When it comes to children's TV that educates, Sesame Street remains the gold standard, Degrassi: The Next Generation is a pretty good choice and Curious George is scraping the bottom of the barrel, according to a new study assessing the educational claims broadcasters make about the shows they air.
Even shows that you may have thought had no educational value - Hannah Montana, anyone? - may teach a lesson or two after all.
Researchers at the University of Illinois found that only 13 per cent of 40 popular kids' shows are "highly educational." About 23 per cent are "minimally educational." And a handful of shows included disturbing levels of aggression.
"There are a lot of programs that are not reaching the high bar we might hope would be there," says lead author Barbara Wilson, a communication professor who presented the paper at a news conference in Washington last Thursday. The paper was financed by Children Now, a U.S. non-profit research and advocacy group.
Dr. Wilson and her colleagues chose 30 television shows that U.S. commercial broadcasters label as educational or informational for preschoolers, elementary-school kids and teenagers as part of federal "core educational programming" requirements. The researchers also chose 10 popular shows that air on the Public Broadcasting System.
Almost all of the shows Dr. Wilson examined are available in Canada, some of them on channels that pride themselves on offering educational fare, such as Ontario's TVO, the CBC and children's specialty channels YTV and Treehouse.
The study analyzed three randomly chosen episodes of each of the 40 series and ranked them using six criteria including the existence of a lesson, its clarity, how often it was repeated, how applicable the lesson was to the target audience and how well the lesson was positively reinforced for the show's characters.
"It's tied to the research literature on how children learn, what kinds of things are important for them to heighten learning," Dr. Wilson said.
A majority of the analyzed shows relied heavily on social-emotional lessons, most commonly positive interaction with others. Only 1 per cent of the shows involved math.
The study did find a higher quality of programming on PBS - which, like TVO, has a mandate and a budget to produce educational TV - than it did on commercial television in general.
However, some shows airing on PBS, including Curious George, ranked very low (37th out of 40) and others airing on commercial stations, such as NBC's 3-2-1 Penguins!, ranked in the Top 10. PBS's Sesame Street scored the top ranking. And while the study looked for nature lessons, nature shows did not fare well: Jack Hanna's Animal Adventures, for instance, ranked 23rd.
Two shows that air on TVO, Arthur and WordGirl, were among shows sharing 11th ranking. Pat Ellingson, TVO's Creative Head of Children's Media, says finding good quality, educational programming to add to the line-up is a challenge. Because TVO has a mandate to provide educational television, it won't air a show unless the outside producer has hired an educational consultant.
"A lot [of producers]still come to the table without an educational adviser on board," she says. "For us, that's a non-starter."
Dr. Wilson also looked for instances of physical and social aggression in her study, finding that even some shows that scored high on the education scale, such as WordGirl and Hannah Montana, may also be teaching negative lessons. In total, two shows, WordGirl and Magi-Nation, scored high on the physical aggression scale. And three shows, Hannah Montana, The Emperor's New School and Jacob Two-Two, scored high on social aggression, which involves gossip, exclusion and other non-physical means of hurting others.While Dr. Wilson allows that the makers of shows that portray social aggression probably see it as a way to teach children not to engage in such behaviour, she says some shows include so much of it that the message may be fuzzy. "If you're showing it repeatedly throughout the episode, it's far more likely you're doing it for laughs and to entertain," she says.
Carol Rolheiser, a professor at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, questioned the fact that Dr. Wilson and the coders only recorded a show's primary message, though they noted that some shows aimed to teach multiple lessons. "I think data may have been lost because of this."
Dr. Wilson says her findings should not be interpreted as an indictment of television. "TV is a great storyteller and kids learn from stories," she says.