PTA's plan: teaching children to watch TV with a more critical eye

The National PTA is not out to turn off the nation's TV sets or drive producers of what it views as unwholesome programs out of business - it just wants to begin to break the ''tube's'' hold on viewers.

The PTA recently announced a twofold plan for developing a more discerning TV audience. First, a PTA review panel will recommend what it feels are good shows for families to watch. Second, eight pilot workshops will be held around the country this spring to teach children at home and at school how to think critically about what they see on television.

Neither idea is new. The National Education Association has approved TV shows in a similar way for 13 years. And many kinds of organizations, including TV stations themselves, are working up curricula to teach students to watch TV critically.

But the PTA plans to bring parents, teachers, and state-level educators together in its workshops, prodding action that is concerted. Previous programs have been spotty and experimental. The maverick Maryland PTA has had a ''critical viewing skills'' program for six years, and claims it has paid off in students more involved in community affairs and families that talk more.

Behind this move is the more than six hours a day that the average American family has a television on; the TV's sophisticated new attachments such as cable channels, video recorders, and home computers; and the passive way most children , if not most adults, watch TV without asking critical questions.

The television is here to stay, and it will always reflect contemporary social mores, notes Mary Ann Leveridge, National PTA president. ''We can't turn back the clock.''

But, she says, TV can be brought into the educational fold and taken more seriously by students and parents.

''The technology is there,'' warns PTA education commission chairman Virginia Macy, speaking both of TV and computers. ''If we don't get on the bandwagon and teach these kids how to use it intelligently, we're going to be left in the dark ages.''

She echoes California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. here, who centered his State-of-the-State address last month around the need for educating the young to the new technology.

For parents, the first step in using TV intelligently is to be selective, Mr. Ashley explains. On this the PTA recommendations are meant as a guide, as well as a spur to producers to aim for endorsement.

The next step is for parents to comment on shows as the family watches them. This doesn't mean a structured critique, Ashley points out, but it means remarking on excesses of sex or violence, what is unrealistic, or what is admirable.

''Even during a lousy program,'' says Mrs. Macy, ''my husband and I can turn to each other and comment on the sex or whatever. This way it's not threatening to the kids, but they may think about it.''

The interaction helps children to see that TV is not life and that it can be challenged.

At school, critical TV watching can be taught directly just as critical reading is in English literature courses. Just having such courses will help students see the TV as an educational tool, and not just as entertainment. Communities need to understand the purpose of such courses though, Ashley points out, or they may react against spending tax money to have their children watch TV in school.

The PTA plan also recommends that schools teach children something about how the television industry works, just as they teach government, so students can better understand the industry's influence in their lives.

Ashley feels it may take 20 years before these efforts can pay off fully in a more discerning, critical television audience. It's a slow but necessary process.

He says, ''I worry about being 60 years old and living in a world run by people who grew up watching television. I worry about what their attitude toward the elderly would be.''

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