TV and learning

Earlier this evening I had a very interesting conversation with my 10 year old son in which I was forced to flesh out and defend my ideas regarding the television as an educational tool. I thought I would share what I came up with here. First of all, my 10 year old son LOVES television and always has – it’s one of the things he inherited from his dad 😛 I think that watching television makes brain cells drip out your ears. However, I must admit that my son learns a lot from watching documentaries on the Discovery Channel, Science Channel, History Channel, National Geographic Channel and such. In order to maintain complete control over their television viewing, I have every single channel and show locked and nothing can be watched without my husband or I putting in the code to unlock it. Tonight, my son came and asked if I could just unlock the educational channels, since he learns so much from them and it’s a hassle to have to convince me to unlock something for him every time he wants to see something.
I told him no because while the shows he watches are educational, they are only one way of learning things, and not even the best way of learning things. He responded that he thought they were a great way of learning lots of things very quickly so I should be happy to have him watch a lot of documentaries. To explain to him why this was not so, I used the analogy of an athlete training for his or her sport. An athlete follows a well-rounded program of conditioning rather than spending all of their time simply practicing their chosen sport. If they spent all of their time just practicing their sport, or just doing aerobics or weight training or whatever conditioning techniques they use, they will not perform as well as someone who does all those things. The same is true of different ways of learning. When one watches television, one is passively taking in information. However, unless we also spend a lot of time learning how to work with information, apply it to problems, understand how it relates to other things, how to use it to create something new and so on, the information isn’t anymore useful than water sitting in a bucket. In order to know how to work with the information, we need to read, write, solve problems, make things, experiment, create theories, talk to other people about what we think, argue, defend our ideas, explore and so on. Time spent watching television, while it may have a limited role in education, takes away from time spent doing all these other, more productive endeavors.
I almost had him, but he wanted to know how reading a book was any different than getting the same information from a television show – after all, I never put limits on his reading. So, I explained how reading a book is different than watching a TV show about the same subject. With a book one has to visualize what is being describe. You can skip over parts which are not interesting to you or flip to another part of the book to find exactly what you want. You can put one book down and pick up another on the same subject to fill in any gaps or get another perspective. With TV there’s no ability to stop, check another source, skip over parts, re-arrange the order in which the information is taken in and so on (we don’t have TiVo, obviously). When watching TV, one can’t do anything other than take in whatever the show’s producers decided to put into the show, from their point of view, or walk away.
I’m not sure I completely convinced him, but I did stump him, so he dropped it. Of course, I think that even if I could scientifically demonstrate that watching TV really did cause brain cells to drip out your ears, he would still want to watch as much television as possible, so convincing him was probably never a realistic goal. In the end, while I do know that my son learns a great deal from the documentaries he does watch, I’ll not be unlocking whole channels anytime soon.

One thought on “TV and learning

  1. “With TV there’s no ability to stop, check another source, skip over parts, re-arrange the order in which the information is taken in and so on (we don’t have TiVo, obviously).”

    You don’t need TiVo — a good, old fashioned VCR will do the trick. They’re cheap, too. 😎

    I don’t advocate letting kids sit glued to the TV all day, but if he really enjoys these educational/informational shows, what’s to say that they won’t ignite his curiosity to continue to learn more about their subjects by going to the library or doing some research on the web? I agree that there is more than one way to learn, but maybe one way of learning is a great launching pad to those other ways. Just sayin’.


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