Television, Educational

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Since the beginnings of television, educators have endeavored to harness its power to educate a mass audience. This entry examines educational television programs with a particular focus on how to maximize their effectiveness. Much of the research reported here has also been summarized in Sandra Calvert's 1999 book Children's Journeys through the Information Age.

Researchers have generally defined educational television programs as those programs that focused on academic content areas that are taught in schools, such as reading, mathematics, science, and social studies. In contrast, prosocial television programs have been considered to be those that taught positive social interaction skills, self-control and achievement behaviors, and creative fantasy and imaginative play. Some researchers, however, have defined educational content broadly to include both educational and prosocial programs.

Research on Educational Television Programs

Early educational television typically consisted of instructional programs that were intended for classroom use. Lessons traditionally presented by a verbal lecture were simply moved to the audio-visual medium of television. These "talking heads" presentations were often directed at adult college students and focused on some kind of academic lesson. Presentations were most effective when concrete visual depictions emphasized the verbal message.

Sesame Street was the first academically oriented television program to enjoy wide success in attracting a young viewing audience while teaching important academic lessons. This program, which was created by the Children's Television Workshop (now known as Sesame Workshop), was initially organized around an academic curriculum. Much research has revealed the educational benefits of Sesame Street.

Comprehensible language was one key to the educational success of Sesame Street. According to the comprehensibility model advanced by Daniel Anderson, children pay attention to a program when they think they will understand its content. For example, Anderson and his colleagues (1981) have shown that children are more attentive to program vignettes when the language is concrete than when it is abstract. Moreover, manipulations that make the vignettes incomprehensible, such as speaking a foreign language, reduced children's attention.

The magazine format of Sesame Street—in which short vignettes repeatedly emphasize academic messages—was adapted to other educational television programs produced by the Children's Television Workshop. Although the programs directed to older viewing audiences were effective teaching tools, they were not as effective as Sesame Street. Researchers documented that programs such as The Electric Company and Square One were effective in teaching reading and math skills, respectively, but only when the children viewed it at school. Other programs, such as 3-2-1 Contact, taught children science, but that particular program was not effective in maintaining a large enough viewing audience to sustain its production.

Nickelodeon, a cable television network, followed the lead of the Children's Television Workshop by carefully constructing and analyzing the effects of their educational television programs. Research showed that preschool children who viewed educational Nickelodeon programs such as Gullah Gullah Island and Allegra's Window improved in flexible thinking, problem solving, and prosocial behaviors, particularly when they were encouraged to view these programs. Similar cognitive benefits were found for preschoolers who viewed Blue's Clues, an educational program that promotes problem-solving skills through an interactive program format that repeats the same episode for five consecutive days.

At times, commercial broadcasters have also focused on teaching children academically oriented content. For example, School House Rock, which originally aired during the 1970s, was a series of three-minute vignettes that used songs to present lessons on English, science, mathematics, and history. According to research, repeatedly viewing the vignettes improved verbatim memory of the content. However, learning appears to have been superficial and rote rather than facilitating comprehension of important program messages. In other words, children and adults could recite program content well after viewing the series, but prose presentations of the same content were more effective in promoting viewers' understanding of the central program concepts.

Children can also benefit from prosocial television programs that are designed to promote positive social skills, achievement behaviors, and imagination and creativity. Research has shown that, when preschoolers viewed Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, there was an increase in task persistence, toleration of delays, and rule obedience, which are facets of achievement behaviors. Children who viewed Mister Rogers' Neighborhood also showed an increase in the display of prosocial interpersonal behaviors such as cooperation, nurturance, and verbalizing feelings. Although they occurred for children from all income levels, these effects were most pronounced for children who came from low-income families.

During viewing, learning can be enhanced when programs include advance organizers that preview the important content that will be included, summaries that review important program themes, and replays of key program events. After viewing, prosocial outcomes are enhanced when rehearsal activities, such as verbal labeling of program themes and role playing of key program actions, take place in the children's viewing environments. Verbal labeling is especially useful for promoting children's learning of content, whereas role playing works best when behavioral performance is the objective.

Production techniques can be used selectively to improve children's learning of prosocial program content. A study by Calvert and her colleagues (1982) of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids demonstrated the utility of using sound effects as signals or markers of important content, thereby increasing children's attention to, and subsequent memory of, the contiguously presented, plot-relevant content. In addition, essential program content that was presented with both moderate action and child dialogue was well understood, in part because both visual and verbal modes were used to present content that children could then use to represent that information. Visual features such as action provide a developmentally appropriate mode that young children often use when thinking about content.

