Education Commentary

Myths About Instructional Television: A Riposte

By Milton Chen — May 24, 1989 10 min read

During the past 15 years, instructional television has grown steadily in both quality of programming and acceptance among teachers. Yet in conversations with educators, we are continually confronted with widespread antipathy toward the use of video in schooling.

In the past, we tended to casually dismiss complaints about television’s educational value, knowing that the sins of commercial TV were being wrongfully visited upon educational TV. We now realize that opponents of instructional television have done a better job of marketing their opinions than its advocates have.

Too many critics indict the medium without distinguishing among its multitude of messages. They confuse itv with mtv. We offer a riposte to three prevalent myths about instructional television.

The most common misconception holds that television viewing is a passive activity.

In analyzing this myth, we can identify two classes of passivity: physical and cognitive. Physical passivity is not an immutable fact of television. Instructional series can engage students in many forms of physical activity--singing, clapping, and even exercising, the specialty of one health-promoting television celebrity, Slim Goodbody.

The level of activity involved in viewing is a program-design issue. Program elements inviting audience participation have proven successful, and they should be fully exploited by producers.

“The Electric Company,” a reading series produced by the Children’s Television Workshop in the 1970’s, still serves as a primer on the use of music, animation, pacing, and direct questions to elicit viewer response. Observers of classes watching the show saw children singing, laughing, dancing, and, most important, practicing the reading of words aloud. And the effectiveness of the series in teaching beginning reading skills has been demonstrated in studies by the Educational Testing Service.

Such behaviors as responding aloud to questions posed in a program also imply that cognitive activity is being stimulated. A review of research on children’s TV viewing recently published by the U.S. Education Department found that, “contrary to popular assertions, children are cognitively active during television viewing and attempt to form a coherent, connected understanding of television programs.” (See Education Week, Dec. 7, 1988.)

And the availability of the low-cost videocassette recorder facilitates new teaching styles that foster active mental processing of video materials. Teachers can now extend their involvement beyond turning off the lights and taking a seat in the back of the room--the vcr can help them set a more pedagogically purposeful pace.

In classrooms that use what we call “actively viewed video,” the teacher remains at the front of the class near the vcr or strolls the aisles with a remote control. Frequently interrupting the program, the teacher uses the video to manage classroom interactions, calling out questions, checking students’ understanding, and engaging them in dialogue with teacher and classmates. The vcr thus enables the teacher to use video materials selectively and bring the thinking processes of students into the viewing experience.

A study published in Science magazine several years ago described a similar technique called “tutored videotape instruction.” James Gibbons, dean of Stanford University’s engineering school, found that small groups of students who viewed tapes of lectures, pausing frequently to review important points with a tutor, outperformed students who heard the lectures in person. This study preceded much of the current excitement over new forms of teaching, such as peer tutoring. We believe that these teaching techniques, supported by high-quality video materials, could lead to new gains in learning and more positive attitudes for many students.

Consider, too, the long hours that so many students spend anchored to their desks, engaged in mindless “seatwork"--time during which discussion among students is often forbidden. This traditional approach to schooling is a bigger culprit in inculcating physical and intellectual passivity than any TV program could be.

A second misconception suggests that television viewing is the enemy of reading.

This myth promotes the overgeneralization--often stemming from a form of intellectual elitism--that “books are good and television is bad.”

Such an argument confuses the form of media with their contents. In fact, content, whether of books or TV programs, can work for or against effective learning.

Joan Cooney, chairman and chief executive officer of the Children’s Television Workshop, puts the lie to this myth: “Thoughtful people would not argue that because children read comic books, they should not therefore do any additional reading in school. Yet they apply a similar argument to the medium of television.”

Critics of instructional television use precisely this rationale: that because so much of commercial television lacks educational value, the entire medium should be banished from the schools.

But instructional TV series can not only make works of literature come alive for students, but also kindle their interest in reading the original works. Publishers of books made into prime-time series, from network miniseries to public-television programs, understand this principle well. One of the best recent examples is the sales of Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, based on the Public Broadcasting System series featuring interviews with the author.

The public-television program “Reading Rainbow” is instructional television’s success story in demonstrating the linkage to children’s interest in reading books. After viewing the show, children are so excited to get their hands on the featured books that librarians and bookstore owners report greatly increased circulation and purchases. In one study, 94 percent of the children’s librarians surveyed said they had expanded their children’s-books collections in preparation for the series; 86 percent said the show was responsible for increased circulation. Mimi Kayden, director of children’s marketing for the publisher E.P. Dutton, has said, “Books that would sell 5,000 copies on their own sell 25,000 copies if they’re on ‘Reading Rainbow.”’

