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The Influence of Television and Radio on Education

By David Berljawsky

ETEC 540

November 1, 2009  

Insert non-formatted text here There is little question that the transition from radio to television media affected both literacy and education. As educators, television was a powerful new technology to compete with. Although in theory this evolution may have made educating easier, it also caused a ripple in the influence that educators held. This power struggle between education and technology is not new and it continues to this very day. The programming found in television and radio was reflective of the times. How did the change from an aural based media to a visual based media affect education, literacy and social change? Imagination was no longer the driving force in produced media, and this created a culture where instant gratification and visual stimulation became the norm. In this paper I will explore the cultural and social differences between television and radio, the developing power struggle between teachers and television technology and the increasing influence of television compared to radio on young learners.

The age of television has led to a decline in the amount of time and effort that younger students devote to reading and literacy based activities. “Typically, television tended to displace other entertainment activities, including radio, movies, and comic books reading for school-age children (Neuman, 1991, p.21).” It is uncertain that there is a strong correlation between literacy rates and television due to a few factors. There is an increase in television shows over the years that do promote literacy such as Sesame Street. Some children’s television programming does have high educational standards. As well, due to urbanization, there are also a higher percentage of students who are able to attend schools and receive a proper education in today’s day and age. The percentage of children in elementary schools in BC increased from 87 percent in 1930 to 92.5 percent in 1962 (Statistics Canada, 2009). Educators became more experienced as well, with the teacher qualification standards increasing. In 1952 22% of teachers had a university degree compared to 57% in 1973 (Statistics Canada, 2009).

A Lack of Imagination

When listening to radio one needed to be able to imagine programming without the aid of visuals. This created a world where visual imagery was seen as something more sacred. People were unable to view things that we take for granted today. There was an optimism and innocence associated with radio. Without visuals, it was imagination based and its entertainment value lay largely with the mind of the listener. “They miss what now seems like the simplicity of those times, the innocent optimism (even during the Depression and the War), the directness of the medium itself. But what they yearn for most is the way that radio invited them to participate actively in the production of the show at hand (Douglas, 1985, p4).”

There is an interactive element of radio that we seem to take for granted today. With television we are given everything, both visually and aurally. Very little is left to the imagination with this media, unless the programming directs us to think this way. We expect to be entertained at all times. According to Neuman “...television has fundamentally shifted basic societal values, from those which had previously been characterized by the willingness to defer gratification, to a new set of attitudes where the present is amplified all out of proportion (Neuman, 1991, p.92).” This greatly affects teaching practices. It is difficult to compete with hyper visual imagery and a sense of instant gratification. Some educational subjects are difficult to make entertaining, which affects the interest of the student.

Social Impacts of the Change

Television and visual media helped to develop the beliefs and values of our culture. Media programming is produced as a response to society’s values and norms. “In their view, children around the age of six lose interest in quality educational programs when they enter the school system; the only way to bypass children’s resentment of instructional content is to focus on social aspects of the programs (Lemish, 2007, p.199).” This makes educating students more difficult because of the type of television programming they start to watch as they enter schooling age. In the radio days, specifically in the 1930-50’s the types of programming that were popular were reflective of the times as well. Shows such as westerns, dramas and mysteries were commonplace. The content was light, especially compared to today’s standards and was reflective of the culture.

Radio’s cultural influence was very strong, without the constant bombardment of visuals and advertising the power that these spoken words held were stronger than ever. There was no competition with television or other media forms. Much like television, and other forms of entertainment it represented the views and values of the era. In a sense, radio broadcasting (or narrating) was similar in some regards to oral cultures, where the word held much power. “Moreover, skilled oral narrators deliberately vary their traditional narratives because part of their skill is their ability to adjust to new audiences and new situations or simply to be coquettish (Ong, 1982, p.48).”

The transition from a radio based world to a television based world affected social interactions in school age children. It had a very strong effect at the onset of the television age. Many initial studies in the early 1950’s have been seen as biased, because of the lack of regular households with televisions. They were initially seen as a status symbol and were not found in abundance, thus results were skewered accordingly. The first respected major studies occurred in 1958 and 1961 in Britain, USA and Canada. These results all had very similar outcomes. The activities that were the most affected by the introduction of television were “the use of other media, including radio listening, cinema attendance... and to some extent, play time with other children (Neuman, 1991, p.29).”

Television and Education

Televisions has influenced education and teaching practices. Educators have had to adapt and provide lessons that not only educate but entertain the learner. It has been shown that attention spans have decreased since the prominence of television. Reading is not seen in the same esteem as in previous generations. “Reading was not regarded as an elitist activity, and printed matter was spread evenly among all kinds of people (Postman, 1985, p.34).” This is not a new phenomenon. Whenever a new technology is introduced there is often a change in educational philosophy to adapt to the cultural shift. We have seen it more recently with modern internet technologies. After all “The medium is the message (McLuhan as cited in Postman, 1992, p14).”

How can teachers compete with educational and regular television? “In contrast, commercial television stations disavow having any educational responsibilities. Above all else, “their raison d’etre” is to make a profit by attracting as wide an audience as possible in order to sell advertisers products (Lemish, 2007, p.148).” This affects society in many different ways. The influence of advertising is amplified. If the television production companies only care about profit (attracting sponsors) than they will likely create programs that appeal to these advertisers regardless of educational value. This will only make teachers jobs more difficult. The influence of television on children is huge, if they are watching shows designed simply to entertain and maximize profit, then this will have negative effects on reading and writing. Educational value will be ignored. It is frightening to imagine this, especially in relation to the school systems influence. "A great media metaphor shift has taken place in America, with the result that the content of much of our public discourse has become dangerous nonsense (Postman, 1985, p.16).”

How has writing evolved from the age of radio to television? “Children come to school having been deeply conditioned by the biases of television. There they encounter the printed word (Postman, 1985, p.16).” Children are raised in the TV generation watching visual entertainment before learning to read and write in most cases. This makes teaching writing harder than before due to students having a different focus than before. There is ample evidence to prove that television has affected student focus and made reading and writing seem less important. “Children of television will come to expect all of life to be entertaining; learning will be displaced in favour of the ready-made... this demand for entertainment will eventually lead children to be less enterprising and resourceful (Neuman, 1991, p.92).”

The impact that television has had on education is dramatic. It has helped to change the dynamics found between teachers and students. Children are being raised with the television turned on for a large portion of their lives. They enter school acclimatised to the views and beliefs that are found on television. Attention spans have been adjusted accordingly and this negatively affects the quality and type of education that is transmitted to the student. This is going to change. Technology is constantly in a state of evolution and the television movement is only a part of that evolution. Of course, with the upcoming generation engaged in hypertext and its issues, we may end up looking back nostalgically at the good old days of television.


Lemish, Dafna. (2007) Children and Television: A Global Perspective. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Neuman, Susan. (1991) Literacy in the Digital Age. Norwood, New Jersey. Ablex Publishing Corporation.

Ong, Walter. (1982.) Orality and literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.

Postman, Neil (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. USA: Penguin.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage Books.

Douglas, Susan. Listening in: Radio and the American Imagination. Minnesota. University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

“Elementary and Secondary Schools.” Statistics Canada., Oct, 2009.