Channel Surfing Knowledge: A Narrative Criticism of Edutainment Television Programming
Carlson, Gordon S.
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In the last ten years there has been an increase in the amount and popularity of edutainment programming. While the body of literature surrounding edutainment is wider than deep, the concept is traditionally conceived of as a pedagogical strategy employing the tactics of entertainment. In this study, a specific subset of edutainment is examined: adult-oriented, science-based, edutainment television. In academia edutainment has been studied through various methodological and theoretical lenses, in particular that of behaviorism and Albert Bandura’s theory of social learning. This study takes a new approach. Focusing on television, it looks at narrative components, paying special attention to the genres that inform modern edutainment: drama, documentaries, and reality television. A rhetorical approach, this study is a narrative analysis of four popular edutainment programs spanning nearly 40 years. Wild Kingdom, Connections, Modern Marvels, and MythBusters are examined to identify and organize the narrative approaches each show has employed in their various runs. The analysis identifies aspects of each show’s narrative tactics as they support the strategy of edutainment. With narrative elements identified relationships between them bring to light the strengths and weaknesses of edutainment television as a pedagogical approach. The study proposes a theoretical framework for analyzing and interpreting edutainment television programs. This contribution to rhetorical and educational theory is applied to two categories of learning: casual and formal. The rhetorical tactics of edutainment television are applied to these types of learning opportunities to identify and address potential advantages and disadvantages for learners in myriad situations who may be learning on their own or in tandem with an instructor. The study offers a new two-dimensional model of interpreting the balance of education and entertainment in this genre of work as well as calls for a “narrative literacy” among instructors and adult learners alike.