BrainPOP slightly more helpful than “I don’t know”

Here’s the bottom line for readers in a hurry:

BrainPOP is a great online resource but it’s iPad implementation is fairly limited. BrainPOP provides:

  • Daily educational videos
  • An online quiz with feedback
  • More youth orientation than my high school teachers, most of whom I can’t remember because they put me to sleep on a regular basis.

There are a few complaints:

  • These guys are bleeding heart liberals and that must be a bad thing because so many people complain about it
  • Jenny wants cat related content (as always)
  • I’d like more content period.

In addition, I discuss why people are perceived to be the least credible when they admit their ignorance, why persistence does not necessarily increase enlightenment, one meager strategy for building teen self-reliance, and why I am proud to embrace my own ignorance of automotive production models.

This afternoon Carol tossed a package on my lap and left the room. I looked at the mailing label and it was for her. When I pointed this out, she shouted from the other room, “You’re the only one who ever orders anything.”

She had a point. I am the only one who orders anything that isn’t useful to cats.

So I opened it, and I had no idea what is was. It had something to do with cars, but I am not a car guy at all. In fact my brain goes into lockdown when confronted with information about cars.

I spent most of my childhood with my Dad and uncles having to learn the names of every car on the road, and, what year it was made. Real men in the family knew things like engine block size, timing and rung compression. I was young enough that two facts per car was acceptable.

This was a Stephens rite of passage, second only to the ability to finish any randomly selected Bible verse. I had to ride in the car with the window rolled down and say things like, “37 Chevy Couple. 57 Ford. Forty Ford Pickup.”

I would inevitably be told, “No, that’s a 36.” Or, “Yes, but is it a cloth top or composition top?”

And one day I found myself looking at a car with the logo missing. The entire family was in our own car (whose make I choose not to remember) on our way to our annual summer vacation at the Highland Lakes Baptist Encampment at Glorieta, New Mexico. I knew it was a Ford or a Chevy (maybe an Oldsmobile?) but everything from 1955 to 1958 looked pretty much the same to me, so when my dad asked me what it was I said what I heard the youngest of my four uncles say when the adults weren’t around, “It’s a 57 piece of….”

I got my mouth washed out with soap, my mother cried in the hotel bed all night–still in shock that I even knew such a word, much less be inspired to utter it in the presence of the family. And my sister Beth kept asking me to tell her what that word meant.

So when I saw a box with car stuff in it, my mind simply went into “stupid car …” (there’s that word again) mode. I tossed it on the bed and forgot about it.

Carol walked into the room and immediately asked what was in the package. I said, “I don’t know, some kind of car….”

This, in my opinion, should have been the end of that particular direction in the conversation. Had Carol wanted to know, all she had to do was pick it up and look at it, or ask me to hand it to her. But everyone who’s been married or in a relationship longer than three weeks should know what happened next. Carol asked, “Yes, but what is it?”

Have you ever noticed that whenever you tell someone you’re intimate with that you don’t know, they immediately expect the wisdom of the gods to strike you with an answer just for their sake? When I repeated, “I don’t know,” she said “I just want to know what it is. What is it?”

So I put my iPad and lap desk down, reached across the bed, took possession of the package and handed it to her. She stared at it for a moment and then asked, “Okay, but what the hell is it?”

This isn’t unique to wives and lovers. Students seem to be in a permanent state of dependency on teachers to answer questions even when the questions are completely outside their field of expertise. I once took a phone call in the adjunct faculty lounge, which serves about fifty teachers, and a student asked to speak to Professor so and so.

I told him the Professor wasn’t there. The student demanded to know where he was. I looked on the office hours board and couldn’t find the teacher’s name. So I told the student I the teacher hadn’t posted his office or class hours and I didn’t know where he was. The student wanted to know when he would return. Then he wanted to know how to contact him. Then he wanted to know if he could make an appointment. When I finally suggested the student look up the information online or on his syllabus, he wanted to know how he could do that.

