Herald Journal Columns
Dec. 26, 2005, Herald Journal

School year length not a factor


Minnesotans have been questioning lately whether adding five weeks to the school year will improve education for our children. Except for first graders who are below average readers and those who can’t speak English, I don’t think an extra five weeks will make much difference.

What really makes a difference is what happens before children get to kindergarten. One of those factors is TV.

When children watch endless hours of TV, videos and computer games, it affects how their brains learn. There are two kinds of learning, active and passive. Children are born with the ability to learn both ways.

TV, videos and computer games are passive. If there is a problem shown in a cartoon or sitcom, it is resolved in about 15 minutes. The child watching the show does nothing but wait for it.

In school, on the other hand, learning is active. The children must read to get the solution, count objects or measure something to get the solution, or remember what they learned the day before to get the solution. In other words, the child does something.

Children who watch TV excessively lose their ability to learn actively. It shows in how they act in the classroom. If they are expected to solve a problem, instead of looking at their books, charts, rulers or pictures, they will look up at the teacher’s face, and wait for the teacher to tell them the answer.

Some day care providers use the TV as a “plug-in-drug,” or as a management tool. Whenever the kids become too unruly, the day care provider parks the kids in front of the TV and pops in a video.

In addition, cars and vans now feature video screens, so kids in the back seat can watch videos instead of looking at the real world outside the windows.

Children who have a TV or computer in their bedrooms sometimes suffer sleep deprivation, because they are watching them a lot later than what parents realize. Being sleepy in school makes learning more difficult, too.

What’s really disturbing is how many schools use watching videos as a reward for good behavior. After students finish reading a book, for example, they watch the video based on that book.

Or if the children are well-behaved during the week, they get to watch videos on Friday afternoons. You’d think the teachers would know better, that they are making their jobs that much more difficult.

I agree that winter weather in Minnesota is brutal. It is safer to have children inside sometimes. TV and videos are amusing, help children avoid hypothermia, and help prevent “cabin fever.” What did children in Minnesota do during the winter, though, before the invention of TV?

People who have been in education longer than 20 to 30 years can tell there is a difference in what students are able to read and do in math than when they first started teaching.

I’ve noticed that people in the Dassel Cokato area watch less TV than in other communities. I wouldn’t be surprised if that contributed to DC students’ superior achievement.

However, if your children are struggling, check out how much TV they are watching. It might be too much.

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