Monday, September 8, 2014

Why Some Learning Isn't Better Than Other Learning: Television and Books Through An Unschooling Lense

TV watching and book-reading often seem to be seen as somewhat opposite activities. Books are seen as worthwhile, good for your brain, a useful way to spend time, and TV a waste of time, useless, a brain-rotting and lazy pursuit.

In my own life, that's never been the way I considered those two activities. I might have made distinctions between fiction and non-fiction, documentaries and dramas, but TV and books have never been an either or, a one versus the other. They've both been activities that have brought me great joy, and yes, led to a lot of learning.


Before I was reading myself, my parents were reading aloud daily. Stories, in some form or another, have always been a part of my life. But when I started reading myself, I dove into the world of novels in a very big way. There were years where I read three or even four short novels a day, and I can still easily race through the newest book in a favourite series in the course of a single day. Novels draw me in, too, and lead to an incredible amount of investment in imaginary people and worlds.

I also like sharing what I read, and it became common practice in my family years ago to tell each other about the stories we were reading. Sharing a book you're enthusiastic about is really nice.

It's not as social an activity as TV watching, though, which I find interesting, considering reading is often considered the more meaningful activity. Reading is often a deeply personal and immersive activity, which has it's own benefits, so this isn't to say that TV is somehow better, just that I'm far from convinced that either is better, and instead feel that both provide a whole lot of positives.


"Are you ready to watch yet?" I ask for the 9th time. I'm not the most patient person around, and a show that's caught my attention is a very big draw. Despite that impatience, and my desire to watch the next episode as soon as I'm able to, I almost always watch shows with other people. The four of us who make up my family watch a variety of British mysteries, genre shows, police procedurals, and assorted dramas. Currently Veronica Mars is big with us, and we've just started season three with great excitement.

To many people, TV watching looks like something solitary, something done in isolation, a passive activity involving no social interaction. My experience could not be further from that.

Not only do I almost always watch TV with family, bursting into laughter together, nudging each other with an elbow at good bits, or occasionally grabbing each other in fear (well, okay, mostly I'm the only one who does that), we also talk about them.

Throughout our watching of Veronica Mars, there have been countless conversations in the car, while washing dishes, and sometimes in the middle of an episode (paused, of course) about what was happening in the plot. Who killed Lily? Who was where, when, and who could have been somehow involved? Every character's actions and motivations were dissected and examined through enthusiastic discussion. It's fun to treat shows--especially mysteries--that way, and it becomes a real bonding experience with the people you're watching with.

By being such a social and involved experience, it's also anything but passive. Watching shows becomes something engaging and social, something that leads to a lot of thinking, discussing, and sharing.

Looking critically at media and pop culture

"I think one of the most important things I've learned is how to critically look at all different types of media," I said in a workshop the other day. The ability to analyze and think critically about what I'm consuming--whether it's novels or non-fiction books, TV shows or movies, the news or a newspaper, comic books or magazines--is an invaluable skill, and one that has brought much richness, lots of deep thought and thoughtful conversations to my life. I learned young from my parents that just because someone says something on TV, even on the news, doesn't mean it's true, and my sister and I learned ourselves as teens to broaden and deepen our analysis of various forms of media and entertainment.

I've had discussions about the subtle sexism in Buffy the Vampire Slayer as well as its major failings when it comes to issues of representation and racism. I've talked about the neo-liberal pro-military bias on a more liberal-leaning news network. I've had good conversations about how the Spiritwalker trilogy by Kate Elliott does a remarkably excellent job in portraying a range of women characters, as well as creating a fantasy world that's both racially and culturally diverse and interesting.

I recently heard it suggested that TV is dangerous simply because it's often considered fluff, junk, unworthy of serious thought, and thus people absorb a lot of messages and prejudices from what they watch, because they're not engaging critically with what they're viewing. That seems more than possible to me, and serves as a good argument for treating TV as important, because it is a part of most peoples lives, and it affects how we think and what we learn.

The same can all be said about books, as they often contain messages we might feel are harmful as well. Once again I feel like books and TV have a lot more in common than many people realize.

Potential negatives

A lot of parents have a lot of worries about screens having a negative impact, health-wise, on their children. However, books aren't without negative consequences, either. In my three-books-a-day phase, and still sometimes when I get too wrapped up in a story, I read to the point of eye strain and tension headaches. Before I got my up-to-date prescription glasses, I'd read to the point of increased blurry vision. My optometrist had to make a point of telling me I had to stop reading every ten minutes or so and look out the window, focus on something far away, for the health of my eyes. I know when it comes to my own physical comfort, I generally find computer screens the worst, reading on page next, and watching TV the most comfortable. Focusing on something a bit further away is easier.

