Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Toddler TV: "Interaction," and What Television Is Really Good For

The New York Times reported yesterday on a study at Vanderbilt University that found that toddlers are far more responsive to television programming that feels "live" than to the type of faux interactions pioneered by the Children's Television Workshop in the 1960s, which remain one of the key methods of children's television today.

The Times reports:

The test hinged on a hiding game. First the 2-year-olds watched the video — either the tape or the live version. The screen showed a person hiding a stuffed animal, Piglet, in a nearby room, often under a table or behind a couch. When the video ended, the children were asked to retrieve Piglet. Those who saw the recorded video had some trouble. They found him only 35 percent of the time. Children in the other group succeeded about 69 percent of the time, a rate similar to face-to-face interaction.

Does this mean that TV programs that simulate interaction are doing nothing for kids? Not necessarily, the researchers say. A few of the children in the recorded video group were especially responsive to the games and pauses, and they were the few children in that group who retrieved the toy.

“We found that if children gave evidence of treating the video as a social partner,” Dr. Troseth said, “they will use the information.”

A 35% success rate would be damning praise in the classroom. But the article goes on to minimize the findings:

Their article referred specifically to “Blue’s Clues,” saying the show appeared to be “on the right track” — a point that, not surprisingly, thrilled creators of the program. Alice Wilder, the show’s director of research, said each script was tested in live settings with children to make sure that the show’s hosts — a young man named Steve in the early seasons and the current one, Joe — appear to be having realistic, child-centered conversations with viewers.

To me, it sounds like we haven't come as far as we'd like to think. Maybe it's because we haven't yet figured out what educational TV is really good for.

"Interactive" children's television was pioneered by the Children's Television Workshop in their design of Sesame Street. The CTW offered a breath of fresh air in the genre because they actually did research to test and improve their programming because their explicit goal was to improve literacy and help kids learn, whereas others were concerned primarily with entertainment and saw learning as a natural process that would follow without much forethought. There is still a huge gray area of unknowns in this genre, which critics on both sides use their imaginations to fill. But what we do know about child-television "interaction" we owe largely to Sesame Street. From the Encyclopedia of Educational Technology:
Critics in the 1960s predicted Sesame Street was doomed to fail because television was not an interactive enough media to facilitate learning. CTW researchers proved them wrong with what is now known as "The James Earl Jones Effect" (Lesser, 1974).

Producers filmed a segment in which stage and screen actor James Earl Jones recited the alphabet. Mr. Jones stared intensely at the camera. Moments later, the letter A appeared above his head. In his compelling voice, he then spoke the name of the letter. This sequence of events repeated throughout his one and a half minute recitation, maintaining wait times before the letter appeared on screen and before the letter's name was spoken.

When researchers showed this segment to children over time, they noted the following: During the initial viewing, children joined Mr. Jones in naming the letters. During subsequent viewings, the children anticipated Mr. Jones' spoken words and named the letter as soon as it appeared on screen. Finally, children were able to name the letter before it even appeared on screen. Clearly, children were interacting and learning!
It seems that if we will ever make progress and produce more effective television programming for very young children, it will need to examine several factors:
  1. The role of single versus repeat viewings. My own daughter interacts intensively with our television, but not on the few occasions when we allow her to watch shows on PBS - her deep engagement, at the age of two, comes with heavy repetition that fosters a combination of emotions which encourages her to speak, act, and respond. This suggests that there might be different strategies for materials marketed as videos (Baby Einstein, etc.) than for serial programming on television. Broadcast children's shows will need to find ways to bridge that gap if they are to compete with intensively-watched videos for young children's attention.
  2. Applying learning models to interactive strategies. The silence in my daughter's television-watching is most deafening when she is asked a direct question by a character in a television show and fails to respond, then is praised as though she had answered. Who thought this was a good idea, and how can anyone be surprised to learn that toddlers can tell the difference between this and actual interaction? I think this particular strategy will be looked upon by future generations as evidence of just how naive our view of toddlers has been. There are better ways for a TV show to interact with a child than to ask a question and assume that it is answered correctly, and most of these ways come down to looking at the issue of interactivity more broadly. A show's ability to inspire movement, laughter, spontaneous action, and creative play among viewers can go far beyond the direct "problem-solving" of shows like "Blue's Clues" and engage children on multiple levels. Just as we no longer expect direct, lecture-based instruction to be the most effective teaching method, we should not expect a simple question-and-answer format in TV programming to be the best way to teach children.
  3. Evaluate what is to be learned. Surely, there is no harm in exposing a child of any age or maturity level to any learning content or strategy, if their attention can be maintained. But I am operating under the assumption that limiting our child's television-watching to a minimum is a good thing, because the things it replaces - direct interaction with a parent, as well as time to explore the world in an open-ended fashion - are generally more instructive and more rewarding than television. So I want the time my child does spend watching TV to be as beneficial to her as possible. To me this means that the content of learning should be aimed at her most intense concerns and interests at any age, or at least to those that can be met through a visual, televised performance. Among other things, this means that a good television show will help her do some or all of the following things:
  • Allow her to explore places that are unfamiliar to her, but which she can connect with personal experiences. (Agriculture can be connected with the foods she eats, for example, and demonstrations of how certain real-world tasks are performed can be play-acted later.)
  • Allow her to play games. (Blue's Clues meets this standard.)
  • Invite her to explore movement and other forms of basic self-expression.
  • Model language concepts that she can immediately apply to the world around her.
  • Allow her to observe other children without interacting with them. That's right, without interacting. Interaction is proof of engagement with the world, but sometimes the cycles are not completed within the confines of a television show. We expect older students to be capable of "studying" a topic - reading, thinking, observing - and I think that young children's need for the same is minimized by shows like Sesame Street, which is scripted and edited in a way that stamps out opportunities for the consolidation of memory and for quiet observation.
It's only as I look back on this list that it becomes clear that only one of these things involve problem-solving, and only two of them involves what these researchers are not only calling "interaction," but are using as a litmus test for the effectiveness of a television show aimed at two-year-olds.

Does this mean that problem-solving is not important to my toddler's development? My daughter solves problems every day, and my involvement in this process may be instructive, but it is always child-led. She finds problems that she finds it meaningful to solve, and we help her find solutions, encouraging as much problem-solving in her as she is capable of. Even with forty years of R&D in kids' television programming, no one has come up with a televised strategy that can compete with that.

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