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Serious Play

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Only children pass easily between the parallel universes of entertainment and education. Each of these giant sectors of the economy takes more than $300 billion from the public, but they communicate mainly by pointing fingers--"Entertainment corrupts" ... "Schools have failed."

The kids are more sophisticated. Consider video games. The most popular come shrink-wrapped with 100-page game books. Experts estimate that even an adept preteen will take a hundred hours to get to the last screen. A hundred pages and a hundred hours is a curriculum. We may not like everything that video games teach, but they do teach. The stuff is a cannon. Who loads it? Who points it?

Meanwhile, schools proceed as though they were the only educators. If we would never hear "transportation planning" and think "bus schedules," why do we still hear "education" and think "schools"? That tunnel vision twists us farther away from creating a learning society.

Fifteen years ago, the United States spent about the same amounts on education and entertainment. In 1993, we spent $270 billion for education and $340 billion for entertainment. Entertainment has replaced defense as the driver for technology. The media mergers combined with changes in delivery systems create new possibilities for a curriculum of the home.

  • The Walt Disney Company, BellSouth Corporation, Ameritech Corporation, and SBC (formerly SouthWestern Bell) have put $500 million into a partnership to develop, market, and deliver video programming over phone lines.
  • Viacom Inc. owns one of the largest textbook publishers, Simon & Schuster, along with MTV, the Computer Curriculum Corporation, and the Nickelodeon Channel.
  • MCI Communications Corporation will invest $2 billion over five years to deliver NewsCorp's entertainment and information over MCI's digital network.
  • DreamWorks SKG and Microsoft Corporation have a joint venture to develop interactive and multimedia entertainment products.

We have three of the four parts necessary to creating "serious play": The media mergers have created huge pools of talent and money (that must find new markets); the computers and display devices have given us new platforms; and the delivery systems of CD-ROM, fiber optics, wireless, and satellite create new channels. All are pointed at the home. But, so far, none have the kind of content that will help the child's first teacher, the parent.

We ought to go into America's smallest school, the home, and boost the power of learning with the fun and excitement of entertainment. Kindergarten teachers and coaches remember what schools have forgotten: Play is a child's work.

Video-game designers say it another way, "Not fun = not done."

Except for paying taxes and complying with Federal Communications Commission regulations, the entertainment industry has no obligation to help education. If entertainment plays an additional role, it will be because members of the industry want to and because it is good business.

How good is this business? Certainly not as profitable as hit movies or top-10 music. This is a "last dollar" investment where the returns are important if not spectacular. The computer game Tetris has sold 25 million copies worldwide (with no violence); the Carmen SanDiego series has sold 2 million copies, spawned a TV show, and crossed back over into classrooms, where teachers use it to teach geography.

The new alliances of a wired society will be put to many uses, why not also to make common cause with the American family? Not the Norman Rockwell event of the 1950s, but the millennium model, with both parents in paid employment (70 percent of all families with children today) and looking for help in effectively raising their children. In a recent study, 75 percent of American families with CD-ROM computers said that their children watched less TV because of the computers.

What have we learned? Let's try a quiz. True or false?

  1. Voters are eager to pay higher taxes so that schools can have more technology.
  2. Reforming schools is the only way to improve education.
  3. Learning should hurt.
  4. No one ever learned anything from a video game.
  5. The new home-delivery channels (fiber optics, satellite, wireless) can only be used to sell zirconium diamonds.
  6. Education does not need new partners or a new vision, just more money.
  7. No one in the entertainment industry can see past short-term profits.

    And, a bonus question: True or false?

  8. More federal regulation is the best way to bring entertainment and education together.

Horace Mann was so dissatisfied with the educators of his day--churches, homes, and factories--that he invented the "common school." Now, dissatisfied with schools, we need again to reinvent education. Putting the home at the center of learning and surrounding it with entertainment, technology, and education can help, but it will not be simple. Just as love of children is not enough to make a school system effective, and philanthropy is not sufficient to create reform, this will not happen unless companies can both make money and make a difference.

Is this a job for the "Lion King"?

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