The Tower of Education
When creating an educational kids’ show (or trying to focus one more clearly) it’s helpful to consider there are different levels of education, each with their own objectives. I’m hoping to lay out how I’ve come to see it in a nice, neat metaphor. Something along the lines of: “education is like a ‘ladder’ – where each rung takes you a bit higher.” But we’re not painting the house here (and who wants to spend all their time on a ladder?) So why don’t we go with “Education is a Tower”. It’s either that or I get really esoteric and say “education is like parts of a dolphin”.
The First Floor: “Social and Emotional”
This floor is a comfortable stop on the rise up the tower. Here you will find mainly preschool shows. This floor is the realm of the ‘social and emotional development’ educational focus. These shows get a floor of their own because there are lots of them, and they occupy a comfortable space, educationally.
Consider a preschooler. When they are watching a show made for them, there is virtually no way they won’t learn something. Preschoolers are learning almost every second of the day. The whole world is new and there’s so much in it they haven’t seen or heard. Having the characters talk at all helps a preschooler understand language. And so, when a storyline (or a show) comes along that isn’t focused on education like it would be on the higher floors, a common way to frame the education is by saying “social and emotional development”. This isn’t to say that the educational merit isn’t there, but merely that this kind of education can be found in all well-crafted preschool stories: When you have a character being nice to another character, that’s social development. When something happens to make a character ‘angry’ or ‘scared’ but they work through it: that’s emotional development. At any time when a character is modelling good behaviour (or even bad behaviour and then learns the error of their ways) they are having an educational influence on a preschooler. Really, it’s hard to find a storyline that you can’t point to and claim that, on some level, there’s social and emotional development going on.
Certainly, some shows treat it much differently than others, and you may find social and emotional education shows occupying floors higher in the tower (the category itself is quite rich). But here is where you find entertaining shows that have no further educational motivation.
By no means do I intend to say that there is no (or even less) educational merit in shows of this nature, absolutely the contrary. Good modelling of social behaviour is so important for preschoolers. Having good stories where the focus is on how the characters get along and interact with each other deserves its own category and deserves a place on the dial.
I blame the metaphor for this confusion: implying that some shows exist ‘above’ other shows. Perhaps a ‘train’ metaphor, where shows get off at different stops? Ah well, it’s too late now.
The Second Floor – “Hard education”
This level opens up again to encompass shows both preschool and school-age. On this level you would find shows that are often classified as ‘hard’ education. But there is a level above this so there needs to be a distinction.
For example, Tumbletown Tales is a series of shorts on TV Ontario. (And before you comment, yes, I realize this show isn’t ‘Animation’ but until I can get the “Canadian-Writers-of-Live-Action-Full-Animal-Cast-Educational-Shows-Blog” up and running I’m including it. So sue me.)
Tumbletown Tales was designed with the help of an educator to demonstrate concepts pulled directly from the Ontario Grade 2 Math Curriculum. Each episode is used in classrooms to introduce new math topics and as a teaching tool. However, the math is so cleverly disguised that viewers (both children and their parents) are often not aware the series has a math focus or even that it’s educational at all.
This is a pinnacle of achievement for an educational show that is directed at school age kids. Often when a child sees a show they recognize as ‘educational’ they will turn the channel, preferring to watch something else than being forced to ‘learn’ something.
Well-crafted, well-hidden education is a wonderful achievement for a show. Many shows have this perfect combination. The thing that separates shows on this floor from shows below is that they all have a very clear educational mission. Often the curriculum for the target age-group is never far from the writer or producer’s side and usually these shows are done in conjunction with an educational consultant.
So why do they not occupy the top floor? Well, let’s climb the staircase and find out… no, wait, my tower has escalators. Escalators made of chocolate!
Top Floor – ‘Big E’
The top floor of the tower is where you take the education one step further: you make it overt. This is the floor where one finds the science shows and the shows about reading.
Kim Wilson, Creative head of Kids’ CBC, has an expression for shows of this nature: “Big ‘E’ Education”. What is the difference when you capitalize the ‘E’? Firstly, the moment a viewer turns on the show; it should seem like an educational show. Taking an opposite approach to the ‘bury the message’ tactic, these shows occupy an important rung not just for their chosen kid audiences, but for their parents.
More parents are carefully monitoring what their children watch than ever before. This is happening for all ages, but especially so when it comes to preschool. If the parents are not watching the show with their child, they will often still have a say in what their child is watching. And, naturally, these parents are looking for educational programming.
Interestingly, the shows that cleverly bury very solid educational messages in an entertaining package may not be what a ‘discerning’ parent chooses. The crushing irony is usually the parents can’t recognize the educational value of a show where the education is hidden. So, instead, these parents settle on shows with overt education. In the case of preschool, a good rule of thumb for a parent is to look for words, letters or numbers on the screen.
Thus, a show with a strong, overt, educational component may be more successful than one with just as much educational merit, merely because of the parents’ perception that one show is ‘more educational’ than another.
So it is here that we finish our tour of the tower of education. Each level has its own merit and its own niche among the broadcasters. Hopefully you’ve found this little trip Educational.
And yes, I know it’s not much of a ‘tower’ if its only 3 stories high… Perhaps I should have gone with the dolphin.