We saw this phenomenon in our own work last summer with kqed’s “Vacation Video” program schedule, which featured “Reading Rainbow,” “More Books From Cover to Cover,” and other reading series. More than 50,000 copies of the Vacation Video summer magazine were claimed by children at Bay Area public libraries. Neel Parikh, director of children’s services at the San Francisco County Libraries, reported that “broadcast of Vacation Video encouraged a new group of families and children to visit the library. They requested books they had learned about on TV and joined the summer reading programs.”

We believe instructional television can play an especially important role in providing new immigrant children with the cultural and linguistic background for interpreting lessons in the humanities and sciences. Many teachers report that once such students have watched a video dramatizing a piece of literature or a period of history, they are better able to understand the written works.

According to a third myth, instructional television is an old and failed technology. Computers, satellites, and videodiscs are the wave of the future.

Instructional television has gotten lost in the rush to embrace the newer technologies. And as a result of training or infatuation, some educators come to believe that one technology is superior to all others.

This “technocentrism” is dangerous. We prefer the perspective of Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association: ''An ideal future classroom would be one that includes a variety of technology. Video alone isn’t enough. Computers alone aren’t enough. ... I would hope to see classrooms where these technologies would complement each other.”

The newer technologies might well take a history lesson from the evolution of instructional television. The field of educational computing, for example, is undergoing growing pains, as it develops high-quality software and addresses issues of hardware compatibility, that are similar to those experienced in the past by instructional TV.

Recalling the early promise of broadcast television in the 1950’s and 60’s, satellite-delivered courses and teleconferences can now bring the best teachers to students who were previously isolated by distance and lack of resources. But we suspect that the new distance-learning projects, such as those currently funded by federal Star Schools grants, need to do more than present “master teachers.” They must harness a new generation of video and telecommunications tools to improve instruction and student interactivity.

Whittle Communications’ plan to broadcast news and commercials via satellite to high schools poses a number of complex issues. But the debate over this experiment often ignores the wealth of television programming, print materials, and support services currently available to teachers--without commercials--either free of charge or for a minimal fee through pbs stations and educational agencies.

The most urgent needs, in fact, are hardware, not software. We estimate that for a national investment of $230 million--less than the cost of a single B-1 bomber--enough additional video equipment could be purchased to provide a vcr and television monitor for every three teachers in the country.

In the midst of this technological revolution, the use of instructional television has continued to grow. The best national data--collected in 1982-1983 for a school-utilization study funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting--indicated that 54 percent of teachers used television, and that 33 percent used two or more series.

Since the study was completed, sales of inexpensive vcr’s to schools and homes have increased tremendously. Over 90 percent of schools--and more than 60 percent of homes--now have at least one vcr. Many teachers are using an important instructional resource in their own living rooms--recording and previewing television series on their personal vcr’s.

But there is room for growth. If instructional television is to achieve the widespread use made possible by the videocassette recorder, it will need more series that reflect the best thinking in curriculum design and educational research.

A fair number of older educational series continue to be broadcast, perpetuating outdated practices in the teaching of the major subject areas. In mathematics, for instance, new series must move away from a focus on computation and manipulation of mathematical symbols.

Instructional television would also benefit from a concerted effort to apply recent findings of educational research in formulating programming and classroom-utilization strategies. The work of Annemarie Palincsar of Michigan State University and Ann Brown of the University of California at Berkeley, for example, advances a method they call “reciprocal teaching.” Using their techniques, students frequently interrupt their reading to summarize, clarify, and predict information from the text. The teacher first models these activities, and gradually the stuel10ldents learn to conduct them independently. Basic mental processes such as these could be fostered using video and computer materials.

This kind of approach also raises a provocative question: When students learn such metacognitive skills through viewing and thinking about video, will the skills transfer as they learn to read and think about print?

Technology has a way of racing ahead of human capacity to design and use it intelligently. Educational technologies are now merging in systems that blur distinctions be4tween their traditional forms. Interactive videodisc systems, for instance, integrate features of the book, the television, and the computer. Yet we are only beginning to understand ways in which these features can be combined for effective learning.

The recent changes in educational technology remind us of some wisdom from Eskimo dogsledding: “The scenery only changes for the lead dog.”

Leading educators need to keep an eye on the changing technology landscape. But today’s classroom can be a slow-moving sled. Instructional television can hasten its progress towards the 21st century.

A version of this article appeared in the May 24, 1989 edition of Education Week as Myths About Instructional Television: A Riposte