Understanding students can be quite a challenging task for any teacher. On one hand, how does a teacher grant the developing students the right amount of credit in their abilities to learn more advanced subjects and think critically? Another task is how do teachers encourage their students to learn about themselves as unique individuals? Based on my previous studies in early childhood education and how animation in children's shows can engage young viewers in new insights if well written, I feel that these are the two most important questions one would start asking when working with and taking time to understand children. I have mentioned in a previous post how children’s programming can cover such topics in an effective and creative manner. In this blog post, I will be reviewing and analyzing an episode of Arthur and Hey Arnold to answer the two questions I inquire at the start using the developmental theories of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky. The episodes I will be covering are Arthur’s Substitute Teacher Trouble and New Teacher, starting with a synopsis of the episodes and where the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky play an important role.
In the Arthur episode, Arthur’s Substitute Teacher Trouble, Arthur and his best friend, Buster are lamenting how hard the work their teacher, Nigel Ratburn gives them and their fellow classmates. They are both seen exiting the school with a pile of books and papers, which appears to make their homework nights extremely daunting. Breaking a fourth wall, (which often takes place at the start of each episode of Arthur), Arthur turns to the viewer, describing the mountain of homework Mr. Ratburn gives them. He adds as an example how Mr. Ratburn must always make everything into a learning experience, even something as simple as a field trip to the zoo. Buster adds that sometimes he wishes their teacher would just disappear after tripping on a crack in the sidewalk.
The episode proceeds with Mr. Ratburn needing to take some time off due to a sore throat, unable to carry on with the class for the remainder of the day. The school principal, Mr. Haney informs the students their teacher will be absent and during his time off, they will have a substitute teacher. The students are then left wondering who will be filling in for Mr. Ratburn. Later, Mr. Haney informs them that Mr. Ratburn’s sister, Rodentia Ratburn will cover for him, much to the children’s’ dismay in concern that she might be harder a teacher than Mr. Ratburn. The next day, Rodentia introduces herself to the students and it turns out that her teaching style is a far cry from that of her brother’s. The approach she takes is incredibly basic for a 3rd grade level. The subject matters and materials she provides the children is too easy and unchallenging, e.g., reciting the 1x’s table, mixing of colors and narrating in a high-pitched voice while utilizing a puppet. Inevitably, the children find their given tasks boring and look forward to Mr. Ratburn’s return.
When Mr. Ratburn gets back to work, his students celebrate and welcome him back. Without hesitation, Mr. Ratburn begins the lesson of the day, the episode ending with Arthur and Buster delighted by how challenging the assignment is.
This episode adds a new insight into the relationship between Nigel Ratburn and his students. At first, the 3rd class complains that the amount of homework they are given is too difficult compared to what other 3rd grade students from other classrooms are given, (which had been mentioned before in a few episodes prior). Arthur and his friends look at Mrs. Sweetwater’s students and envy how easy going she is on them. It only takes a substitute teacher who fails to grasp how truly capable of learning challenging concepts and subjects that they start to appreciate Mr. Ratburn’s more challenging teaching style. The reason Mr. Ratburn appears to be so strict with the students regarding homework and their studies is because he gives students credit for their capabilities to learn more complex subjects, think critically and problem solve on their own. Those are the types of traits that demonstrate a tremendous sign of respect that a teacher has for their students. Rodentia Ratburn represents an example of a teacher lacking the skills to comprehend what type of curriculum is ideal for the 3rd grade level, which is the main contrast between her and her brother. To delve into more detail, here’s where Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Development theory plays a role in this episode. Between the ages of 0-2 years, children learn to rely on their coordination senses via developing motor skills, which this stage is known as the Sensorimotor stage. The next stage of development is the Preoperational stage, which occurs between ages 2-7 years. During that time, children learn to think symbolically and expand their grammar to communication and describe concepts in full. They also rely on imagination as well as instinct despite their skills in abstract thought still being underdeveloped. Once the students are between the ages of 7-11 years old, the Concrete Operational stage involves thinking more critically and plausibly about concrete ideas as well as understanding in-depth conservation. Even so, the types of games children play together involve rules and problem solving. Last, but not least is the Formal Operations stage, which takes place at age 11 and onwards. By then, students can formulate abstract thought and think theoretically and hypothetically, building up on previous knowledge.
