention to them rather than Facebook or World of Warcraft or a text about their sick child.

Postman’s concern is that children will experience Sesame Street or other edutainment and think that school should be about entertainment. The television shows have to be entertaining or kids will not watch them (Finch, 2004, p. 9). But the same does not apply to school which is mandatory with no requirement of enjoyment to require participation. School being fun and entertaining sounds like everyone’s dream; the idea of school being entertaining doesn’t sound so bad from the student perspective. Even some teachers get into it (if you haven’t heard of the Plaid Avenger, go check him out). And why couldn’t school be more enjoyable? During class many of us could name educational television we even watched in school as we were growing up (Bill Nye, Magic School Bus, Sol). So clearly it is not all bad. Our teachers did do fun things sometimes and I personally think that a teacher who never makes class fun in any way could be doing something different.

Conversely, entertainment has seen more education creeping in. TED Talks are a great example but so are cruises with educational talks, playing Minecraft and learning on the go how to play, even MOOCs and iTunes U and sites like Duolingo. The lines have blurred into the entertainment side so is it so surprising that students wonder why education can’t be entertaining?

flickr photo shared by BRICK 101 under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC ) license

Going deeper, though, we do get to a problem. It isn’t about school, however, it’s about learning. Learning can be difficult. It can be hard work. It can involve struggle and it is important to learn how to go beyond that. I have spent hours trying to fix code for a website, trying to figure out what I broke, or unpicking stitches on something I am sewing only to have to unpick them again. Those things aren’t fun. They aren’t entertaining. If the point of school is learning then Postman’s concern is understandable.

There is a difference, an important one, between something being entertaining and something being engaging. Engagement is what schools can and should aim for. Entertainment often implies a level of consumption. There is no need to participate, to be active. That is hardly what educators would wish for students. Lots of educators don’t want to put on a personality and become a fun character who is always entertaining without ever making corrections. And as I said, sometimes learning is hard.

Holly discussed her attempts to make her classroom exciting. Isn’t that what we want to teach students about learning? That it is exciting? Isn’t that why many of us choose to be lifelong learners? Heidi argues that educational television can challenge traditional education and I agree. The challenge, to be fair, is not to be entertaining. That will work for some instructors but not for all. The challenge is to be engaging. The challenge is to get students excited about and interested in the material and that can require some activity on the part of the instructor. Because if kids are taught that learning is supposed to be boring and hard then that is what they will think of formal learning all the time (and maybe even more informal learning) and that is certainly no better.

flickr photo shared by cybrarian77 under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC ) license

So we need a balance. We need to find a way to keep students engaged (and maybe sometimes that is with edutainment) without letting them off the hook for the struggle that learning can be. We can use technology to get kids more directly involved (answering polls, playing games, looking things up). But devices need to be used for educational purposes, not just to throw in a bit of tech as a pleaser. Trust me, we could all tell in school when the teacher put on a video just to put on a video and have us zone out. Sure, we liked it, but we usually didn’t learn much.

So let’s try engaging.


2 thoughts on “Let’s talk “edutainment””

  1. Great post Kirsten. I loved the examples you gave of difficult learning, and I believe that educational technology that is very entertaining cannot provide that type of challenging but rewarding learning. I worry about this for the next generation. Will they be able to solve complex problems?

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