TELEVISION AS A LEARNING ENVIRONMENT:
A THEORY OF SYNERGY
Susan B. Neuman
Television usurps so much of our children's time. Surely it must influence their reading growth and developing reading interests. Its lack of intellectual substance, its rapid pacing, its cluttered mixture of visual movement and sound— television's role in the precipitous decline in achievement scores and school standards seems so plausible, so blatant. Why, then, have not researchers found a stronger relationship between television and its deleterious effects on literacy?
Two schools of thought have emerged to answer this question. One claims that there simply are no effects. While viewing may relate to reading achievement, its impact may be just too minor to be considered (Cook, Curtin, Ettema, Miller, & Van Camp, 1986). On the other hand, the second view suggests that effects may be masked due to flawed research designs (Hornik, 1981). Weak, or unreliable measures of viewing behavior, lack of statistical controls, nonrepresentative samples all may have led to ambiguous results and limited progress in the field.
This chapter will maintain that neither school of thought adequately explains the nature of the relationship between television, reading and other media. Rather, it will be argued that a better explanation lies in a theory of synergy: namely, in contrast to one medium (like television) displacing another (like reading), children often engage in a spirited interplay between media (Neuman, 1995). As interests are established, children are likely to alternate between video-based and printrelated experiences on the basis of their accessibility, and their capacity to make optimal use of the particular medium. These activities appear to be guided by children's rather consistent patterns of interest, instead of specific medium presentation.
A theory of synergy is based on two propositions: (a) that there are qualitative differences in the content of each medium's messages; and (b) that the skills acquired from media act conjointly in helping children construct meaning and generate inferences in new contexts. This chapter will explore both propositions, then suggest implications for using television as a learning environment.
The premise that media convey information in qualitatively different forms is a legacy of Marshall McLuhan's elliptical phrase “the medium is the message” (McLuhan, 1964). Prior to McLuhan, there was an emphasis on a medium's content; following McLuhan, an emphasis on its form. In The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964), McLuhan described every medium of communication as possessing a logic or grammar that constituted a set of devices for organizing experiences. Each medium employs specific symbols to tell a story and structures how individuals process and acquire information. A storybook, for example, uses print and illustrations to convey its message. Television uses both the integration of sound and visual images through movement to tell a story.
The distinctiveness of media derives from other critical aspects as well. Among these differences are the particular rules and conventions various media use in their treatment of material, the kinds of content they make available, their historical legacy, and the particular critical mass audience required by the economics of the industry to stay viable in the marketplace. All these factors suggest that while different media may convey similar material, each will do so in a qualitatively different form.
Media Comparison Studies. Intriguing insights by McLuhan led to a research tradition focusing on the distinctive cognitive consequences of media. Meringoff and her colleagues at