Topic 2: Schools Broadcasting

Schools in Britain were quick to use broadcasting (well beginnning in the 1950s), first of all via radio and the BBC. These days, television broadcasting for schools takes place on a large scale, with much of the morning output of BBC and Channel 4 devoted to it. The potential of broadcasting as an educational resource relies on some familiar arguments (for those arguments applied to teaching adults at university level, at the UK Open University, see my file). In brief:

  1. broadcasting would permit excellent materials, some designed specially for the National Curriculum, to be made widely available
  2. television would focus especially on the visual elements, widening access to the world via location shooting, interviewing experts, providing access to rare equipment or unusual experiments, or to classic paintings and buildings, and offering unique aids to perception as in time-lapse, slow motion or replays)
  3. television would build on the media experience, skills and knowledge of children (their 'media literacy'), harnessing these sources of motivation, and combining education and entertainment
In designing specifically educational television, of course, there are some specific design constraints. Educational programmes are supposed to actually teach something, to have a good, educational, effect, to promote learning -- not just to attract audiences, or win prizes or whatever the criteria are for judging 'normal' television output. The strict test, in other words, is that audiences actually learn as well as watch. Now teaching people has long been a controversial matter, and there is a lot of experience to hand. One approach I soon learned about at the UK Open University involved a variant of 'programmed learning', where the learning task was carefully designed to achieve a series of pre-established objectives or subtasks, and constant attention given to matters like the size of the educational 'step' involved in learning each subtask, the optimum sequence for these steps, the organisation of feedback for learners at each stage, and so on -- and some early educational broadcasts clearly reflected this approach (and some still do). Other approaches stress the need for 'active learning' or involvement ( and I hope you can see that this also reflects the views of 'natural' children in the first section), and so educational broadcasts are full of kids being active, and they offer lots of chances for the audience to become active too, whether it is a matter of joining in with songs, being invited to find answers before the people in the programme do, or being given follow-up activities to pursue between programmes (these can be incorporated into the 'programmed learning' approach too, of course).

A particularly influential approach to the learning processes of young children arose from the work of Jean Piaget. I mention him here because he is also cited in Kinder's critique of 'postmodern' children's TV which we will encounter below. I am no psychologist, and I have only a nodding acquaintance with Piaget's work, but he seems to offer an account of the natural growth of cognitive capacity in children, which takes place in distinct stages, from 'sensori-motor' to 'conceptual' stages. Gradually, kids acquire concepts which are powerful enough to help them categorise the world, but this develops slowly (and is not finished until early adolescence, on average). To facilitate this process, teachers are best to let kids develop at their own stage, and to provide suitable educational experiences at each stage -- for very young kids that might involve lots of things to touch, feel and move around ('sensori-motor'), while older ones might require more complex but still concrete objects, whileonly the older ones might be in a position to deal with concepts directly. To take a layperson's example, teaching maths to infants would involve them in lots of work piling up play bricks, or playing with sand and water, so they can directly interact with objects, piles, quantities and volumes. Later, they might try some measurements of immediate objects, or try counting with blocks or rods (Cuisenaire rods in my day -- little wooden rods cut to scale and of different lengths, so that kids could see, concretely, that two rods of 5 cms each added up to one rod of 10cm). Much later, they might be taught the concept of addition of numbers to different bases with no reference back to direct experience. This is laughably simple, but I hope you get the idea -- it helps us solve the problem of what material and what approach is suitable for kids of different ages,and justifies nicely the 'hands on' approach for the very young. 

It is worth mentioning another implication for Kinder especially. Piaget argued that children develop their mental apparatus via two key processes -- first they try to assimilate new experiences into the frameworks and experiences they already have. Eventually, this leads to a lack of fit, as more and more complex experiences are encountered. This in turn leads to accommodation, where more abstract frameworks have to be developed which will embrace more diversity (I hope I have got this the right way round!!). These kinds of 'trial and error' experiences are crucial -- kids have to be left to test out to their own satisfaction the experiences they encounter. Kinder argues that this has to be carefully managed, so kids are not exposed to too much complexity too early -- and this is where postmodern TV has definite anti-educational effects, since it offers a constant diet of complex and shifting images, standpoints and unstable objects (like 'transformers').

Let us use an example of educational TV broadcast in Britain to illustrate Piagetian principles. There is a TV programme called Fourways Farm which is widely admired, and which comes form the same company as Sesame Street (apparently). In the episode we viewed, a number of comic animals were playing with various objects, some of which floated in water, and some of which did not -- a turnip kicked into a pond floated, while a stone (painted to look like a turnip, as it happens, for incidental comic effect) did not. This programme was designed to assist schools to approach a key stage in the understanding of science according to the National Curriculum -- the national test that year was to ask kids to explain why some things floated and some did not. Now as all infant teachers know, children will reply with a variety of suggested answers to this question -- that the material from which the object is made,or its weight, will affect the result is the usual first reply. Teachers then offer examples to test these views and invite further thought (eg by asking children to explain how iron ships float). In fact, I have demonstrated this sort of thing myself with plasticine -- roll plasticine into a blob and throw it into a bowl of water and it will sink, take the same piece of plasticine and make it into a boat shape and it will float. That puzzled the little blighters -- perhaps too much. This is teaching by optimal challenge, and Fourways Farm did not get as far as this -- but at least it got kids interested (perhaps). I must say the programme also had pleasures for adults too -- like jokes about turnips and football (referring to the tabloid press description of an England football team as 'turnips' after they lost to the Swedes [geddit?]) -- and this is quite common in kids' TV these days as we shall see.

