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12th April 1996 at 01:00
Gerald Haigh reports on research into how young children learn from different styles of schools television. Schools television has requirements that are unlike any other kind of broadcasting. Not only must programmes hold children's attention, but they also have to make sure that they're getting across the right information as well.

So what style of television works best in terms of delivering information in the classroom? Animation has often been cited as a form that works well with young children. But animation, of course, is not just one thing. Are we talking about Bambi's forest friends? Or stop-motion puppets? Or moving two- dimensional water-colours? Or dark characters with hard, bright eyes, five-o'clock shadows and flowing black cloaks?

The questions go further. Should there be off-screen narration? Do on-screen characters need to speak? How frightening can you make spectres, apparitions and demons? Does the background need to be detailed, or is a degree of visual shorthand acceptable?

In an attempt to find out, Channel 4 sent eight of its education officers into primary schools around the country to find out the views of pupils and teachers. They covered most of the country, visiting a range of rural and urban schools, showing a compilation tape of the award-winning Animated Tales of Shakespeare. These adaptations of Shakespeare's plays each used a different style of animation, allowing the researchers to compare and contrast children's reactions.

The results challenged the researchers' pre-conceptions, ac-cording to Chris Alford, Channel 4's education officer for Wales. "I was quite surprised by some things by how much, for example, the children loved the detail in the animations. The children all liked, for example, Kate's highly detailed dresses in The Taming of the Shrew and a jewelled cup in The Tempest.

"They also admired the bright, snowy wide-angle scenes, with lots going on, in A Winter's Tale. What bothered them, always, was any sort of ambiguity. This showed up most clearly when children were put in doubt about who was speaking. In some scenes for example, it was not visually obvious which character was speaking because lips were not moving, or an off-screen character, or someone facing away from the audience was speaking."

Neither children nor teachers liked off-screen storytellers, for the same kind of reason. Adults will cope with and appreciate all these subtleties, but children will not.

"They look at television for meaning," says Simon Fuller, Channel 4's senior education officer. "And if they don't get it, then they don't like it."

Children also were not keen on dark scenes, with "flat" animation and deep menacing voices. The adaptations of Hamlet and Richard III did not go down well on all these counts. One slightly unexpected point was that children did notice and comment upon background music. They miss it when it is not there, but are quick to point out when it becomes obtrusive.

What was consistently popular was any kind of animation that used puppets. The conventions, and limitations, of puppetry are, it seems, very acceptable to children, provided that there is always clarity about who is speaking and what is happening. The popularity in Britain and abroad of Channel 4's early years science series Fourways Farm, which uses puppet farm animals, would seem to bear this out.

To a great extent, whether or not children like a schools television programme is irrelevant if the teacher decides not to use it. Programme makers are always conscious of the tension implicit in this, and there are some programmes, the BBC's American-produced Ghostwriter is an obvious example, which the children like more than some teachers do.

The research suggested that teachers are aware of their responsibilities. Thus, in the discussions around the Shakespeare compilation, teachers urged care in the portrayal of gods, angels and spirits. Some religions, for example, have strong rules about the portrayal of the deity though the Channel 4 view is that animation should make it easier to address this particular point.

Teachers also pointed out that children are easily frightened, and that apparitions should either be heard off screen, or presented as abstract faded images. (Given that children see terrifying fanged monsters on virtually every Saturday morning cartoon, this view might just be over-cautious, but perhaps context is important here.) A number of teachers wanted consistency of style from programme to programme, rightly judging that children like familiarity, and soon choose favourite characters as they are known to do in the case of Fourways Farm. This might be inappropriate, given that the stories will be coming from widely differing cultures.

What teachers were very right to point out was that programme makers should always bear in mind just how children actually see their programmes. A child may be sitting at the back of a classroom, looking at a small screen from much further away than is usual at home, or in a television company's offices. "Simplicity and clarity often make for the most effective programmes for use in the classroom," is how the research report sums this up.

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