Given the ages of the main student characters in Arthur, eight to nine years old which places them in 3rd grade, their developmental level would be at the Concrete Operational stage. The way that their substitute teacher teaches and talks to the students falls into a strange mix between the later part of the Sensorimotor stage (age 2) and the Preoperational stage (up to 5 years), which is no surprise as the day goes on, the children start to feel disenchanted. Because these are subject matters they already know and understand, Mr. Ratburn’s class realize that the harder a challenge is, the more they can strengthen their skills and build up on previous ones. Perhaps the Brain’s remark “for goodness sake’s, we’re in 3rd grade, you know” to Rodentia Ratburn sums up the scenario best as well as his desire to run home to his computer in desperate need of a challenging activity.
The way that Lev Vygotsky’s theories play a role in this episode is how his theory of Zone of Proximal Development can be applied. To offer a belief overview of what the theory covers, the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is represented in three circles ranking from large to medium to small. The largest circle represents what a child has yet to learn and struggles with doing on his/her own, which is outside the zone. The middle circle, which represents the zone itself, is where the instructors come in to help the child master the skill he/she is trying to learn. It covers what the child can do with help. The circle in the center of the previous ones, which is inside the zone, represents what the child already knows how to do on his/her own. As seen in Arthur's Substitute Teacher Trouble, the students already know all the basic material needed to progress in their skills, but find the more advanced material is too difficult. After Arthur and his classmates endure an entire day without challenging their current knowledge, they are delighted at the end when Mr. Ratburn assigns them advanced math problems and come to fully appreciate his teaching style. What is happening here is that when the students quietly proceed to work on the assignment, they are relying on what they already know. Although we don’t see how well the students perform on the assignment, this would be the time when they will know which areas they have the most hinderance and which areas highlight their forte. From there, it would be the teacher's job to pinpoint where the students need to go back and review upon grading their work, which we see many examples of Mr. Ratburn doing in other episodes.
In the episode of Hey Aronold, New Teacher, the students start their day with an announcement from Principal Wartz informing them that their teacher, Miss Slovak is retiring from teaching to pursue a career in golfing, which the students cheer. They are indifferent, however when they meet their new teacher, Robert Simmons, a good natured, charismatic, compassionate man who is excited to meet the class he will be teaching. Mr. Simmons is seen working with the students utilizing a unique teaching style in which he helps them embrace their own unique qualities. In addition to the curriculum, he even encourages the children to ask the “why” questions. This comes off as rather banal and trite at first, so the class begins to rebel in hopes of getting rid of Mr. Simmons. Once the revolt takes an emotional effect on Mr. Simmons, thus the students successfully eliminate him, the thoughtful and caring instructor is replaced by the ruthless and harsh Mr. Goose, formally known as Lieutenant Major Goose. As his former title implies, Mr. Goose’s teaching style is similar to that of drills that suit the army. It ends up taking a toll on the students’ wellbeing, making them realize how much Mr. Simmons genuinely cared and respected them as individuals. They remedy the situation by going over to Mr. Simmons’ house to apologize. Although he is skeptical at first, the students go out of their way to show they are truly remorseful. They even take the time to demonstrate their appreciation for him as a teacher and a person by taking the lessons he taught them so far and showing how he has helped them grow. Mr. Simmons is deeply moved by the students' display of kindness and wants to be their teacher again. Before Mr. Simmons officially returns, Arnold and his classmates challenge Mr. Goose with a bombardment of ‘why’ questions, causing the lieutenant intense anxiety and quitting the job. The episode ends with the entire class welcoming Mr. Simmons back and then spending a sunny afternoon on a field trip.
This episode of Hey Arnold shares some similarities to the episode of Arthur mentioned early on. Both Mr. Simmons and Mr. Ratburn have different teaching styles, yet both these characters are seen utilizing unique methods. What they also have in common is that they both encourage their students to think more critically than they normally would. Mr. Ratburn assigns tasks that advance his students' previous knowledge to the next level and Mr. Simmons encourages the 'why' questions, which are perhaps amongst the most important traits any teacher could have. At first, their students wish their situations were different because they do not see the benefits of the ways in which their teachers teach, but once they see the alternative, the latter encourages them to appreciate the former. Although Rodentia Ratburn and Mr. Goose are not the same personality wise, they both represent teaching methods that do a major disservice for child development, one being on the softer extreme of the spectrum and the other being on the rougher extreme.
