A lesson on teaching

A solid educational backbone is a prerequisite for any preschool series with aspirations to cracking the US market. FCC broadcast regulations, in fact, mandate the presence of a learning curriculum, ...
March 27, 2009

A solid educational backbone is a prerequisite for any preschool series with aspirations to cracking the US market. FCC broadcast regulations, in fact, mandate the presence of a learning curriculum, and bringing child development and early education experts into the process of show development is old hat for experienced preschool producers. However, while series focused on social and emotional development are the most common to come by, a number of shows with more ambitious academic-based curriculums for two- to five-year-olds have started cropping up.

Public broadcaster PBS is at the forefront of ushering in this wave of educational programs, helped in part by the Ready to Learn grant program, administered by the US Department of Education. It has spawned literacy-based series Super Why! and WordWorld in recent years, and overseeing the growth of this new crop of reading- and science-centric series at the pubcaster is VP of children’s programming, Linda Simensky.

Simensky says that since she joined the net in 2003, bringing back curriculum-based series that combine the cool, funny spirit of the original Electric Company from the 1970s has been a focus. ‘The biggest thing that has changed is that people now believe a show can be curriculum-based and also have a narrative and be funny,’ she says, explaining educational shows were often too earnest or made learning unapproachable by implying that ‘you have to be nutty and have a bow-tie to like science.’ Her strategy was to develop shows that made literacy and science accessible to regular kids by incorporating learning right into the narrative concept with compelling characters and huge doses of humor.

Ask an expert
Key to keeping a curriculum-based show on track, PBS and series producers hire small batteries of educational consultants to give advice on the academic, cognitive and specialized content of each episode. Simensky says the relationship between advisors and producers has really evolved over the last 15 years to become one driven by mutual respect. ‘The advisors in the past had to jam the curriculum in,’ says Simensky. ‘Now they are used to help fine-tune the show and make it age appropriate.’

Dr. Laura Brown, director of research and curriculum at Little Airplane Productions, who’s worked on Wonder Pets! and Oobi and has served as an independent advisor on Nickelodeon’s Ni Hao, Kai-lan, agrees that a big part of advising on a show with a specific educational focus is making sure the teaching is suited to the intellectual capabilities of two- to five-year-olds. For example, Brown says that two- and three-year-olds don’t have the vocabulary to supply words that rhyme, so a lesson on rhyming for that age group would be better explored through recognition exercises that get kids simply identifying rhyming sounds and words.

Likewise The Jim Henson Company’s Sid the Science Kid depicts the science preschoolers encounter on a daily basis, rather than attempt to teach lofty abstract lessons. ‘We decided that we may never get around to teaching about the solar system because it’s so far from the everyday life of the children in our audience,’ says co-CEO Lisa Henson. ‘We focus instead on simple things like the freezing and melting of ice cubes, which are actually scientific processes,’ she adds.

Even before matching age with content, Little Airplane’s Brown says the concept and the curriculum have to fit together organically from the very beginning, which is where a real dynamic between the creators and consultants should start to flourish. ‘It’s entertainment product, so children can just get up and walk away,’ says Brown. ‘I have a great respect for the writers and artists,’ she explains. ‘While I want educational content there, I can see where the storytelling is important.’

Blue’s Clues co-creator Angela Santomero came up with the idea for Super Why! while looking to craft a show that would combat the popular notion that television is antithetical to reading. She wanted to use TV as a tool to get kids reading and was charged with infusing her educational goals into an entertaining show.

Santomero enlisted Dr. Alice Wilder, who worked as director of research and development for Blue’s Clues, to head the advisory efforts and then consulted with leading kids experts and classroom teachers to nail down her approach, which took a good year and half. After creating an action plan with literacy skills deemed essential by the US National Reading Panel, Santomero created super hero characters based on each skill.

‘If kids think superheroes are cool and have the power to read as opposed to just having the power to beat you up, we’re really excited about that,’ she says.

Test it out
Getting the curriculum-entertainment balance isn’t always easy and this most recent batch of PBS series has relied heavily on testing the concepts, much to the betterment of the end product.

As the lead consultant on Super Why!, Wilder, for example, took the scripts and rudimentary storyboards into public schools and put together focus groups to make sure the stories and the lessons would work with the audience.

PBS’s Simensky says having access to the Ready to Learn grant was not only good for financing production, but essential in funding the extensive testing and formative research for curriculum-based shows that consequently require slightly bigger budgets. ‘We were able to make leaps in terms of what is known about kids and reading and television,’ says Simensky. Because the grant also emphasized the incorporation of new technologies, she adds, it also allowed producers to test content on different platforms to see how kids could learn via websites, online games and cell phones.

Don Moody, producer of WordWorld, which also received Ready to Learn financing, worked with third-party research firm Michael Cohen Group in New York to generate a study that tested the effectiveness of the show as an educational media product. The firm used episodes from the first season just as it was going to air as the basis for the study. More than 800 children in 105 preschool programs across the US took part in the trial that included a control group of kids who weren’t exposed to WordWorld. The study showed the series had a positive effect on literacy. The kids in the test group who viewed an 11-minute episode plus a three-minute interstitial of WordWorld doubled their oral vocabulary, and tripled their ability to read the specific words featured in the episode, over the group that didn’t see the show at all.

‘If you make an episode and the formative research says it’s not teaching what it’s meant to teach, you have to be ready to throw it out and start all over, or fix it somehow,’ says Moody. ‘So you have to be ready to spend extra money when you’re teaching children,’ he adds.

Henson says testing for PBS’s science-focused Sid the Science Kid included obtaining similar feedback from groups of kids and then heading back to the studio to make the necessary tweaks and changes. ‘We also discovered something rather delightful – that parents endorsed the show and wanted it to remain on topic and educational throughout the episodes,’ she says. So sillier elements in the test material were dropped and the writers worked at addressing the curriculum in every single segment.

Teaching abroad
In sticking to a hardline science curriculum, Henson says she was told Sid wouldn’t garner much interest from international buyers, especially those in Europe. However, she says that hasn’t been the case and attributes success in foreign sales to the series’ complete fusing of science learning with the storyline that revolves around the everyday lives of kids. (For example, an episode on transformation is about baking cookies.) So far, the show has been sold to Canada, France, Portugal, Spain, Israel, Mexico, Africa and the Middle East.

The international appeal of shows with literacy curriculums, however, is ready-made. Several territories are keen to pick up series that can teach English as a second language. WordWorld‘s Moody positioned the show as an ELL (English Language Learning) tool right from the beginning and has sold it into 22 countries, 19 of which see the series via Playhouse Disney in Asia.

Back State-side at PBS, Simensky chooses projects to develop based on need. Besides creating literacy-based shows with the help of Ready to Learn, she’s been focusing on STEM-based (science, technology, engineering and math) programming. Curious George, Sid the Science Kid and Dinosaur Train fall under this category and she says more like-minded science-oriented shows will bow throughout 2010 and 2011. As to what gaps may need filling in the future, she says learning new languages is a subject she’d like to explore, as well as music and art.

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