International Journal of Education & the Arts

Volume 3 Number 2

March 1, 2002

Celebrating complexity: Children's talk about the media

Essay Review of Joseph Tobin's (2000). "Good guys don't wear hats:" Children's talk about the media. (New York: Teachers College Press)

Christine Marme´ Thompson
The Pennsylvania State University

"I believe that the most original work occurs when a researcher in one field borrows methods and theory from another field" (Tobin, 2000, p. ix).

View a 30-second Quicktime movie of Joseph Tobin
speaking with a group of young children.
(Note 1)

In the video clip, the children gathered around the table, a focus group composed of 8-year-old girls, have just watched a pivotal scene from the movie, Swiss Family Robinson, depicting a moment in which the well-groomed and resourceful Robinson clan successfully repels invasion by a motley band of Asian pirates. The questions under discussion, posed by Joseph Tobin as researcher, were: Who were the good guys in this scene? Who were the bad guys? How can you tell? The answers the children provided were, by turns, predictable and surprising, puzzling and sobering, pejorative and sympathetic—complex and contradictory. In "Good guys don't wear hats:" Children's talk about the media, Joseph Tobin reveals even greater complexity just beneath the surface of children's conversations about the world as it is represented by the media and as it comes to be understood by children who experience the world to some degree through these representations.

The study reported here emerged from Tobin's attempt to understand the ways in which a particular group of Hawai'ian elementary school students made sense of several examples of video-for-children, episodes selected from commercials and films made explicitly for young audiences. He set out to discover what impressions children formed of the products of a medium well known to them as viewers, but remote and somewhat mysterious to them as producers. Ultimately, with the assistance of Tobin and a small cadre of graduate students, the children went on to produce videos of their own. (Note 2)

Over the course of several years, Tobin and his associates interviewed 162 children, 6- to 12-years-old, in 32 focus groups of 4 to 6 children, with some groups composed only of males or females and others mixed in gender. The children were shown clips from current television commercials and from two movies—The Black Stallion (1979) and Swiss Family Robinson (1960)—which, though widely available on videotape, are a generation or more removed from contemporary children's culture. Tobin identifies the primary goal of the research reported here as a search for answers to "questions about how children think and talk about media representations of violence, gender, race, colonialism, and class" (2000, p. 3). Because the children's discussions of the Disney film, Swiss Family Robinson, proved to be most instructive in regard to these issues, Tobin elected to focus exclusively in this text on interviews related to that movie.

The children were interviewed in sessions lasting approximately thirty minutes. During this time, they viewed excerpts of videotapes and were then asked to talk about what they saw, with other children and adult researchers entering the conversation in a relatively natural give-and-take. These discussions were videotaped. Tobin mentions that this round of interviews was repeated the following spring to see whether a year of involvement in video production had altered children's attitudes toward these segments of videotape (a question not explicitly addressed in the book). In at least one instance, children re-viewed their own videotaped discussions from years past; Tobin notes that a member of the group gathered around the library table in the clip featured in this review was mortified to see herself as a deliberately disruptive second grader when the group reconvened in their third and fourth grade years.

The context in which the research was conducted is, as Tobin points out, both exotic and ordinary. Koa Elementary School, located in a residential neighborhood overlooking Pearl Harbor, is situated in an area of the state experiencing diminshing financial fortunes. When the study began in1992, one-fourth of the children enrolled qualified for school lunch assistance. The school population is racially and culturally heterogenous,with approximately one-quarter of the students of native Hawai'ian background, one-quarter third or fourth generation Japanese, Chinese or Korean Americans on at least one side of the family, and one-quarter recent immigrants from the Phillipines or Samoa. A handful of White and African American students, mostly children of military families, comprise the remainder of the school's enrollment. The key distinction for the children themselves has to do with who is "local"—i.e.,born and raised in Hawai'i—and who is not. Tobin insists that this setting, much like any other elementary school in North America, resounds with children's simultaneous participation in the realms of direct personal experience and the portable community of mediated experience:

Koa Elementary School is one small community with a unique mix of people, language, micro politics, and in-jokes. But this fact does not limit the significance of the story I tell here, for the world is made up of thousands, even millions, of such localities, interpretive micro-communities in which the global media culture is understood, embraced, resisted, and infused with meanings. (Tobin, 2000, p.10)

One of many distinguishing qualities of this research, evident on every page, is the perspective Tobin brings to his conversations with children and his interpretation of their responses. This was a school in which Tobin had established relationships through various kinds of professional involvement, as a researcher and a university supervisor of field experiences. This was a context and a population he knew well, even before this five-year-long project began. Tobin subsequently spent approximately two days each week in the school, and he draws liberally on this close relationship as he considers, then considers again, what the children may have meant by what they said.

Tobin credits children (both those individuals who participated directly in this study and children in general) with intelligence and strength. He positions his informants as active viewers, capable of divergent, idiosyncratic, even resistant, responses to the media and its messages. Tobin maintains that even the most seemingly "pernicious" content—including the stock characterizations of good and bad, male and female, self and other that permeate children's movies and television--has varying effects depending upon the individual child, the family and the community who provide and support his or her interpretive frame. Beyond this he readily acknowledges the power available to (and used by) children in research situations, who realize fully that they "can either resist or facilitate our attempts to know them" (Tobin, 2000, p. 10).

Tobin places himself as a researcher, appropriately, in the company of Vivian Gussin Paley, Barrie Thorne, Anne Dyson and others whose primary approach to data collection consists in attentive listening to children. On many counts, the way in which Tobin approaches research with children is exemplary and inspiring. "Good guys don't wear hats" has great utility as a methodolgical tract, beyond the considerable wisdom it offers about children's abilities to sort through the jumbled messages that contemporary visual and media culture offers. It is rare and refreshing to read a scholarly work infused with such relish for time spent with groups of children, the kind of three-dimensional kids who can be bratty, obnoxious, swaggering and silly. At times, Tobin seems almost preternaturally tolerant of whiny recitations, incoherence and evasions. I did wonder, from time to time, how this text might be read by folks who are unaccustomed to living among children and not predisposed to recognize the inherent virtues lurking beneath the snotty facades. And yet, it is Tobin's willingness to take the inconsistencies and elisions in children's conversations seriously, to look at these passages again and then again from different perspectives, applying different sets of assumptions, that truly set this work apart.

Tobin explains that he prefers the focus group format used in this research (and, in a modified form, in the earlier work described in Preschool in Three Cultures: Japan, China, and the United States, by Tobin, Wu & Davidson, 1989) to the practice of eavesdropping on children's naturally occurring conversations. As Tobin points out, the candor of such overheard conversations may be compromised in indefinable ways by the presence of an adult lurking nearby. In the focus group, the researcher's presence and participation are explicitly acknowledged, his interest in what informants have to say admitted from the start. At several points in the text, however, it is clear that Tobin and his colleagues, in their role as researchers, did influence the tone, if not the tenor, of children's responses. He describes a kind of whiny sing-song recitation that children adopt when they are telling the adult in the room what they presume that adult wants to hear. Tobin seizes upon this intonation as a child's ironic comment on the insincerity of his or her response, indicating an awareness that the answer provided constitutes a strategic deception, designed to preserve access to materials which no self-respecting child would admit to recognizing as potentially harmful. Children also resisted his efforts to understand their readings of these films, Tobin suggests, "by saying things I did not understand":

In this book you will find children saying things that are stranger and less coherent than the quotes you will find in the work of other media researchers. This is in part a result of the criteria I employed as I selected key passages to analyze for each chapter. The incomprehensible statements made by child informants that end up on the cutting room floor in other researchers' studies are precisely the statements I seize on and foreground in my research. (p. 10)

Tobin's approach to the interpretation of these puzzling remarks draws upon an idea common to studies in anthropology, psychoanalysis, and literary theory, "the idea of analyzing moments in the flow of my informants' talk that reveal slippages or doublings of meaning" (Tobin, 2000, p. 12). He explains the process:

To look awry at a section of interview transcript, I begin by locating key clues or symptoms, or what deconstructionist literary theorists call aporia, sites of doubt or perplexity where the apparent coherence of the text can be unravelled. . . .the slightly odd but unspectacular sorts of comments that even a skilled textual interpreter at first might overlook. But the more we think about these comments, the stranger they become. (p. 14)

This is akin to Gareth Matthews' (1980) suggestion that rewarding philsophical discussions with children might begin with the places in a story or film where they laughed, gasped, or made some other audible (or visible) response. In this case, however, the recognition of children's heightened response frequently occurs long after the conversations ended, as videotapes are replayed and transcriptions reviewed, and the researcher recognizes, retraces, and reconsiders conversational turns which may well have seemed unremarkable at the time they occurred. Tobin focuses on moments that others living with children—in parental, pedagogical, or research relationships—might just as easily gloss over and discount with no more than a shake to clear the head. He pays particular attention to comments, gestures, expressions, announcements that simply don't make sense, digging in rather than dismissing the vagaries of children's conversations. Tobin reflects on the ways these odd turns of phrase seem to invite interpretation: " I use these comments about hats, horses, and houses as clues to a world of values and meanings based on a dichotomy of good guys, who have families, nice clothes, nice homes, and domesticated animals and bad guys, who are nomadic, hat-wearing, shirtless men who don't have women, children, or animals, and want what is not theirs" (2000, p. 14).

Taking such comments as starting points, Tobin provides a stunning demonstration of an approach to research that acknowledges the perspectival nature of all knowing, the contingency of any interpretation. He subjects the same few bits of transcribed videotape to repeated readings, modelling patience, persistence, and the kind of careful phenomenological thought experiments recommended by Speigelberg (1982) and others. As exhaustive as Tobin's analyses seem, and are, they remain provisional. With the end of each chapter, the conclusion of a discussion of a topic such as imitative violence or gendered perfomance or race or colonialism, I found the impulse to generate alternative solutions almost irresistible. This is a work that invites continued dialogue.

Discussing his own emergent interest in media studies in the early 90s, and his introduction to the work of British researchers, David Buckingham and Julian Sefton-Green, Tobin describes media education in Britain as a more mature and sensible science than it appears to be in translation: "When it makes it into the American elementary school, media education is taught, along with sex and drug education, as a curriculum of prevention rather than appreciation" (2000, p. 5). This emphasis on a robust approach to media studies is especially provocative in view of recent debates within the field of art education about the status of visual culture and its relationship to art education: Are we to condemn or applaud the everyday infusion of images and artifacts emerging from every imaginable source? Are we to simply acknowledge the unprocessed bounty of visual culture, or is it our responsibility to move this ubiquitous aspect of students' experience to the center of the curriculum? Shall we approach the study of visual culture as a "curriculum of prevention" or one of appreciation, informed by critique? Tobin's book is suggestive in this regard.

Yet Tobin's questions to the children who serve as his informants focus almost exclusively upon issues of content and meaning. Only one attempt was reported (though perhaps others were made) to encourage children participating in focus groups to discuss the technical and aesthetic dimensions of films. In this instance, Lacey quickly squelched the inquiry, implying that, because they were not filmmakers but children, the framing of scenes was none of their concern: They could not be expected to know how or why such things might be done. Tobin does not stop to examine this incident in detail (and perhaps the larger point of the exercise carried out in Tobin's book is that others will find different questions, and draw different conclusions). Was this was a chance remark from a girl who was clearly feeling flippant and a tad belligerent at the moment and thus an assertion that tells us very little about kids' reception of media, or could it be that children find film so mysterious that they are unable to fathom the kinds of decisions that are and must be made in its production? Do they believe that film simply records an ongoing reality, a play or an action occurring in time, that films, like snapshots, are "taken" rather than "made"? Are there parallels we might discern in children's conversations about media they experience more directly as creators, paintings, drawings, plays, or songs? Could we find out more about children's understandings of painted or photographed or sculpted images or recorded music if we were to engage more frequently in discussions such as these, our conversations inspired by direct experience and proceeding with no agenda beyond the desire to understand how children make sense of the objects and images before them?