I finally put him on hold and left him there, figuring he would hang up. Half an hour later, he was still on the line. I picked it up and asked if I could help him. He asked, “where’s the other guy?” I told him I didn’t know and the student wanted to know if I could find the the first guy for him because he was still waiting for answers and didn’t want to go through that routine again.

The irony of it was, a student in my next day’s class told me about this asshole he talked to when he tried to call his professor. “There were actually two of them, and they didn’t know anything.” When I followed up the conversation with a question about how his project was coming, he said, “what project?”

For teachers and spouses, I have no solutions to this problem. At least none on the iPad. But for parents whose children pound them daily with questions (even though we’ve told them eight hundred times we don’t know) there is a solution. It’s called BrainPOP and it’s now available for the iPad.

Pop some knowledge into your kids’ brains

When your child asks you a question that you don’t have an answer to, you now have a first line of defense. You say, “I have an idea. Let’s look on BrainPOP.”

Then, if their questions aren’t answered you can tell them, “What other places might you look?” Then you take them to Wikipedia or, if you’re afraid what they might find there, another, safer web site.1

I have another strategy in mind when I suggest this. It’s called fostering self-reliance. You should want your kids know that once you admit you don’t know not only aren’t you going to change your mind, but (even worse) you will make them responsible for finding the answer, Then they can either suck it up and find the answer themselves, which would be most ideal, or they will simply quit pestering you. This might not be quite so ideal, but it’s still better than having to continuously repeat “I don’t know” until you finally say something they’ll really regret.

Or, you can be really hands-on and insist they show you their quiz score.

BrainPOP will take on any topic, from giant squids to interest rates. Even better, the animated characters, Tim and Moby, make learning feel slightly more like watching Sponge Bob than exercising their brains. Tim’s a likable white guy, totally inoffensive to the rabid right and left. As a subtle concession to the multicultural left, Moby is a robot of color, but since he’s a robot he doesn’t seem overtly PC.

BrainPOP’s presenters, Moby and Tim.

In each episode Tim and Moby (well, mostly Tim since Moby can’t talk) answer a letter with a question about a new topic. These could be real letters from real kids, or plant letters written by the series developers. I know of no way to verify the veracity of these letters. It is suspicious, however, that a letter from a child in Beijing is handwritten in English.

The questions are always broad enough that Tim can’t provide a single answer, like “42.” He and Moby have to explain with diagrams and animations and the occasional cute or humorous comment.

Each episode begins with a letter, purportedly from a viewer,
but do your really think Simon can write in English?

BrainPOP is probably best suited for middle school students, although I suspect a few precocious fifth graders could keep up. The information wouldn’t be beneath a high schooler but I think they might find the presentation juvenile (which would be an ironic pejorative coming from high school students).

I taught for more than thirty years and I know that no program or video can be guaranteed to educate your kids. I can say, based on the videos I’ve watched, that the content isn’t stupid or vacuous. The writers provide detailed information on the topic. If I had to choose between BrainPOP or Teletubbies, I would say BrainPOP is more intelligent. I suspect one five minute video has more educational content than Sesame Street.

Take the test then watch the movie

The current BrainPOP episode is followed with a ten question quiz. You can also retake the quiz for a higher score. This means your kids can actually take the quiz before they watch the day’s movie and then have those questions fresh in their minds while they watch.

BrainPop videos come with a quiz for previewing or reviewing.

The quiz provides immediate feedback to student answers.

This may seem like cheating to some, but it’s actually sound educational practice. The more times your child is exposed to information, the more likely it is to stick. Previewing the quiz allows student’s brains to prepare room in memory for the information they receive.

Jenny is pawing my shoulder to tell me it’s time to get on with the criticisms. She’s far less thrilled about BrainPOP than I am. And the more I looked at it, the more misgivings I found.

No videos on cats or cat rescue

Jenny can’t see how kids can possibly receive a good education without videos on cats and cat rescue issues. She thinks kids need to know that cats (and their companions and faithful lackeys, dogs) should be neutered or spayed, and that being mean to cats is a very bad idea.

I have a hard time arguing with her.