Longitudinal research demonstrates long-term benefits for children who view educational television programs. For example, in a study conducted by Aletha Huston and her colleagues (2001), adolescents who had viewed more educational television programs as children had better grades, better academic self-concepts, better values about academic success, higher levels of achievement, and higher levels of creativity when in high school than those who had viewed less educational television. The demonstrated contribution of educational television to children's academic success has led to a current Public Broadcasting System (PBS) initiative called "Ready to Learn," in which a block of educational programs teaches pre-school-aged children the skills that they will need when they begin formal schooling.

Research has demonstrated that well-designed television programs that focus on academic or prosocial content can enhance children's learning and performance of academic and prosocial behaviors, respectively. Repetition of key program concepts, rehearsal activities in the actual viewing environment or embedded in the program, the use of comprehensible language, and the use of interesting production techniques have been shown to improve children's learning of targeted content.

Newer technologies are enhancing the effectiveness of educational television. The videocassette recorder allows children to view repeatedly the content that they do not understand. As television becomes a more interactive medium in the twenty-first century, it will be in a position to answer children's questions or provide new information that is contingent upon children's earlier responses.

Children's Television Act of 1990

Because of the well-documented beneficial effects of educational television on children's development, Congress passed the Children's Television Act of 1990. This law required commercial broadcasters to provide educational and informational television programs for the child audience as a condition for license renewal. In 1991, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the government agency charged with implementing that law, broadly defined educational television programs. An educational program simply had to meet any educational or informal need of children who were sixteen years of age or younger. Television programs addressing social and emotional needs, as well as cognitive and intellectual ones, were acceptable, by definition, for broadcaster license renewals.

The guidelines developed by the FCC initially left considerable flexibility in the types of programs broadcasters could count as educational and informational, in the times that such programs could be broadcast, and in the amount of programming that was required. Consequently, programs of questionable educational value, such as GI Joe and DuckTales, were offered as evidence of compliance by some commercial broadcasters. A gap emerged between what commercial broadcasters labeled as educational and informational and what researchers considered educational and informational.

Based on the accumulating evidence of poor broadcaster compliance, the FCC implemented more stringent rules for the Children's Television Act in 1996. In order to receive an expedited license renewal, each broadcaster was required to present a minimum of three hours of educational and informational programs each week. This change was known as the three-hour rule. Another requirement involved broadcasting core educational programming. Core programs were defined as those that met the educational and informational needs of children aged sixteen and under, aired between 7 A.M. AND 10 P.M. (when children were likely to be in the viewing audience), were scheduled on a weekly basis, and lasted a minimum of thirty minutes.

Content analyses conducted by Amy Jordan and Emory Woodard (1998) revealed an increase in the number of commercially broadcast educational and informational television programs since the changes in these rules were made. Nonetheless, about one-fifth of such programs continue to be weak in educational quality. Most of the commercial programs also focused on social and emotional lessons rather than academic ones. PBS continues to broadcast the most programs that contain an academic lesson and are high in educational strength.


Educational television programs are designed to promote the cognitive and prosocial development of children. Research finds that children benefit from viewing well-designed programs in both of these areas. Children who frequently view academically oriented television programs are better prepared for school and are more successful through the high school years. Similarly, children who view prosocial television programs learn achievement behaviors and prosocial skills. Beneficial effects are enhanced by the use of specific production techniques, comprehensible language, previews and reviews, and by repetition, role playing, and verbal labeling of key program content. Social policy initiatives, such as the passage and implementation of the Children's Television Act of 1990, have increased the number of educational and informational programs on commercial stations. However, ongoing research is needed to measure the quality and the effectiveness of these programs.

See also:Academic Achievement and Children's Television Use; Children's Attention to Television; Children's Comprehension of Television; Children's Creativity and Television Use; Children's Preferences for Media Content; Educational Media Producers; Federal Communications Commission; Public Broadcasting; Sesame Street; Television Broadcasting, Programming and.


Anderson, Daniel; Lorch, Elizabeth; Field, Diane; and Sanders, Jeanne. (1981). "The Effects of TV Program Comprehensibility on Children's Visual Attention to Television." Child Development 52:151-157

Calvert, Sandra L. (1999). Children's Journeys through the Information Age. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Calvert, Sandra L.; Huston, Aletha; Watkins, Bruce; and Wright, John. (1982). "The Relation between Selective Attention to Television Forms and Children's Comprehension of Content." Child Development 53:601-610.

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Sandra L. Calvert

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