act 2 — scene 1

Zero to One

While many of us think of Edutainment as a modern phenomenon, it’s been around for hundreds - if not thousands - of years.

Baby Steps: From Ancient to Modern

It’s hard to say exactly when Edutainment was born.

Tudor England? Ancient Greece? In the Neanderthal age? More likely, it’s the latter.

What we do know is that the concept of combining education with entertainment, especially to make learning more enjoyable, has existed for thousands of years.

We may not have called it “edutainment” when our ancestors gathered around the prehistoric campfire re-enacting the day’s hunting activity, but that’s exactly what it was: teaching (and learning) valuable life lessons through storytelling.

Speaking of babies...

The most obvious form of Edutainment we experience is toys.

“ educational aspect beside their aesthetic appeal. They can teach children literacy, numerical, conceptual or motor skills.

Many toys (e.g., a miniature piano) are simply colorful, scaled-down versions of more complex objects… it is up to grown-ups to guide children to the toy's proper use in order to make the most out of it.”
- Wikipedia

Let’s fast forward to (relatively) modern times when Edutainment began to move beyond just toys.

Why is this scene subtitled “Baby Steps?”

Just like a baby, during the early stages of Edutainment there was plenty of learning going on, but less awareness of the wider world and how it all connected together. After all, Discord servers and Zoom didn’t exist in 16th century Italy...

15th & 16th centuries

A university class, Bologna, 1350s. Image: Laurentius de Voltolina.

When we think of education in the middle of the last Millennium, our minds probably think of long lectures written in ornate script. But Edutainment existed back then too. Particularly when it came to utilizing the theatrical arts to communicate ideas and stories.

Education during the Italian Renaissance was carefully designed to produce students who were educated, well-rounded, and embodied the values of society. Following the model of Medieval guilds, there was learning by doing via hands-on practice and apprenticeships. A combination of entertainment and education was also regularly presented to students.

During that time, globetrotting Czech philosopher and educator, Komenský, was traveling around and sharing his unique idea about education.

He was one of the early proponents of the “school as play” concept, which offers pedagogy with dramatic or delightful elements.

It’s safe to say he was ahead of his time. Amongst his suggestions were:

“the art of turning all our schools into games”
“a school in which the serious and the fun are mixed”

Komensky also had the idea of a flipped classroom with a four-hour school day. The day would be divided into two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, with the gap being spent on preparation, play, and exploring nature.

Given the power of games and gamification in today’s world, Komensky would have thrived as a 21st-century innovator just as he did during the 16th.

17th & Early 18th centuries

During the Age of Enlightenment, two themes emerged:

  1. An increase in complex technical concepts and ideas.
  2. A greater discourse around topics like human happiness, values, ideals, and tolerance.

To encourage ideas to spread further than the ruling classes, they were presented using easily understandable language and relatable concepts from popular culture.

While the Renaissance period saw the use of common theatrical elements, 17th-century Edutainment elevated ideas through an even greater sense of tension, wonder, and possibility.

This happened through live events such as salons, but as literacy began to increase, books also began to incorporate more Edutainment elements.

One example is Benjamin Franklin’s book Poor Richard’s Almanack (written under the pseudonym of Richard Saunders). Combining both entertaining and educational content, the book amused and instructed colonists with a blend of maxims, puzzles, weather forecasts, and math lessons.

People today still look to this text for information and inspiration.

Among the many pearls of quirky wisdom:

“Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”

18th & 19th centuries

If the Age of Enlightenment saw the emergence of discussion around ideals, tolerance, and happiness, the late 18th century centered around the individual, and, more specifically, the cult of personality.

1802 satirical cartoon by James Gillray showing a Royal Institution lecture on pneumatics. Via Wikipedia.

A staggering number of inventors brought their wares to the world, and among the most successful were the showmen.

In London, Humphrey Davy was among those at the origins of the Christmas Lecture series at the Royal Institution.

A forerunner to the likes of Carl Sagan and Brian Cox (more on them later), Davy’s lectures included wonder, experimentation, and sometimes serious risk as he concocted chemical combinations in front of a live audience.

Battle of the Edutainers

19th century America saw a trio of inventors coming up with electric ideas. The most famous, Thomas Edison, started out selling candy, newspapers, and vegetables on trains in New Jersey. His profits went into buying equipment for electrical and chemical experiments, which led to his Menlo Park lab where many of his products and patents were first conceptualized.

Meanwhile, in New York City, George Westinghouse was inventing steam and air brakes, before getting into the electrics business with AC electrical transformers and power systems.

A Westinghouse advertisement, the late 1880s.

This led to the so-called “war of the currents.” Both Edison and Westinghouse were racing to one-up the other at every opportunity.

The third inventor was an iconoclastic former employee of Edison’s who struck out alone. Nikola Tesla became known as a visionary inventor, and celebrities and wealthy patrons flocked to his lab - not just for the science on display, but also for Tesla’s showmanship.

However, despite Tesla’s undoubted skill as an inventor, his reluctance to focus on commercial aspects of the work meant many of the plaudits went to Edison.

Industrial Complex

Despite these examples, Edutainment wasn’t a priority in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Society shifted towards an Industrial Age and the dawn of an Industrialized Education Complex.

This was good news for factory owners. It wasn’t so good for those who yearned for something a little more playful. But all was not lost...

Early 20th century

At the beginning of the 20th century, Maria Montessori a student at the University of Rome audited all the university’s courses in pedagogy and read all the major works on educational theory of the past two hundred years.

Her studies led her to create a new approach to teaching - education based on self-directed activity, hands-on learning, and collaborative play.

Examples include:

  • Discouraging some conventional measures of achievement, such as grades and tests
  • Mixed-age classrooms
  • Long blocks of uninterrupted work time
  • "Discovery" model where students learn concepts from working with materials rather than by direct instruction
  • Specialized educational materials made out of natural, aesthetic materials such as wood, rather than plastic
Via Montessori 150.

She launched her first Casa dei Bambini school in 1907, and over the following 100 years, her methods became known throughout the world.

In fact, Maria Montessori started a movement.

Challenging Times

Despite all Montessori’s work, her movement was tiny relative to what was going on more broadly. There was a Great Depression, The Spanish Flu, and two World Wars.

Overall, things in the first half of the 20th Century weren’t too positive.

Yet Edutainment still had a part to play during these challenging times. One person saw a particular opportunity:

...a new kind of entertainment that goes far beyond simply "amusing" its audience.This picture is vital entertainment - it treats on a subject that directly affects every man, woman, and child, in America.With dramatic action, it exposes the basic ideas that will rid the mind of confusion and clarify the war thinking of the public.”

Who said this? It may not be who you’d expect.