Creative Destruction

June 19, 2006

The Ghetto of Edutainment

Filed under: Education,Philosophy — Brutus @ 1:41 pm

At the Chicago Public Library recently, I stumbled across a couple DVDs from a 16-title series called Physical Science in Action. See this container:


My science background is woefully inadequate, so I thought perhaps I could get some succinct info on basics such as magnetism, gravity, properties of matter, characteristics of waves, etc. I neglected to notice that the DVD series is intended for Grades 5 to 8. All well and good, I suppose, but once I viewed the DVD on gravity, I got rather irritated.

For the various work I do, I have the opportunity to see and evaluate a fair amount of educational materials in the forms of periodicals, textbooks, videos, DVDs, etc. Only a very few of them take a restrained, informational approach anymore. Most have gone the way of other media (TV, movies, general interest books, magazines, Internet) in embodying entertainment values, with the primary goal of attracting readers/viewers and the secondary goal of communicating worthwhile ideas and information. Above all, the new media must be visually tantalizing. So textbooks and educational DVDs have adopted the USA Today and Time/Newsweek approach to presentation characterized by lots of graphics, images, portraits, and abundant color (often used just to dress up the text). Useful information may be embedded somewhere in there, but it takes a lot of focus to filter through the visual distractions to extract the information — something most students and adults won't bother to do.

The DVD shown above on gravity was such an example. For a 23-minute disc, there was a huge amount of prefatory material, like the first two minutes of a TV show that (re-)introduces characters and may catch up the audience with scenes from previous episodes. There was also the obligatory parade of brand images (some in that kaleidoscoping graphical style seen on TV news programs) to remind the viewer who made and sponsored the production. Neither of those things bothered me much. What was really weird was that the entire body of the production was done in a sort of pantomime with voiceover. No one on-screen could be seen speaking, and the primary character was a pert, chipper young woman clearly chosen more for her appeal than for her authority. Her incessant mugging and waving made it clear what I should be paying attention to. The absence of anyone on-screen even vaguely resembling either a scientist or teacher was notable. On the good side, there was a nominal historical perspective, with the mention of Euclid and Newton. But neither fellow was shown in portrait — another odd omission. Rather, the young woman was for a segment dressed in an 18th-century waistcoat and wig while a similarly dressed kid dropped apples on her head. A couple of the real-world applications of the gravitational concepts were good; others were mere excuses to reinforce the young woman's appeal.

The quality of our information environment, which has many facets, impacts heavily on our concept of ourselves and our relationship to reality. And the forms of media similarly have important implications for how we absorb information. For instance, when reading a book, it's not unusual to go back and reread a paragraph or section to reinforce one's understanding. The reader works at his/her own pace and sets his/her own objectives. With a video or DVD, since the format is usually narrative (rather than the expository style of books), pace is dictated by the medium, and unlike a reader, the viewer wholly submits to the medium and rarely goes back for repeat viewing to solidify ideas that may have slipped by on first viewing.

When various media frame and shape information in terms of entertainment, students are conditioned to expect to be entertained in the classroom. The heavily pictorial nature of many educational materials is often passed off as recognition that some students are visual learners, as opposed to auditory or verbal learners. But visual stimulation, which is intuitive and emotive, excites different areas of the brain than verbal stimulation, which is more rational and logical. We've become more concerned about how students feel about their learning than their actual accomplishment. Students are far less frequently challenged to think and develop their understandings but are more frequently encouraged to develop positive emotions toward ideas and themselves. The ghetto they end up occupying isn't one lacking for money, it's lacking for thought, and the future won't be characterized so much by haves and have nots as by those who have developed the ability to think and reason versus those who remain children, tyrannized by their emotional response to the information environment for lack of development of the ability to form independent, abstract, and rational thought. They'll be easy marks for propagandists in government, advertising, and newsmedia, and they'll be the majority by a large measure.


  1. As long as their not advocating intelligent falling, or the celestial spheres or a flat earth, we’re making progress.

    Comment by ohwilleke — June 23, 2006 @ 11:12 am | Reply

  2. I clearly disagree, and I’ve stated a few of my reasons. Staying above the threshold of misinformation (if indeed that’s what intelligent falling, celestial spheres, or flat earth represent) is too modest in my view to qualify as progress — especially when formal biases (as opposed to content biases) have their own deleterious effects.

    Comment by Brutus — June 23, 2006 @ 12:52 pm | Reply

  3. Is progress possible?

    Scientific understanding has reached the point where any level of science education attainable by a person of ordinary mental gifts is grossly inadequate, and completely at odds with whatever level the scientific establishment is actually functioning on. Frank can understand Newton, but he’ll never understand Hawking, and Newton is just wrong.

    How much energy is it worth committing to the process of miseducating the populace? If we put in 1 year of effort, they’re left with a grossly inadequate science education that leaves them poorly prepared to cope with the world. But the same is true of 10 years of effort.

    Maybe the creators of the pretty-picture science materials are on the right track.

    Comment by Robert — June 23, 2006 @ 5:49 pm | Reply

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