Education and entertainment: do they mix?

A big TV was rolled into the classroom by two custodians. It was the late 80s and TVs were bulky and heavy. The teacher turned off the lights and a film started playing. For us kids, this was always preferable to any kind of lesson. But years later, now a filmmaker and an educator myself, I am still wondering: was this purely lazy teaching? Or was there perhaps something more to it?

The intersection of education and entertainment is a touchy subject. Do movies really shape our worldview? Should listening to a podcast or a TEDTalk be used in formal education? And what about all those YouTube videos which may be fun to watch, but are they suitable for the classroom?

Education and entertainment have very different purposes. In his article, “The purpose of education”, Martin Luther King, Jr. suggested that education has a two-fold function: utility and culture. Education should give us tangible tools to achieve our goals. But it should also make us think intentionally and critically.

Entertainment strives to give us pleasure and enjoyment. Robert A. Stebbins from the Department of Sociology at the University of Calgary writes that entertainment’s purpose is to hold our attention and divert it from all other matters.

So what happens when we start mixing the two? Turn the dial from entertainment to education and it can become — propaganda. Advertisement is a form of entertainment which is intended to promote products, rather than ideas. Make education too entertaining and critics would argue that it fails to achieve its principal goals. Still, we’ve all seen thought-provoking films, and who said that learning cannot be enjoyable?

Humans have always told each other stories. These often tell an experience of a hero. In detective stories, for example, we follow our hero as they try to solve a mystery. It can’t be too easy. Another important component in stories is change. We should finish a story at a fundamentally different place than where we started. Our heros understand something about themselves and their world. It happens to be that the concepts of experience and change are fundamental to learning, too. A good lesson should give us new skills or knowledge and therefore leave us changed in some way. Research shows that the best way to learn is through experience. You’ll never really learn how to drive until you sit behind the wheel. When we learn, we are the heroes of our own stories. Perhaps there is more in common between entertainment and education than we may think.

The power of entertainment as a teaching tool was known to artists for centuries. In Italy during Medieval and Renaissance times, paintings were used to tell the stories of the Bible to those who were unable to read. Church leaders were also able to invoke an experience of awe and inspiration with visual arts. One only needs to step into the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican City to experience these feelings first hand. Religious leaders knew that describing the divine with words alone may not be enough. They were right. Dual coding, the idea that text and images activate different areas in the brain, is now supported by research.

But entertainment does have a dark side. For example, an article published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health points out the significant, measurable, adverse effects of pornography. Desensitization is an effect that is well-documented in the study of long-term exposure to on-screen violence. When a story successfully evokes a feeling in us, the brain has a hard time telling if the experience is fiction or reality. A 2009 study performed at the Department of Psychology at Tufts University measured viewer reaction to characters of different races in popular television shows. The findings suggest that nonverbal behavior which exhibits racial bias influenced viewers as well. These studies show that entertainment can have a significant and lasting effect on us.

If entertainment can be such a powerful tool, how should we use it in education? The answer lies in the science of learning itself. When bringing in films and other popular entertainment into the classroom, we can significantly reduce risks such as perpetuating bias or desensitizing the viewers. One of the ways to accomplish this is making students active rather than passive viewers. For example, asking students about the degree of influence the environment has on one’s identity, and then watching the excellent film Moonlight.We should also make sure that our use of entertainment expands the world of our students rather than narrows it down. Teachers ought to look at the types of entertainment they bring into the classroom with a critical eye. Was it chosen simply because it was familiar to the teacher? If so, it may unintentionally represent a narrow world view — that of the teacher’s. With information so accessible nowadays, it should be easy enough to find rich and diverse examples from films, tv shows and other popular entertainment.

It’s a good idea to try and bring entertainment into the classroom. Students can be exposed to voices that otherwise would be impossible to include or places and situations they have never seen. But it should be done with care. We trust our educators to design experiences that help us grow. We should remember that entertainers may have different goals, and we should never confuse the two.





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