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Why research matters. Sometimes.

Weve all heard of The Mozart Effect. Millions of dollars of mostly baby products have been spawned by the research. Did you know that it was a study whereby college students who listened to Mozart tested better at mental origami tasks? Furthermore, the study has never been replicated. This is research for kids' products? Amazing how much we take at face value.
December 6, 2013

I recently I attended a presentation by Children’s Media Association called Bridge Under Construction: Connecting Academia and Industry, which was recapped yesterday by David Kleeman, one of the organizers. (Anyone who hasn’t checked out this increasingly relevant organization since it evolved from the fledgling WiCM, do so now.)

The gist of the presentation was a he-said/she-said discussion on academics versus industry, or as we cynics would say,  “research versus reality.”

Three academics spoke: Fran Blumberg from Fordham, Renee Cherow O’Leary from Education for the 21st Century, and Vikki Katz from Rutgers. The industry reps were Sean McEvoy from Nickelodeon, Bob Higgins from Fremantle Media, and Alice Cahn from Cartoon Network. Alison Bryant, CEO of PlayCollective, who straddles the line between the two disciplines, was the moderator. Interspersed between the sides was maestro Stephan Gass, President of Every Baby Company, presenting “known” research to the audience, then questioning its value

Part of the discussion involved presenting “known” research to the audience, then questioning its value. For example, we’ve all heard of The Mozart Effect. Millions of dollars of mostly baby products have been spawned by the research. Did you know that it was a study whereby college students who listened to Mozart tested better at mental origami tasks? Furthermore, the study has never been replicated. This is research for kids’ products? Amazing how much we take at face value.

Wonderful and wonder-full tidbits came out of the exchanges. Both sides agreed that developmental appropriateness, scaffolding, and humor were all necessary ingredients in successful programs. Academia embraces process; industry wants outcomes. To paraphrase Bob Higgins: We want the research to help us create beneficial—and great— shows, but at the end of the day, our job is to sell tickets and get kids in the seats.

He said/she said: Research informs. Entertainment sells. But as creators of good products know, they don’t have to be in opposition. An entertaining show or game is an opportunity to open a window into the larger world. As tweens, my kids watched Full House. Everyday. The stories of blended families, sibling conflicts, friendships, honesty, integrity, loyalty, and all their opposite traits, were things they could understand, laugh at, and yes, learn from.  The impact of the show was so memorable that on a recent trip to San Francisco, the “Tanner house” was on my 22- year-old’s must-see list. Shows like Sesame Street, which stay current by introducing thoughtful characters and concepts (incarcerated parents, case in point), games like Minecraft, which teaches strategy with such a playful spirit, and Ben 10 Game Creator, which used kids to fuel their research, were other successful collaborations cited by the panel.

At Sandbox Summit@MIT, one of our goals is to promote collaborations between supposedly yin and yang parties; to see the magic in mash-ups. This March you’ll see what happens when a teenager takes on medicine; sophisticated tablets are handed to illiterate kids; the news becomes a lifestyle; and, in a more traditional sense, when kids are a third party to the equation of academia and industry. Of equal importance to the presentations on stage, are the connections you’ll make in the audience. The person sitting next to you may have a brilliant idea that needs your expertise; your lunch partner could become your business partner.

Opportunities that put you in a multi-discipline setting are vital way of staying relevant. Whether you’re on the A-team, the I-team, or at the kids’ table, we all need to listen and learn from each other. Then let the fun begin.

To view the CMA presentation, taped by Scott Traylor, click here. To register for Sandbox Summit@MIT, click here.

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