A smattering of drawings is included in the book, the result of Tobin's request that two classes which participated in the interviews draw their favorite scene from the movie. Tobin acknowledges that asking the children to make drawings was a bit of an after thought, and their inclusion in the book is primarily illustrative. It is a temptation difficult to resist to interpret a child's drawing too quickly and too summarily, and Tobin succumbs a bit here.

(From Tobin, Figure 5.2.) The four good guys, on the right side of the picture, have bodies and faces. They are outnumbered by the bad guys on the left side of the picture who are drawn as nearly identical stick figures.

For example, in this drawing of the confrontation between good guys and bad, the difference in detail lavished on the invading pirates, drawn swimming from pirate ship to desert island, and the family awaiting their arrival on shore is marked. But the simple, almost diagrammatic forms used to represent the pirates may have as much to do with the relative difficulty of drawing the motion swimming v. the posture waiting as it does with the dehumanization of the pirates in the artist's mind. Equally, this discrepancy in styles of depiction may have to do, as Tobin suggests, with the relatively large number of pirates in comparison to the outnumbered settlers, or it could simply be that the child who drew this image ran out of time as he reached the invaders' side of the page. In any case, the schematic representation of many figures engaged in some common cause is relatively typical in young boy's drawings, and its use here may have as much to do with strategy as it does with substance. These alternative interpretations are very much in the mode of Tobin's thought about children's cultural productions. Tobin's recognition that drawings can provide useful information about the ways in which children construct meaning (requiring at least as much careful multiple interpretation as do their conversations) is welcome and provocative.


1. The video clip is in the Quicktime (.mov) format and approximately 400K in size. It may not play automatically in some browsers. If you have difficulty playing the clip, follow these directions: in Windows, click the right mouse button while holding the pointer over the link below; choose "Save link as…" or "Save target as …" and save the file named to your hard drive. Open the Quicktime player to view the clip. Mac users should click the link below and not release the pointer until a menu appears; choose "Save link as…" and download the file ( and play it in the Quicktime player:

Click (right click with Windows; sustained click with Macs) to download the video clip ""

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2. The children's participation in the varied roles of videographers are described in essays coauthored by Tobin and Donna Grace in Making a Place for Pleasure in Early Childhood Education (1997), edited by Joseph Tobin, and in The Arts in Children's Education: Context, Culture, and Curriculum (2002), edited by Liora Bresler and Christine Marme´ Thompson.


Grace, D. & Tobin, J. (1997). Carnival in the classroom: Elementary students making videos. In J. Tobin (Ed.), Making a place for pleasure in early childhood education (pp. 159-187). New Haven: Yale University Press.

Grace, D. & Tobin, J. (2002). Pleasure, creativity, and the carnivalesque in children's video production. In L. Bresler & C. Marme´ Thompson (Eds.), The arts in children's education (pp. 195-214). Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Press.

Matthews, G. B. (1980). Philosophy and the young child. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Speigelberg, H. (1982). The phenomenological movement (3rd edition, K. Shuhman, Ed.). The Hague: Nijhoff.

Tobin, J., Wu, D., & Davidson, D. (1989). Preschool in three cultures: Japan, China, and the United States. New Haven: Yale University Press.

About the Author

Christine Marme´ Thompson
The Pennsylvania State University

Christine Marme´ Thompson is an Associate Professor of Art Education at The Pennsylvania State University where she teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in child art and pedagogy and serves as Professor in Charge of graduate programs in art education. She joined the faculty at Penn State in the fall of 2001 after 16 years of teaching at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign where she chaired the art education program from 1995 to 2001. Her current research focuses on art and art education in the early childhood years, with particular emphasis on unsolicited drawings as elements of children's culture. She is coeditor, with Liora Bresler, of The Arts in Children's Education: Context, Culture, and Curriculum, an anthology published in 2002 by Kluwer Academic Press.

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