Counting the Cost of Entertainment Education

Most educators have strong opinions about what is sometimes called edutainment. Some praise it as a promising means of engaging and educating students whose interests are divided. Others mourn the development of edutainment as further evidence that our education system is being diminished by well-meaning educators who are doing more harm than good by catering to character flaws in students. The truth likely rests between two extremes

Entertainment education is often defined as a mix of content/experiences that have both educational and entertainment value. It might be entertainment first, education second, or the other way around. Depending upon your age, you might remember classic examples like Sesame Street, 3-2-1 Contact, or Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. More contemporary examples include everything from Billy Nye the Science Guy to Handy Manny, Science Court to BrainPop. The number of television shows, films and online media now categorized edutainment extends into the thousands.

Today the concept of entertainment education goes well beyond more passive forms like radio dramas and television shows or films (although those still have a massive impact). They include edutainment toys, apps, serious games, interactive media, and video games that infuse educational content within their themes and narratives. Some also extend it to include perspectives like what you might read in Teach Like a Pirate, How Computer Games Help Children Learn, Hip Hop Genius, and Reality is Broken. I might even contend that the broader perspective of designing engaging learning experiences is partly informed by the entertainment education discourse, even if just indirectly.

The debate about the proper (and improper) use of edutainment exists, and there are plenty in formal learning organizations who firmly reject the concept. Yet, in public health, public television, and the breadth of popular culture; there is little debate. Edutainment works. It is hard to contest the breadth of research showing that intentional design of learning experiences rooted in sound principles of engagement have consistent and positive results when it comes to measuring student learning. It can be used to change beliefs and behaviors, and it doesn’t do a bad job making money either.

How can you argue with an approach that continues to have a demonstrable impact on important public health issues and that aids in providing children with valuable lessons about everything from early literacy tonumeracy, diversity, and public health? However, to debate whether it “works” is to miss the greatest concern. Do we want people to think something is true because it was presented well or in an interesting, interactive, engaging and entertaining way? Does it also bring with it the risk of cultivating people whose beliefs and values are shaped by the best designed entertainment education experiences? Or would we rather have people think something is true because they’ve studied it, investigated it, analyzed it, grappled with it, and understand different sides of the related issues? Can a true democracy survive without such critical citizenry? Behind the initial conversation about whether it works, I am asking whether it provides a truly liberal or liberating education. To what extent does it nurture greater measures of agency and self-direction? We might champion entertainment education when we are the ones determining what is taught and learned, but what about when the curriculum and outcomes are set by people with different values and convictions than our own?

Consider more controversial topics today. Do we really want to set up an ecosystem where the best and most influential entertainment education designers are always the winners? Or would we rather set up a model  where people are genuinely grappling with truth claims? Our public discourse about such matters is sadly underdeveloped to the point where I consistently witness and participate in conversations where people are largely unaware of differences between facts, opinions, and beliefs. They justify their beliefs by pointing to convincing narratives in films while being confused when one asks, “But is it true?” Conversations can easily turn into battles over rhetoric more than logic, with the best rhetorician most likely winning the day.

If we want to empower a generation of people with agency and self-regulation, we must care about more than what will be taught or learned (e.g. Common Core or any other set of standards that inform education on the K-12 or higher education level). How it is taught or learned also shapes the learner. McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” is equally true when it comes to conversations about learning experience design and pedagogy.

Where do we go from here? We are not going to slow the growth and impact of learning experience design and pedagogical approaches informed by principles of engagement and entertainment education. They are too effective, and I suspect that those of us with the greatest power and influence on the content and standards that shape education are consistently too confident in our own good intentions to make things more democratic. As long as we are in charge, what is the harm in using deeply persuasive approaches that might happen to start with the heart and then filter up to the brains of young and old people alike? “After all, education is the business of changing people”, we might argue. All along, we are taking the risk of educating people into a dependence upon entertainment education, preparing a generation that is malleable but has minimal capacity to dissident, to take the road less traveled, to analyze and critique those in authority, to determine their own path, and direct their own learning. We risk sprinting toward Gatto’s greatest fears that we are educating a generation of complacent, compliant consumers.

I don’t argue that we should throw out the power of education entertainment and the wealth of modern equivalents. However, it seems to me that if we are going to nurture agency, then we must couple the use of entertainment education with opportunities for deep reflection and discussion, helping people learn to ask and see answer to questions, helping them learn to deconstruct and analyze the very designs that might help us learn something. In such an age, it is critical that we find ways to move beyond the entertainment metaphor of students as simple audience or customer. Or, if we are going to use the entertainment metaphor, then we want to think about how we can help students play the role of critic, producer or playwright as well.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, host of the MoonshotEdu Show, professor of education, AVP of Academics, and Chief Innovation officer. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education, educational innovation, alternative education, and nurturing agency and curiosity.

One Reply to “Counting the Cost of Entertainment Education”

  1. Mike Dietz

    Fine points. Assuming that the curriculum, unit and lesson are relevant, the delivery should make sense and have meaning both for engagement and long term learning and transfer. Whatever we do with reflection and deconstruction, etc should be both challenging and developmentally appropriate.

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