Learning vs. Entertainment

By Naomi Dillon

Dressed in baggy jeans, a hoodie, and a “do-rag,” Adolph Brown saunters into the cafeteria of Point-o-View Elementary in Virginia Beach, picking his way past the third-, fourth- and fifth-graders seated on the floor.

Some look quizzically at the stranger, but most are glued to Principal Edward Timlin, who excitedly tells the students they are in for a rare treat -- a nationally renowned consultant and Virginia Beach native is there to talk to them about bullying. He then introduces a nattily dressed man, patiently perched on a stool behind him, as the day’s speaker.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” Brown yells. “I think I’m in the wrong place.”

Fact No. 1: Brown is a jokester, and this is a favorite prank he plays with his assistant, Jawanza Sabir, the well-dressed man who often impersonates Brown at presentations. The elaborate ruse is designed to grab the audience’s attention. And based on the transfixed looks of the students, it worked.

But was it meaningful? Did it make a difference in what students learned that day, or will they just remember the trick?

Those are fair questions, especially in an era where youth spend more time consuming entertainment media than they do in the classroom. It also is a vexing problem for schools which must compete with a constant stream of media-rich, multisensory stimuli to capture students’ attention. In the quest for student performance, teachers are becoming performers.

To be fair, teaching always has had an element of performance art. Think back to a favorite teacher, and it’s probably someone with a dynamic personality, a gift for gab, and a knack for making even the most mundane activity intriguing. That’s why the concept of edutainment -- the merging of education and entertainment -- has become so popular.

You can’t blame schools for wanting to capitalize on the same strategies and tools that keep students online and engaged for hours on end. But what can you really teach a child about the French Revolution in a three-minute video? Is style overwhelming substance?

“When Oregon Trail first came out, teachers loved it,” says Richard Van Eck, an instructional design and technology professor at the University of North Dakota, of what’s become the most widely distributed education video game of all time. “But in retrospect, it was only as effective as the instruction around it.”

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