Early childhood television in Australia
Patricia Edgar is a media specialist. The architect of the ABC’s Children’s Program Standards, she is the founder of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation and the World Summit on Media for Children. She is the author of Bloodbath: A Memoir of Australian Television (MUP). The article is based on the author’s address to the Future Minds Forum held earlier this month, organised by the Central Ranges Local Learning and Employment Network in Victoria. In the article, she responds to a presentation to the Forum by the keynote speaker, Professor Howard Gardner, and describes issues surrounding her efforts to set up the Lift Off early childhood program for television.
I first became aware of Howard Gardner’s work nearly 20 years ago. I had spent 10 years teaching in a university School of Education, five years as Chair of the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal's Children's Programme Committee, which set standards and approved children’s programs for a broadcast quota. That was a challenging task. Then I found myself with another one, setting up the Australian Children’s Television Foundation (ACTF), where I had the task of turning theory into practice and producing the programs I had claimed should present the best of what children could expect to see on television. Some years into that role, I decided I wanted to try to produce a groundbreaking early childhood program drawing on the latest knowledge about child development and employing the best talent in Australia, to devise an entertaining, educational and creative experience for children. I had a strong belief in the potential of television for educational purposes.
It was then I read Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. It was an epiphany: one of those life-defining moments when suddenly there is clarity. It made complete sense to me and this theory would underscore Lift Off, the early childhood program I was devising. And so I travelled to Harvard University to meet Howard Gardner. Then as now – in Howard’s latest book, Five Minds for the Future – I encountered a well-reasoned and compelling set of propositions. If we could apply them in our education system, I have no doubt we would live in a better and safer world, and a society that would stand a much better chance of surviving into the future. In Howard’s final paragraph, he says, 'Perhaps members of the human species will not be prescient enough to survive, or perhaps it will take more immediate threats to our survival before we make common cause with our fellow human beings. In any event, the survival and thriving of our species will depend on our nurturing of potentials that are distinctly human.'
Much of my career has been involved with the application of ideas and I want to briefly describe an experience – with which Howard is familiar – that leads me to a question for Howard.
When I developed Lift Off, I gathered together more than 100 specialists from differing fields with an interest in children. There were mathematicians, philosophers, scientists, musicians, writers, illustrators, poets, psychologists, sociologists, environmentalists, puppeteers, actors – every field imaginable and every form of intelligence was represented – and over three workshops we devised a curriculum and characters for the series Lift Off. The project blossomed as individuals with different perspectives, knowledge and experience mixed ideas. There were clashes and conflicts but the obstructionists were weeded out very much in the way Howard prescribes in Five Minds for the Future.
Over three workshops, we devised a program that became an extraordinary success with its audience, with the educators and collaborators involved, and with the critics. Lift Off was endorsed by all State Directors of Curriculum. The ACTF had outreach activities organised with parents and teachers and the Curriculum Corporation developed teaching materials. Seventeen million dollars were invested. It took four years and it seemed we had got things right. The program would evolve and we were well on the way to achieving a national education program involving parents, schools and television; an experiment in television for children unlike any in the world. But something intervened. The market spoke.
The ABC – our public broadcaster – cancelled Lift Off so it could invest in Bananas in Pyjamas – a simple, banal project – useless for educational purposes, but a program they owned fully, that could be accompanied by a suite of merchandise. They continued with Play School, a program which had run its course in the UK and Canada because of its old-fashioned and outdated educational approach. Now what do we have? Play School has celebrated 50 years on air and the media have touted that as an achievement and Australia has two iconic bananas. Lift Off, an extraordinary resource for young children, languishes on the shelf, unseen except by a privileged few, including my four grandchildren. Australian television does no more than divert and entertain our early childhood population in their critical formative years.
I still believe in the potential of the media to contribute powerfully to the education of young minds. But we have allowed the media to abdicate any responsibility for the type of education Howard Gardner is calling for. Instead we allow them to influence lifestyle, fashion, health and consumption generally. Television for children worldwide has become a negative force. Targeting children as consumers is contributing to obesity and their sexualisation at a young age. And we waste their brain power, which is surging in those early years, as we steal their time to deliver to them inconsequential programs with a commercial purpose.
Howard writes in Five Minds for the Future, 'Society does not always support the propagation of such positive role models. It is difficult to be a disciplined thinker when television quiz shows lavishly reward disparate factual knowledge. It is difficult to be respectful toward others when an argument mentality characterises politics and the mass media and when bald-faced intimidators morph into cultural heroes. It is difficult to behave ethically when so many rewards – monetary and renown – are showered on those who spurn ethics, but have not, or at least have not yet, been held accountable by the broader society. Were our media and our leaders to honour the five kinds of minds foregrounded here, and to ostracise those who violate these virtues, the job of the educators and supervisors would be incalculably easier'.
My question to Howard Gardner is: how do we achieve the change in attitudes necessary to reform our education system?
He says, and I agree, that 'schools alone cannot do the job. The burden of education must be shared by parents, neighbours, the traditional and digital media, the church and other communal institutions'.
Howard says he does 'not believe for a minute that markets will inevitably yield benign or moral outcomes'. They can be cruel and, anyway, are fundamentally amoral. And he draws on the words of Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi in Britain:
In his book, Howard has moved from describing the typical operations of the mind to offering views about how we should use our minds.
I have tried to work with the education system to change media for children. Anything I have achieved is but a drop in an ocean. I now think that we need an integrated child policy that brings together education, health and communication policy for children. Education policy does not deal with the media. I think it must, for the negative and powerful influence of the media in a free-market economy is too overpowering for parents and educators to contend with in the development of Howard Gardner’s Five Minds for the Future.
What is the next step?
Television in education