Engaging Learning


Kratts3I dare you to find a better science (animals, specifically) curriculum for 2nd graders than Wild Kratts.  I double dog dare you.  (But regardless of how good their tv shows are, their live show resembled a classroom…)

My family and I just left Wild Kratts Live – we took my 7 year old for Valentine’s Day.  But the experience was a lesson in engagement for me….and my daughter.

I watch Addie watch Wild Kratts as much as any Princess, Never-Land-Pirate, or Pony just about every day.  Chris and Martin Kratt, two biologists who have been supported by the Explorer’s Club and the National Science Foundation, make animal-education videos and cartoons for kids and every 7 year old I know loves them.

But this is about much more than the entertainment piece.  I’m talking about the educational piece here.  These guys teach kids about animals.  Viewers learn about context, facts, nuance, the connectedness of nature, ecology, and much more.


The Kratt brothers after the event.

How can I make the claim that they LEARN about these things?  Ask any parent.  Besides 1000 small voices shouting out answers at the show, I’ll try to illustrate it.  My daughter of 7 will correct us on a regular basis regarding various creatures.  She will identify species my wife or I ponder about with only a small explanation.  Upon further researching, we’ll discover that she is exactly right.  Let me give you a few examples.

My family was driving to dinner one evening.  I had just been sent a clip – one of those viral YouTube videos – by a friend talking about a “sea unicorn.”  It was a whale-ish creature with a horn on its head.  And it was surrounded by legend and lore.  Knowing my daughter’s love of all things animal, I tried to explain it to my family, saying I would show them the story when we got home.  My then 6 year old stopped me.  “Dad, that’s a narwhal.  And it’s not a horn, it’s a tooth.  They use it to chip shrimp and plankton out of the ice…”

Or there was the time Addie explained to my wife that there are spiders that catch birds in their webs and eat them.  “No sweetie,” replied my wife, “birds are too big for spiders.”  My daughter then took my wife to the iPad, had her bring up a web search, and looked at pictures of the Golden Orb Spider – a spider the size of a human head – spinning a web to catch birds and then eat those birds.

Keep in mind, my daughter can recite lines and dialogue from the show, but she retains the information they provide about the animals, habitats, and countries where these animals live.  And probably even more important to an education conversation, she wants to watch these shows over and over again.  While she remembers information immediately, she likes to watch the same show over and over.  It stimulates her.  She gets new things out of a show every time she watches it.

Name a science curriculum for kids that does all that.  Unless you’re teaching AT an animal park, every day, and the kids are walking with and working with actual creatures, I will be hard pressed to believe it’s out there.  For 22 minutes my daughter is completely engaged and learning.

So, here’s the rub.  And there is a rub.  It was with a great deal of surprise that I watched the Kratt brothers on-stage, NOT be engaging.  Their show (which was fine – don’t get me wrong!) was not enough to hold the 1000 kids attention for two 20-minute halves.  Even playing on catch phrases from the show and weaving cartoons throughout, the kids got bored from time to time.  While some of it was production (the Kratts could use a consultation from Disney or Marvel – there was actually a time when vests are supposed to be “teleported” to them on stage.  The lights go out.  And when the lights come back on, you see the Kratts throw their vests up so as to “catch” them…wow), the boredom was just about slowness.  The show slowed from time to time and the kids all felt it.  I watch 1000 kids wiggle, slump in their seats, or start talking to their neighbor.

Does that remind you of a classroom?  Actually, many classrooms are likely flipped from this – momentary lapses of engagement surrounded by a lot of boredom.  Ugh.

Don’t get me wrong.  The Kratts are great.  I value them and their message.  They do amazing things for my kiddo and many kiddos – I saw it in action.  They do amazing things for our planet too.  But as amazing as they are at educational tv, they run into the same issue teachers do when going live.

It’s a problem we all face and have to tackle.  It’s one I intend to write about – a LOT – in these pages.  I hope you’ll check some of it out as I start to talk about active learning, problem based learning, cognitive approaches, etc.

Happy Valentine’s Day.  Good luck and good teaching.

Dr. Jeff D Borden
Chief Innovation Officer

About Jeff Borden

My title at work is ‘Chief Innovation Officer.’ So I'm trying to transform teaching and learning at scale. How do I do that? Through my "life" jobs. Primarily, I'm a dad and husband. But I'm also a professor, writer, professional speaker, comedian, researcher, lifelong learner, musician, dog-owner, and even a ranked disc golfer... I've spoken to, trained, or consulted with hundreds of thousands of educators at all levels, in numerous countries, K-20, about how to teach and learn effectively in the 21st Century.

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