Thursday, March 16, 2006

Constructive Criticism

It's been pointed out to me that I've posted twice now denouncing retards with doctorates, this last time in a rant about "Little Einsteins". This is a show that's intended to teach music to preschoolers. Rather than presenting the subject, the producers try to hide it within something "entertaining" in the guise of science, a subject for which they have no respect.

And that's part of the problem... when experts talk outside of their expertise they're not experts at all. If they're going to play in another educator's sandbox, they'd better be prepared to be respectful of the peripheral subject they're presenting, or be prepared to "face the music." In the case of "Little Einsteins" it's a music appreciation show couched in science fiction, with damned near no respect for the science. They should have brought in science educators to assist with the scripts.

It's not just these people, but many, many, many others. Television shows that have been pitched as "educational" include such abominable crap as "Jimmy Neutron", "Tutenstein". The best educational animation to date was "Schoolhouse Rock", and the best recent example is (embarassingly) the historical and geographical songs on "Animaniacs" done in the style of Tom Leherer. I'll give some other positive examples below.

(BTW, "Fat Albert" aspired to be educational, but it was really social engineering although most educators are too indoctrinated to recognize the difference. There's nothing wrong with the proper social engineering, mind you; but there is a distinction between that and education. If you don't think so, contemplate the distaste you feel for the phrase "re-education camp". Get it now?).

Me, I'm a parent of three children, and I've been a trainer in both electronics and IT for over 20 years. I don't at all pretend to be an "expert" in education, but damn it, for some things you just don't have to be. For example:

You do not have to make an effort to engage and entertain children... if you've properly presented the subject matter, then the material itself will engage and entertain them.

A beautiful example here is Carl Sagan's "Cosmos". It needed no artificially forced "excitement". Because of the focused presentation of the subject matter it was engaging and entertaining for all age groups. It's seeing a revival on cable. See it on Tuesdays and Wednesdays on the Science Channel.

As much as I like Bill Nye, the silliness didn't add to his show, and neither did the guy in the rat suit. The best part about Mr. Wizard was it was just really cool science, with experiments you could do yourself.

You do not always have to come up with something new. Everything is new to preschool children. You should never make the mistake of thinking that because you've seen something before, the kids will respond with "been there, done that."

In other words, Mr. Wizard's still cool. My kids say so.

You do not ever have to "dumb down" your explanations: the point of early education is not to have the children retain everything they're exposed to; it to expose the children to the subject in the first place so they'll be on familiar ground when when it's repeated later. Dumbing down the explanations increases the likelihood that you'll have to re-teach the stuff you got wrong in the first place.

This last item brings to the fore the very important point that you always move from the known to the unknown. It's perfectly possible and OK to simplify an explanation without dumbing it down. For example, you can tell a preschool music student that the composer Antonín Dvorák lived over 100 years ago without expecting him to know any exact dates or the names of his works. You can tell grade school kids that 'enzymes' assist in the replication of DNA without going into detail about what enzymes are or how they work. If students express a desire to know more then you're doing somethign right. Encourage them to study on their own. Point out some good age-appropriate references.

Another thing is to use the Socratic method. That was where a show like Mr. Wizard's World shined. Every episode he had a guest child. He could lead the child through a series of questions, and when all was said and done the child worked out the problems for himself. By asking the questions of the guest, Don Herbert was by extension asking the audience and promoting independent thought.

It's a shame that the educators of today haven't learned from these examples.