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That’s entertainment!

But it can teach science too, says Sai Pathmanathan

The entertainment media has the power to get messages across to adult audiences of millions, many more than through factual programming. Indian serial dramas, Brazilian telenovelas, British soap operas and US sitcoms have informally raised awareness of issues such as adult literacy, drink driving, female infanticide, cancer and diabetes. Whether or not young people can learn facts from entertainment is less well understood. 

A short piece of research I conducted a few years ago indicated that many adults have learnt from cartoons they watched as a child. This ranged from learning about classical music (for example, Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries in What’s Opera Doc? and The Nutcracker Suite in Fantasia ) to social learning in Captain Planet  and Spider-Man.

Viewers had also learnt information provided implicitly, for example in Happy Feet where penguins’ eggs hatch at the same time, or explicitly, when a character in Disney’s Tarzan said, ‘Piranhas are native to South America’.

Cartoons are also renowned for promoting and challenging stereotypes. Doctor Cockroach in Monsters vs. Aliens  is a ‘brilliant, but mad scientist’ but Studio Ghibli’s Porco Rosso shows talented female aeronautical engineers. Now, entertainment cartoon DVDs even have accompanying educational bonus material. Ratatouille’s Remy: Your Friend the Rat contains information about rat species, the black plague and rat breeding.

Pure entertainment

There are three types of media that young people are presented with: educational, entertainment and edutainment. Educational media is didactic and explicitly educational. Entertainment media is what children watch in their free time: light-hearted, filled with slapstick humour and make-believe situations. Between these two, is what I call 'edutainment', such as the American television series Cyberchase  and the animated series My Friend Boo. These rely on educational research to educate viewers stealthily, and are funded by the National Science Foundation and the European Commission respectively, as part of their informal science education agendas.

But what interests me is the area of pure entertainment where the producers, in an attempt to be as accurate and authentic as possible, are also educating young people by stealth. This by-product of being credible is how entertainment can aid informal science learning. Young people however, do not label programmes and films; they can be both entertaining and educational. Content is more important than format. Although self-assessed, children have said they have learnt from cartoons such as The Simpsons , SpongeBob SquarePants  and Phineas and Ferb.

How we learn

It is the humour and storylines of entertainment which facilitate learning. The cognitive processes involved in understanding humour are the same as those involved in problem-solving. Humour can therefore reinforce these processes so that meaningful learning takes place. 

We remember stories better if they have affected us emotionally. Powerful narratives can have this effect on viewers, causing levels of noradrenaline in the limbic system of the brain to rise and improve memory at that particular time. Another important factor is that the working memory has limited capacity during viewing. The more closely the narrative and educational content are linked, the more likely it is that the viewer will understand both.

Students questioned about short-term memory loss after viewing Finding Nemo  stated word-for-word what Dory said: ‘forgets things almost instantly’. As Dory’s short-term memory loss is integral to the plotline, young people processed and retained this information.

If, however, the educational content does not contribute to the story, the viewer remembers the story and forgets the educational material.

But who cares? Should we, as science communicators and educators, be concerned about the educational potential of entertainment media and acknowledge the role it can play in developing young people’s scientific literacy?

I think we should.


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Sai Pathmanathan
Sai Pathmanathan is a freelance science education consultant. Find her on Twitter @sai_path.
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