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How to Tame the Video Monster

By Kathy von Duyke
Printed in Practical Homeschooling #5, 1994.

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Kathy von Duyke


I love to snuggle up on the couch on cold winter nights and make fantasy orders from video catalogs. Highlighting every interesting product, I mark up the margins with notes on how I might use them. Sometimes I even write everything on the order form. Then I look at our checkbook balance and reality sets in . . .

But are financial limitations the only reason not to have an all-video homeschool? So many exciting educational videos! Such an up-to-date, effortless way to teach! Can anything be this easy?

It breaks my heart to admit this -- children learn best when instructional methods cause them to think. Videos tend to build strong visual pathways. Great, huh? Not really. It seems that though humans have an abundance of brain cells, each cell has to pick one neural path and stick with it. In her book Endangered Minds, Dr. Jane Healy notes that, "Language shapes culture, language shapes thinking -- and language shapes brains. The verbal bath in which a society soaks its children arranges their synapses and intellects; it helps them to reason, reflect, and respond to the world . . . If a child is glued to an activity for several hours a day, connections for that activity will be built up [in his brain], but something else is going to be diminished." When more cells are committed to the visual pathway, less are left for language development or just plain thinking.

A child who spends too much time watching videos may suffer subtle language deficits. There is evidence that a mind connected to larger muscle activity thinks better. A play time spent chasing balls, or as in our family, chopping wood, may be just the action needed to help the mind use its most recent input. Time spent watching videos may distract the brain from using that new input.

Not only does excess video use build the wrong brain cells, it can crowd out the time to talk and muse -- activities that build the right pathways. Just as children need manipulatives like counters or pennies to grasp math, they need the manipulative of talk to grasp their thoughts. They need to get an idea out of their heads and express it verbally to get a handle on it. A video program can give the child information, but it can't listen and respond as the child reflects back what he heard. Nor can it then respond to the child's achievement by raising the skill level one notch.

Bombarding a child with new information does not necessarily teach him anything. Children need time to reflect on new information. They need to absorb it, mull it over, connect it with their own emotions, and expand what they already know.

"But they must be learning from all those TV shows and videos! After all, they sit and watch for hours!" Sorry -- a video may entertain a child without engaging that child's interest in the subject. And a child must be actively interested in a subject to retain the information. While I may be actively learning the finer points of pasta preparation from a video about Italian cooking, my two-year-old is not retaining the same information. He is simply entertained by the funny-speaking man throwing noodles around.

These are the principles we try to follow when using videos:

1. Build a context for the video.

Because videos are at least once removed from real life, they need to be used in an environment of books, discussion, and hands-on projects in that same subject.

For example, during a recent study of the Middle Ages in our home, we watched the video Cathedral by David Macauley. We had already studied several features of Gothic architecture through library books and had done several projects to make those features memorable. These included making rose windows (from tissue paper), stained glass (on vinyl), and understanding how flying buttresses give support (stand on one foot and hold a chair). We read that Abbot Suger designed the style based on the concept of God as a consuming fire, and placed the worthy abbot on our timeline along with a picture of a Gothic church.

We had built up a context for where cathedrals fit into history by studying castles, the feudal system, and several kings and queens. Before we watched the video, we read Cathedral and studied pictures of the various kinds of workers. After watching the video, we discussed godly versus greedy motives for building cathedrals and reflected on what we enjoyed about the video.

2. Don't milk every video to death!

Not every video needs a lot of extra preparation. For example, we recently watched Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, and Becket. These videos gave the children a visual portrayal of cold castles, dress, and landscape, not to mention some good action scenes. Our children dutifully followed up with their own hands-on project -- sword play!

3. Choose videos that match the medium to the message.

In contrast to Cathedrals, we recently watched a real bomb of a video on early church art. I had built up a careful context: studying pictures of church art, discussing the elements of early church art (e.g., icon-style images versus human expression, composition and depth) and expressing that information through projects. The video, available through our school district, failed as meaningful instruction. Pictures were spun out at us to rock music, and cute little adolescent skits explained each period, concentrating more on the little bit of "cute" than on the substantial period in art. The video simply wasn't slow enough for the material being presented.

4. Use videos to teach skills you lack.

Some terrific instructional videos are available without the fast pace and flashing lights typical of Sesame Street. If you own the video, you can watch it as many times needed. We are currently studying French with French in Action. We have learned an incredible amount of French in a very short time, et pourquoi pas? It was less expensive to get the French videos than hire a tutor, and the videos may be purchased one at a time. Pas mal!

5. Books do the job faster.

Since talking is slower than reading, books are a faster and more comprehensive source of information than videos. One good historical novel can be read faster than a 10-part documentary and connects better with the thinking language process. A single video may be sufficient for visual information about that subject.

6. Choose the most economical media for the subject.

A video is slower and more expensive than a book, but cheaper than most classes and much cheaper than a trip to Europe.

7. Books may do the job better.

We all know the book is better than the movie, so why watch the movie?

8. Videos can be helpful babysitters . . . but not all the time.

Video hour used to be the hour before dinner. I was tired and trying to get dinner together while the little ones were falling apart with hunger. Now, video hour might happen when I'm trying to read to my older children, when we are doing experiments, when we are studying foreign languages, when I'm sick, when it's raining . . .

We have three situations where we allow videos. The first is when I am studying French and Latin with the older kids. This is new ground for me and I need to concentrate, so if I can't coax the little guys outside, they get a French language video.

For those other difficult times, we've picked other strategies. Before dinner they must either help or sit quietly. During experiments they get to participate; I'm ready for them with their own set of materials or a very close facsimile. When I read to my older children, the younger children are expected and taught to play quietly, and I assume I will interrupt my reading whenever necessary to reinforce this.

The second situation for videos is our weekly movie night. This is when we watch the videos tied to our subject of study.

Third, when I am sick with something like the flu, or on the rare occasion when my oldest is left to babysit before the children are asleep, I use videos deliberately to entertain and pacify. I'm not saying this is the best decision, only that this is where we are at as a family right now. Even then, we try to use the same tests as above.

9. What are you giving up?

Do the children really need to watch that video, or do they need to finish other work or projects, or just sit and read? Don't give them an easy out for boredom. Let them call on their own inner interests.

10. Will you really use it?

Ask yourself: Do I really have time to make use of this video this year? Does it fit in with our goals and subject areas? Or will it function merely as entertainment because I don't have time to build the interest of my child to make best use of it?

11. Establish rules for use.

Overall, our children have an unspoiled excitement about videos. They are thrilled when they get to watch one, but are never permitted to ask for a video. Nor may they put the little ones in front of a video to get them out of their way. Only parents may select a video from the video store or library. This eliminates constant arguments over programs and keeps us from sliding into more video use than is healthy. It also means that when the children do watch a video, I can count on it to hold their interest.

We use these principles to help us stay focused on our goals. The next glossy video catalog that comes my way will not fool me into investing in any product that won't adequately fit how my children learn or what we are studying. These principles can be used as a tool for sorting all the products that we want to be in our home.


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