Edutainment: Interactive entertainment that leads to learning

CarolinaFireJournal - By Amar Patel
By Amar Patel MS, NREMT-P, CFC
01/10/2013 -

How many times have you attended a training symposium or seminar and been bored to tears? As the speaker drones on and on about some uninteresting topic, your mind wanders: “I think I’ll check my emails and see what’s going on back at the office. What am I going to have for dinner tonight? I need to pick up my dry-cleaning when we get out of here.” Sound familiar?


Statistics show that learners retain only five percent of the information they receive through lectures, and the numbers aren’t much better for other types of passive teaching methods that use written text (10 percent), audio-visual presentations (20 percent), or even demonstrations (30 percent). However, those same statistics show that when teachers make learning more participatory, information retention rates skyrocket to as high as 90 percent. Obviously, the more active and entertaining the engagement is between instructors and learners, the more beneficial the learning activity is for everyone. This combination of education and entertainment has a name; it’s called “edutainment.”

Edutainment: New Term, Old Concept

While the term “edutainment” has only gained popularity in the business sector within the last few years, it’s been the successful model for children’s television programming since the late 1960s. One of America’s most beloved children’s television shows, Sesame Street, was created in 1969 and based on this concept of combining educational content with the fun and creativity of Jim Henson’s Muppets. These puppets and their human co-stars engaged children, helping them learn about the world around them. The show focused on educational themes like math, science, and grammar, as well as social issues like friendship, poverty and prejudice. With the creation of Sesame Street, it was the first time producers and writers of a children’s television show used educational goals and a curriculum to shape program content. It was also the first time a show’s educational effects on young children were studied. Sesame Street became — and continues to be — one of the most-watched children’s programs in history, with more than 95 percent of U.S. preschoolers having seen the show by age three.

Another prime example of how learning can be fun — specifically, through music — is the wildly successful children’s television series Schoolhouse Rock! I seriously doubt there’s anyone reading this who’s not familiar with the lyrics to this song: “I’m just a bill, yes, I’m only a bill, and I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill.” The song describes in a fun and interesting way the process by which a bill actually becomes a law in Washington, D.C. Kids throughout America sat in their pajamas watching this program on Saturday mornings on the ABC television network from 1973 to 1985, and then again when both old and new episodes aired from 1993 to 1999. The series was the brainchild of David McCall, who came up with the idea of animated musical educational short films when his son was having difficulty memorizing his multiplication tables. The snappy songs became an instant hit, helping kids learn.

It’s All About Having Fun

In an article written by Dr. Judy Willis for Psychology Today magazine, she describes what she calls “The Neuroscience of Joyful Education.”

“The truth is that when we scrub joy and comfort from the classroom, we distance our students from effective information processing and long-term memory storage,” says Dr. Willis. “Instead of taking pleasure from learning, students become bored, anxious, and anything but engaged.” Hence, the clock-watching, Facebook checking, and doodling in class begins, and the whole purpose for attending the seminar — which is learning — is lost.

Dr. Willis sites her own experiences as a neurologist, author and middle school teacher when she explains the numerous benefits of joy — or edutainment — in the classroom. “When students are engaged and motivated and feel minimal stress, information flows freely, and they achieve higher levels of cognition, make connections, and experience ‘aha’ moments,” says Dr. Willis. “Such learning comes not from quiet classrooms and directed lectures, but from classrooms that have an atmosphere of exuberant discovery.”

Brain researchers tell us that when the fun stops, the learning often stops, too. But by making education exciting through creative presentations and interactivity, teachers of any subject can help students retain knowledge. But how can we translate the techniques used by the creators of Sesame Street and Schoolhouse Rock! into the adult world of emergency services? Let’s look at how one company is using technology to capture students’ attention in the classroom and changing the landscape of learning.

There are companies that use game-based learning software in workforce training. These products are designed to help employees in a wide variety of industries — retail, utilities, manufacturing and healthcare — learn and retain information through hands-on activities. These training tools, which incorporate video game technology, focus on behavior change, rather than a person’s ability to memorize and pass a test.

So what happens in an interactive learning environment that uses game-based technology? While every training exercise is different based on the type of profession you’re in, the basic format is similar. Your instructor may assign you to a team and give you a group challenge with a time limit and a specific set of circumstances. As a team, it’s up to you to select a leader who will delegate responsibilities based on members’ strengths and weaknesses. Then, when the scenario begins, members assume their roles and move through a constantly changing activity.

If you’re a firefighter and your scenario takes place outdoors, conditions like weather may change, affecting your ability to do your job. If you’re an EMS worker, your patient’s acuity may change at a moment’s notice, and your care giving skills will be tested. Basically, anything can happen, and when it does, it’s your responsibility to adapt to your surroundings and to the changing circumstances. After the exercise is over, you’ll have the opportunity to debrief, evaluating your personal and team performance and identify your successes as well as areas for improvement.

In the same way Sesame Street makes learning fun for kids and teaches them valuable lessons about themselves and others, game-based education — or edutainment — makes it possible for adults to learn about a variety of subjects in a different way. It reinforces their existing skills and assists them in learning new skills. It enables them to understand their coworkers’ responsibilities and how they can work together in a better and smarter way. And most importantly, edutainment helps people retain more of what they learned for a longer period of time. That is a direct benefit to the people we serve as first responders.

Edutainment is replacing the antiquated educational methods of previous decades. It addresses how people really learn — by being actively involved, rather than sitting at a desk, listening to a lecture and taking notes. It only makes sense that we embrace its power and to use it in the life-long learning process.

Amar Patel is the Director of the Center for Innovative Learning at WakeMed Health & Hospitals. He is responsible for integrating technology based educational programs to include human patient simulation, healthcare gaming, and hybrid education into regional educational programs.
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