If you ask any parent or teacher where they think the majority of educational television programming for children is shown, the answer is almost always "on PBS, of course!" But there are still open questions of what, exactly, constitutes "educational television" and even more importantly, what evidence do we have that these "educational" shows are really teaching kids what we think they are? An important new study being conducted by researchers at Tufts University, in collaboration with a team at WGBH Boston, is trying to answer those questions by focusing on one much- heralded PBS program, Arthur.
Arthur, which has been on the air since 1996, is now the longest-running children's animated program on television. It's a production of WGBH and the Cookie Jar Group (formerly CINAR) in Canada, for PBS. The series has been much acclaimed, winning four daytime Emmys, a George Foster Peabody Award and many other accolades. And importantly, Arthur also consistently ranks high in various ratings of the most viewed children's television shows.
Based on the series of books by author/illustrator Marc Brown, Arthur is a show about the life and times of 8 year-old Arthur Read, who is fancifully drawn as an aardvark, and his family and friends (also drawn as various friendly and anthropomorphic animals). "Along the way we've tried to do stories that are about the kinds of things kids face every day, from big challenges, like parents going through a divorce or someone getting cancer, to little annoyances that every kid has to deal with, like a pesky little sister or a friend who isn't being helpful to you" says Executive Producer, Carol Greenwald. "We try to put these issues in a context that feels real. Kids make mistakes and learn from them." But, she admits, "from time to time we get pushback by showing kids who aren't perfect and aren't modeling perfect behavior. Our thought has been that this actually helps kids to make good choices. Except we've never really known if that's true - what we've never had the opportunity to do is do real research around this and see if what we're doing really is working."
And so Greenwald and her colleagues approached Dr. Richard Lerner, director of the Institute for Applied Research in Youth Development at Tufts, to see if he and his team could help design a study that would attempt to see if, in fact, the intent behind the writing of the Arthur television series was educational in terms of teaching kids important social and emotional issues. Lerner's work revolves around testing a theory of "positive youth development," a theory suggesting that rather than focusing on negative behaviors in young people, focusing on understanding and promoting positive ones can best help kids to achieve their potential and avoid risky behaviors.
Lerner says he was interested in working with Greenwald and her colleagues because " the purpose of this lab is to build on strengths of young people by putting them in settings that capitalize on their strengths, capitalize on their positive development. The Arthur series is an internationally acclaimed vehicle that provides an engaging setting to which kids gravitate. We were interested in seeing how this show provides enhancement for young people's cognitive and behavioral characteristics, and how we can use the contributions of those settings to decrease the growing propensity of bullying in schools. This was a unique career opportunity." And so Lerner and his team began to develop a study that would test whether Arthur could be used to enhance positive youth development among its viewers, the "Arthur Interactive Media Study," or AIMS. (In the spirit of full journalistic disclosure, I must say that I know and have worked with both the team from WGBH and the team from Tufts in other contexts, but I am not part of the AIMS study).
Funded by a planning grant from the John Templeton Foundation, the AIMS project utilized a unique research design. A team of content developers from WGBH in consultation with the lab at Tufts, wrote and animated a graphic novel using the Arthur characters. Greenwald explains, "In this story, Arthur goes over the line and teases Sue Ellen too much. This provides a great storyline about an issue that doesn't usually come up in the classroom - what's the difference between teasing and bullying, and how do you deal with it." She points out that younger children are still trying to figure out where that line between teasing and bullying is, and also that there are far fewer resources available to teachers and parents to help younger children learn about and make these distinctions And unlike the television series, a graphic novel enabled children to interactively explore the story from the perspective of multiple characters.
The Tufts team recruited teachers of 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th grade classrooms in local schools and procured permission for the children to participate. 1st graders were paired with 4th grade "buddies," and 2nd grade kids with 5th grade buddies. Lerner points out, "There's a rich literature on cross-age peer mentoring, which not only facilitates the younger child, but also enhances the older one."
The older kids were trained about how they could discuss the themes with their younger buddies. They read the graphic novel in their buddy pairs and had a few sessions in which they talked about the story. The sessions were videotaped and later coded by trained researchers from Lerner's lab. Dr. Ed Bowers, one of the principal investigators of the study, says that they are "looking to see how much discussion went on about the characters and social relationships, and how deeply engaged the kids were in these discussions." Teachers and children were also surveyed after the graphic novel intervention about their perceptions, knowledge and attitude about bullying and bullying prevention.
Preliminary analysis of the data has shown researchers that kids do, in fact, seem to be learning from Arthur. The younger children and their older buddies both demonstrated increased awareness of what can constitute bullying and of ways to talk about the issue positively and constructively. "Given the anecdotal evidence of how transformative Arthur is in kids lives, it's exciting to begin to gather empirical evidence that shows this context truly is transformative in terms of how media might be used to get kids to better understand and hopefully prevent bullying," says Lerner.
Teachers involved with the pilot study agreed not only that this was an important topic, but also that the AIMS project provides a unique opportunity for allowing children to explore and talk about bullying from the perspective of multiple characters and points of view. "The more kids have the opportunity to discuss it, the better they'll be able to handle it. A few students were surprised Arthur could be a bully - and said 'it can happen to anyone - you just need to realize what bullying looks like and not be that way,'" reported one teacher.
While the preliminary data are encouraging, the Tufts and WGBH teams are eager to gather additional evidence. "We think we can expand on a tool that will be effective in engaging children, promoting their awareness of bullying and getting them to think through issues pertinent to character development" says Greenwald. Adds Lerner, "We are hoping to expand on this pilot with a larger, multi-item study."
Former FCC Commissioner Nicholas Johnson once said, "All television is educational. The only question is, what is it teaching?" The preliminary results of the AIMS project provide some empirical evidence that television can, in fact, be used to teach and promote positive youth development. And since, as I've previously written, there's been so little published research on the effects of interactive media, as the platform of broadcast television continues to be melded with interactive platforms like graphic novels, it becomes ever more important to design research that will explore whether educational messages can be more powerfully reinforced.