30 March 2009
Reappraising the 'idiot box' – how TV can help young children learn
As Blue Peter celebrates its 50th anniversary, and continues to teach our children about conservation, recycling, looking after pets and preparing food, opinion remains strongly divided over the educational benefit of television for younger children. While many maintain that TV shows aimed at pre-schoolers deliver valuable lessons in numeracy and literacy, as well as valuable life skills such as co-operation and tolerance, there remains a growing chorus of criticism aimed at kids' TV, warning of the deleterious effects of TV on young minds.
Having conducted a research project into the educational effects of television on 4-year-old children, Dr Jane Herbert of the Department of Psychology at the University of Sheffield concludes that there are educational benefits to be earned from children's television, but that we need to understand how to access them. Her research will help researchers and educators develop and improve the quality of the educational videos that are available for young children.
Dr Herbert's research is of such importance because, although over a third of 3-year-olds watch 4-8 hours of televised programmes and videos a week, little is known about the long-term retention of information acquired from television, or whether particular features of the presentation could be enhanced to improve learning. Dr Herbert explains: "Research on learning from television indicates that within the first two years of life, children show evidence of learning simple actions from television when tested for retention 24 hours later. Despite this early ability to imitate from television, however, children acquire less information from television, and appear to remember it for a shorter period, than if the information is presented through face-to-face interactions with real people, even into middle childhood".
This so-called 'video deficit' highlighted by the research suggests that toddlers do indeed have difficulty in learning from TV: "Young infants do not seem to appreciate the difference between an object presented on television and a real object. For example, 9-month-olds will try to grab toys presented on a video screen while 19-month-olds will point at the toys but not try to reach for them. Also, objects shown on television are two-dimensional , making it harder for children to relate this information to real objects encountered later" adds Dr Herbert.
In a series of experiments, 4-year-old children from local nurseries were shown a video in which an adult demonstrated a sequence of seven actions involving a 'magic box'. The childrens' recall was then tested by asking them to repeat the sequence on a real life version of the magic box. Crucially, one group watched an animated version of the original video, to test the theory that learning from TV and video in young children is less successful because it is too removed from real life.
When learning from 'real life' (i.e. not from TV or video) a toddler can typically remember things for up to 3 months. In her experiment, Dr Herbert found that recall in both groups was still good after one week, with every child displaying almost total recall immediately after watching the video. Although the group who saw the animated version were more absorbed in watching the video, the study suggests that verbal instructions, rather than whether the video is animated or not, is more important when it comes to learning.
This research provides the basis for developing more effective educational videos. Recently, Dr Herbert has been working with researchers in the Dental School at the University of Sheffield to produce a video on oral health that could be shown in schools across the region. Despite very valid concerns that watching television can be an essentially passive process, the research suggests that there is enormous opportunity for television to provide children with skills and experiences they might not encounter within their home or school environment.