There were existing practices in television and film which seemed to mesh quite well with these educational techniques. Thus TV programmes already knew about how to sequence a narrative in a drama, how to provide just enough material to    keep the viewer at the right level of familiarity and puzzlement. Similarly, TV programmes were already able to 'involve' viewers, by offering them a familiar and recognisable world where they felt at home and able to participate immediately. I have described both sorts of practices in my file on realism , and have noticed the parallels between realist techniques (and debates) and pedagogical techniques specifically in distance education (click here).

Schools broadcasting is clever and fun, kids usually like it, and it acts as a major relief for hard-pressed teachers -- but does it actually work? Let us apply the strict test we outlined earlier -- does it actually teach? I am not sure if anyone knows, since the evaluation of schools broadcasting usually relies on teachers' opinions, and they welcome it as I have said. There are reasons to doubt its effectiveness, in fact. It is quite expensive to produce, and that raises the question of whether it would not be better to spend the money directly on teaching in schools -- of course, that is not really an option, since TV companies finance schools broadcasts with their own money (and often try to sell their programmes too). 

The other problem is that educational broadcasting can be too entertaining, too familiar, too much like regular TV programmes (quiz shows, Star Trek, and news formats are all commonly borrowed). As a result, viewers can view them as if they were just entertainment, watching in a kind of warm fug of uncritical familiarity, not noticing the specifically educational elements. We shall see this argued by critics of Sesame Street later, but there is also an excellent piece by Thomson (19XX) on the use of case-study material to teach adults at the UK Open University. Such material can lead to a focus on the 'wrong' themes, Thompson argues. Thus a programme on unemployment tried to challenge the view that unemployed people are inadequates who only have themselves to blame, but the programme makers selected as case-studies classical stereotypes (as popular TV often does, in order to communicate quickly and effectively via standard representations), of unemployed people in this case. Thompson suspects that many viewers will have 'read' this programme as entirely confirming the view of the unemployed as inadequate after all. Less clear examples abound in many schools broadcasts in my view (have a look at some and see if you agree) -- teachers are still naive, odd or eccentric, even if nicely so, science is still done by 'boffins', and religious studies by 'creeps', all pupils are 'nice kids', all schools are clean and tidy -- and so on.

These non-educational readings are sometimes called 'distractors'. We might see them as inevitable, given what we know about the inherent ambiguity of 'signs', and the potential for 'active viewing' in any programme. Some people have celebrated this sort of active viewing as a form of cultural resistance to the nasty ideological messages of soap operas, melodramas or James Bond movies (and we shall see this argument below with video games). The educational work inverts this celebration, I suppose -- educational TV is also 'resisted' by stereotyping and cultural intolerance, so that people come to learn nothing. This is 'bad' intertextuality, if you want to use those terms. I once interviewd an Open University student on the effects of an excellent broadcast involving a Geography field trip to an obscure location -- but all he noticed, and disapproved of, was that the presenter was an Australian! Small wonder that the overall tone of work on educational broadcasting is pessimistic (if I can risk a huge generalisation) as in Bates's (19XX) 'one-third' rule -- one third of the audience finds them useful, one third finds them totally useless, and the middle third finds them mixed! Perhaps the same sort of weak effect is found in nasty TV too?

This topic therefore introduces a major theme for the rest of the course too -- how might we do research on the specifically educational goals of schools broadcasting? Just run through this in  your minds for now -- we would have to be clear about these goals, and define them so they could be measured or noticed unambiguously, then we would have to choose some sort of methodology to research them, and then try to interpret the results so that we were able to focus down on the results of the TV programme alone (and not the welter of other things that affect kids's learning, from home background to peer pressures, to teacher expectations, to test biases, to school resources --  see file). Tricky, isn't it? Incidentally, I think this sort of recognition of the impossibility of isolating the effects of educational TV is also demonstrated in its use -- we teachers use it as part of our routine 'shotgun' approach (keep firing a lot of different things at the punters and hope that some of it will work -- TV programmes, booklets, exercises, games, readings, the lot).

Some projects

  1. Research some schools broadcasts currently being shown. Write off and get the teacher packs that accompany them. See if you can detect the goals and teaching strategies involved -- is there a specific goal for the TV programme itself?

  2. Watch some educational broadcasting (eg a nice Open University programme) and note down your own (or others') intertextual or 'active' responses -- what did you think when you first saw the OU lecturer, for example? What was the main educational point the programme was trying to make? What 'distractors' did you notice?

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