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Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Pre-school storytelling

Sometimes I watch television with my son. In this culture, even this simple statement feels like a confession: good mothers are supposed to do non-television activities all day ... but y'know, sometimes I have to go into the kitchen or up to the bathroom and a bit of educational TV in the background can be a good thing. I take him out and play with him and read to him and so on as well, but I might as well out myself: I am a CBeebies fan.

CBeebies, for those of you not subject to British television, is the children's channel for pre-schoolers, the younger counterpart to CBBC (Children's BBC). It runs from morning to evening, has a variety of presenters and regular shows ... and it's really very good. Rather than running Tom and Jerry non-stop, almost all the programs are educational one way or another: The Green Balloon Club is about environmentalism, Mr Bloom's Nursery is about growing your own vegetables, Octonauts is an adventure in marine biology, Waybuloo (my personal favourite), is a kind of Buddhist idyll, Zingzillas (my son's favourite besides Waybuloo) is a pretty impressive introduction to all kinds of musical styles as well as a rather good portrait of productive artistry, and all in all I feel practically no guilt about sitting him down in front of such fare. They're informative, they have a reasonable commitment to racial diversity (the Rastamouse controversy notwithstanding*), they all feature at least some female characters (though male characters in leadership roles tend to predominate), and generally speaking they're pretty nice.

There's just one that really gets up my nose. And it strikes me as an interesting example of the problems you get when you try to mix fiction with the sciences.

Let us consider Numberjacks.

The Numberjacks, our heroes, are a bunch of numbers (the male ones are even, the female odd) who get called in to solve problems. Odd things happen because of various villains - Spooky Spoon gets things out of order, The Shape Japer changes the shapes of things, and so on - and the Numberjacks have to sort things out. The idea is that by showing the problems caused, children get introduced to the concept of numeracy...

But here's what I can't take. They solve the problems by turning on a machine, charging up with some mysterious substance called 'Brain Gain', which somehow mysteriously solves the problem by doing something mysterious.

Now, I am no mathematician. But am I wrong in thinking that a discipline founded on the study of cause and effect is not best served by magical hand-waving?

I'm not a mathematician; I'm not even a particularly numerate non-mathetmatician. But as a writer, I can say categorically that the correct term for 'Brain Gain' is actually 'cheating'. It's terrible storytelling: creating a problem and then solving it with the same universal substance every day is basically promising your viewers a climax and then refusing to give it any content. Suspense and plot are both destroyed: we know exactly what'll happen at the end, because it'll be exactly the same every time. And worst of all, it's a supposed tribute to brainpower that doesn't actually use any brainpower - that actively avoids it, in fact. Solving a problem by switching on the Brain Gain is solving it by saying, 'I don't want to think of a more involved solution, so let's all agree not to think about this too hard.' Calling this Brain Gain is a bloody cheek. It's like solving scientific problems by waving a Magic Wand of Science at them.

The thing is, the sciences can be a tricky issue in fiction. One can, of course, write science fiction, either by playing around with scientific laws one understands or by using a certain amount of Gizz - that is, by presenting the existence of certain things as a given fact that has to be accepted. But you can't Gizz a plot event. Things can exist because of a Gizz, but they can't happen solely because of a Gizz. That's just a non-story.

But when one's trying to educate children, there is information to get across. And presenting it in a way that's both fun and accurate is obviously a challenge.

For instance, I admire Nina and the Neurons. I also enjoy it. Nina, the presenter (a female scientist and authority figure at that!) has five CGI friends in her head, the Neurons, each of whom represents a different sense; children ask Nina questions, and she recruits one of the Neurons to help her demonstrate the answer. The questions are questions that children would definitely find interesting (why does my ice lolly melt? why do I get eye grit in the mornings? how do you stop bread going mouldy?) and in answering them, Nina uses basic science. Finding the answers to questions makes for an engaging 'plot' of sorts: Nina goes step by step, and there's a definite progression towards an answer, and I'll admit there have been times I've delayed a task because I was curious to hear the answer. Nina and the Neurons is a documentary, but it manages to balance entertainment and education very skilfully.

Numberjacks ... well, I can see what they're aiming for. Showing how patterns and systems work through showing what happens if they're changed is a good idea. And if the purpose is to show that things have structure, then how do you solve the villains' machinations? In the real world, numbers do come in the right order and blue things don't magically disappear or any of the other things that get the Numberjacks in a tizzy, so a realistic solution is out of the question and a more fantastical solution is spending finite minutes on something that isn't the to the purpose. The purpose is to showcase systems.

But if the purpose is not to solve the problem the story has created, then you aren't actually telling a story. You're telling a 'what if?'. All you really need to do is say 'Wouldn't it be confusing if it were like this?' and then move to 'Aren't we all glad that it's not?' That would be fine; I can picture Nina doing it very well. But for some reason, Numberjacks decided it needed an epic and exciting story format ... despite being averse to telling any actual stories.

You can mix stories and science. Octonauts does it: the (regrettably male-dominated) crew discovers surprising new creatures in the sea, then has to help them, and in so doing, has to learn what how that creature works: for instance, when the ship gets full of panicking humuhumus, the Octonauts need to know that humuhumus hide when they're scared and can lock their spines to wedge themselves into safe places, because that's a necessary piece of knowledge for dealing with the situation. And it also happens to be an interesting fact of marine biology. Science and story combine to good effect.

Now admittedly, numbers are rather less easy to anthropomorphise than fish. But surely there must be a better solution than this. The way I was taught mathematics as a child drilled into me the 'fact' that maths was boring from an early age, and indeed, the way I was taught, it was. But children have to study maths until they're sixteen, even if they abandon it after that, and if you associate it with boredom, it's a wretched experience. Numberjacks is boring storytelling; this is not a good start.

How should one teach mathematics to pre-schoolers? Any thoughts?

*Some Rastafarian people object to having their culture portrayed by a mouse, feeling it's a demeaning animal. Others have said that while the accents aren't very accurate, at least it presents a fairly positive message. The BBC received six complaints from people concerned about racism, and ninety-five complaints from people objecting to the use of Rastafarian slang. This is a truly discouraging ratio.


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