Introducing Netflix Academy: The Best Educational Videos Available for Streaming : Education Next

Skeptics of educational technology like to quote mid-century enthusiasts who claimed that the filmstrip was set to transform our schools. Of course, that didn’t happen, and so far projectors, televisions, personal computers, and iPads haven’t made much of a dent in our late-19-century-model of education either.

Yet maybe those enthusiasts were just ahead of their time. Could they have imagined a world in which anyone with an $ 8/month Netflix subscription, or a $ 79/year Amazon Prime subscription, could instantaneously stream tens of thousands of movies and television shows, much of it rich with educational content, to the device of their choice?

That’s what struck me recently as I sat down to watch an amazing BBC series, Walking with Dinosaurs, with my two boys (ages five and three). How cool is it that we can now harness the power of the Internet and decades of film footage to buttress our children’s learning?

I know what some of you progressive types are thinking: Children’s minds are not mere vessels into which we pour information. To which I say: Malarkey! Have you ever met a five-year-old? Their curiosity knows no bounds. As E.D. Hirsch, Jr., has argued for a quarter-century, the early elementary years are the ideal time to introduce children to the wonders of history (natural and otherwise), geography, literature, art, music, and more.

By providing a solid grounding in the core domains of human civilization, we are providing two wonderful gifts for our children: A store of knowledge that will help them better understand the complexities of our universe as they grow older; and a rich vocabulary that will make them strong, confident readers in these early, formative years. This is why the Common Core State Standards call for a rigorous, coherent curriculum that offers a healthy diet of content knowledge—that’s the key to becoming a great reader, and an enthusiastic learner.

Via Walking with Dinosaurs, for instance, my five-year-old already has a rudimentary understanding of evolution (paving the way for many scientific and theological conversations in the years ahead) and has absorbed key vocabulary to boot (carnivore, herbivore, omnivore, Cretaceous, Jurassic, etc.).

(And yes, to be sure, absorbing this sort of content isn’t all I want for my children. Young children should spend most of their time playing, running, laughing, creating—not sitting in front of a device watching a video. But if they are going to sit and watch “television,” why not have them learn something at the same time?)

Of course, five-year-olds have loved dinosaurs for decades, Netflix or not, but the power of cinematography to bring the subject alive is just this side of magic. Movies are powerful devices for teaching and learning—why else would so many of us pay good money to see documentaries? The Discovery Channel, National Geographic, PBS, and the other purveyors of lifetime learning know how to make educational content come alive.

With all of this in mind, I’ve decide to embark on a yearlong project to identify the best streaming videos available to teach core content to early elementary-school children. I’ve started with Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Sequence as my guide to the essential content that all children should know; here’s a rough outline of the topics I hope to cover in the months ahead:

Science

Literature

U.S. History

World History

I may find that I’m overly optimistic about the quality or quantity of videos available on Netflix or Amazon on all of these topics. But I’m going to give it a try. If you’ve watched great movies or television shows on any of these topics—videos appropriate for young children—please let me know.

Otherwise, dial up an Internet connection and let’s go for a ride. It’s time to put 1950’s era technology to good use.

-Mike Petrilli

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