The point I'm really trying to get at here is just that everything is healthier in moderation, but TV isn't necessarily worse, or less healthy, or anything else when compared to similarly stationary pursuits.

I feel like many people might say "well that's all fine, but you're obviously special. My children would just watch TV all day!" Now, while different people have different needs, an easier or less easy time listening to their bodies, and maybe need more or less parental help in figuring things out, I do think parents often sell their kids short in thinking that all they'll ever do is watch TV. That attitude shows a strong and perhaps somewhat misplaced bias against this one form of entertainment and learning, and it also seems not to take into account that no one will want to do only one thing, forever. Boredom starts to set it. It's also important for children, with parental involvement and support, to figure out for themselves what feels good and bad for them, and that's best done by exploring and trying different things and figuring out that sitting on the couch for 10 hours doesn't tend to make you feel so good.

I just caution parents to examine their biases, and consider that if you wouldn't say "you've already read too much this week, do something else," then maybe pause for a moment before saying the same about television.

Developing a healthy relationship to screens and pages

I think a rich and healthy relationship with different types of media is best gained by experiencing it with involved adults, adults who want to hear about the story their child is reading, who talk about and sometimes criticize what they see on TV and what they read in print. Basically, adults who engage in the shows and movies they watch and the books and magazines they read, discussing and thinking about them, will help children learn to be engaged and critical themselves.

Some children will only really be into one or the other. Some will consume media in less common ways, such as listening to audio books instead of reading, whether due to learning or other disabilities or simply personal preferences. If we're going to respect that each individual is different, and will learn about and experience the world in different ways, I think part of that is realizing that placing various activities on a hierarchy of which is best to worst, or most to least educational, is counterproductive to the learning process.  

This isn't to say I'm entirely against parents ever intervening in their children's use of of various media. I'm not. I just think that creating arbitrary distinctions between things like TV and books makes little sense, and isn't an ideal environment for creating excitement about learning in all its forms, including both screens and pages.

In my own life

I love that I can take such intense joy from a new TV show find, or a favourite novel, and that I don't find myself feeling guilty about spending time with either of those things. I love that I can be so critical of what I consume, that I'm able to deconstruct things and have thoughtful conversations about them, as well as just enjoying something without feeling a need to be strongly critical of it.

Armed with the knowledge needed to navigate the media and pop culture around me, without any guilt about what's "useless" bogging me down, I've had a wonderful time exploring the worlds of fiction and non-fiction alike. It's been and continues to be a bonding experience with others, a collection of ways I've learned a lot of cool things and stretched my thinking in new ways, and brought countless ours of fun and enjoyment into my life.

My conclusion? Books and TV are both pretty great.


  1. Thank you for writing this! It's an ongoing, internal struggle at our house and the issue of Television for a toddler (2.5 years). She LOVES it and we only put on quality, age-appropriate, commercial-free, interactive, brief episodes. Plus it gives parents a little time to take a deep breath, which is important to not completely lose it otherwise. Your perspective confirmed that TV isn't evil after all, in fact it can be true visual art when done well.

  2. Hey Idzie...quick question!

    I recently read an article about he Minerva Project. It's a new for-profit higher education startup. I thought it was an interesting idea and was just wondering your thoughts on it? Is it better than traditional university? For something like a business degree in order to become an entrepreneur is this a good option, or is it better to just venture out on one's own?

  3. I agree with your perspective about books and television. I see both as having value, but not one more so than the other. As odd as this sounds, when I was growing up, my Mom would chastise me for reading too much. She thought that I should be outside playing, or when I was a teenager she thought I should be hanging out with my friends and going somewhere rather than reading. I am a parent now, and I allow my children to watch television, read, or play video games, and I do these activities along with them. I don't know any other parents who have the same attitude toward television and especially video games that I have. It's extremely difficult to unschool your kids in an environment hostile to the ideas and principles of unschooling, but we do the best we can. I really appreciate your articles. It's interesting and encouraging to read the perspectives of someone who grew up in an unschooling environment. :-)

  4. What an interesting read!

    Hey, want to write a piece for my blog???
    Or just use one you have already written and be a "Guest Poster"?
    You might get more people here reading your blog, MAYBE, and that could be good or bad, depending on your point of view...

    Think about it. :)