The aspects in which Jean Piaget’s developmental theories can be applied to New Teacher from Hey Arnold would be to evaluate the third stage of cognitive development, Concrete Operational as brought up earlier. Because the main characters of Hey Arnold are around the same age as the ones from Arthur, Arthur’s class being in the third grade and Arnold’s class in the fourth, we see examples of where the students are put in positions where they cover concepts and apply them to concrete scenarios. At that age, aside from learning basic math as a foundation (academics), we see examples of how the children question their own thinking and evaluate their own ideas as well as understanding others. We also see that the characters from Hey Arnold learn how to deal with their everyday stress through critical thought and putting things in perspective. The reason Mr. Simmons’ teaching approaches surpass what an overtly strict teacher does is because the more anxiety inducing the learning environment becomes, the less the student is able to put things into perspective. Worse yet, the less the learning environment leaves little to no room for the student to examine their own thinking and that of others, the less critical their understanding becomes and thus their further development is stifled.
The way in which the theories of Lev Vygotsky can be highlighted in this episode is that the viewer sees that the students are already capable of thinking on a standard academic level. Before Mr. Simmons became Arnold and his classmates’ new teacher, the students already abide by the standard techniques taught by their previous teacher, Miss Slovak. After her departure, the role Mr. Simmons represents is one that genuinely respects the students’ capabilities as to how understanding themselves as individuals helps them academically and in life in general, that he goes out of his way to inspire and encourage them to reach their full potential. The circle outside the Zone of Proximal Development, (what the learner can’t do on his/her own), in this case would be that the students haven’t learned how to think more abstractly and outside the box, let alone ask themselves the ‘why’ questions. With Mr. Simmons’ assistance, the children learn how to develop this important and often sidelined skill. On a side note, Hey Arnold creator, Craig Bartlett stated in an interview why Miss Slovak was replaced. “She was too much of a caricature. That seemed a little bit too simple – it wasn’t smart enough. What if we put, instead, a great teacher who really cares about the students and is just full of passion?” Bottom-line is that Mr. Simmons is the type of character that best depicts how individual and critical thinking would be applied to Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development and the viewer sees examples as such when contrasting him to other teacher characters like Miss Slovak and Mr. Goose. Going back to Mr. Goose, we see he is too far to an extreme that he leave absolutely no room whatsoever for open discussion.
It’s seldom to see that many children’s programming cover a topic as what defines a good teacher who truly respects their students with regards to their capabilities and individuality. Even so, such qualities are hard to come by with real life teachers. The most important questions teachers might often ask themselves is are they giving the students enough credit for what they can do as independent thinkers and advance in their skill level and are they being respected and encouraged as individuals? Children’s programming such as Arthur (which is geared towards edutainment) and Hey Arnold have had writers on the shows who took the time to study the issues kids face and how they properly confront the situation through teamwork and problem solving. For this blog post, I just examined an episode from both these shows that best covered how a teacher demonstrated genuine respect for their students and describing how the child developmental theories of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky play a role. In the episode of Arthur, Arthur’s Teacher Trouble, the students feel that the homework their teacher, Nigel Ratburn gives them is too difficult and stressful. At first, they don’t realize how his teaching style benefits them in contrast to their fellow third grades from the other classrooms. Upon enduring an entire day with the unchallenging and over simplistic, Rodentia Ratburn, the students begin to appreciate Mr. Ratburn’s approaches and how it challenges their academic skills. The episode of Hey Arnold, New Teacher marks the introduction of Mr. Simmons, who has a unique way of teaching his students, which Arnold and his classmates fail to appreciate and understand how it advances their development. It took an overtly strict teacher for them to realize how being able to think critically and philosophically improves their well-being, a trait that their previous teacher lacked as well.
If more teachers take time to get to know their students' strengths and weaknesses in academics and in creative thinking, even so find ways to advocate for students to reach their full potential in both those areas, it will make a whole world of difference in a child's life. Students will garner more confidence in their capabilities and understanding themselves as individuals will even spark a greater desire to continue learning and growing.
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