Liberal Agenda

Here’s just a few of the decidedly liberal editorials hidden in BrainPOP videos: Smoking is ad for you, you should stop driving cars because the environment is bad for you, and America cheated the “real americans” out of their land, and technological advances in WWI killed more people. You might as well tell your kids to vote for Obama right now.

This “newspaper clipping” was inserted into an English Lesson.

Now I know that some of you are thinking, wasn’t that whole neuter spay/animal cruelty thing part of the liberal agenda too? Absolutely not. It’s called making Carol and Jenny happy.

Here’s a more startling news flash: Moby is gay. That’s right, in the video on DNA they did a test for genetic markers from blonde hair covering Moby. They discover the blonde hair is from “Tim.” If this isn’t a tacit endorsement of for NAMBLA and their cover organization GLAD, I don’t know would would be.

Sure, you say, Moby could be a girl. Well, it’s true, we never see Moby below the waist but from what we see of him above the waist, he looks like a he. So if Moby’s a woman, BrainPOP’s liberal subtext is far more subversive than I previously imagined.

Subliminal subsexual homosexual subtext?
The blonde hairs all over Moby’s hat are “Tim’s.”

To make matters worse, yesterday BrainPOP posted a video suggesting that Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan were lesbians. They didn’t come out and say it, but it’s pretty clear what they were hinting at. This is outrageous. I suppose it’s tolerable that Brain POP has a gay robot of color, but American History can’t possibly be gay.

Do you see the subtly ways they maliciously slander history?

Carol thinks I shouldn’t be saying things like this because fundamentalist parents won’t let their kids watch BrainPOP videos. I figure it won’t matter. Since all home school kids learn is basic math, pre-screened BIble verses and the southern half of the Constitution, they’ll be sneaking of to a cousin’s house to watch BrainPOP and see what the fuss is about.2

No scatological references (no fart jokes)

I may be missing something, but it seems to me that if BrainPOP wants to engage young male viewers, their content is entirely too gender neutral. This means approved by girls. There are no fart jokes, no beer bongs, no funny noises in the middle of an explanation, no wrinkled noses to explain the funny noises, no projectile vomiting and no girls in cheerleading outfits.

How the hell are they supposed to keep the attention of the average teenage boy?

Liberal white women with a mission might explain that gender neutral content is more appropriate because it doesn’t offend the sensibilities of young women. But the truth is, the young women who most need the benefit of an education are the young women who would rather spend their time hanging around with teenage boys who like beer bongs and fart jokes (and trust me, as a former Baptist Preacher’s Kid, I can assure you that even most choir boys like beer bongs and fart jokes).

Some might suggest that Isabella Rossellini’s Green Porn videos are more educational because boys will watch anything with “porn” in the title. Even if the videos are really about biology. If there’s one thing young boys like more than fart jokes, it’s the thought that they may see something that has to do with sex.

Limited content
To be honest, iPod BrainPOP can only answer a few of your childrens’ questions currently because they only have a couple of dozen videos posted. BrainPOP was designed for school students to use on the web and the developers used Flash to deliver the content. This means that iPad users currently have access only to the current day’s movie and the few in the permanent library.

Only your quiz scores remain accessible after each day’s movie is replaced.

Does this remind you of someone else who rushed a product to market without completely rethinking the software? Could it be Apple, who is the only reason iPad BrainPOP’s content seems so threadbare? The answer is, yes, because Apple doesn’t think users are mature enough to handle Flash responsibly. So BrainPOP will have to reformat their old content to make it available on the iPad.

Still, you’d think BrainPOP could archive the content they’ve already broadcast to the iPad. And maybe even copies of the tests. After all, YouTube and Netflix function quite well on the iPad and they don’t pull their videos down after a day.

At first I was fairly positive about BrainPOP. But the more I explored it the more I began to recognize the iPad version resembles those comic apps with free comic books that turn out to be fifty years old. While I think its worth downloading, it has some serious limitations.

Jenny Manytoes rates BrainPOP

As a teacher, I can’t say for sure that BrainPOP will actually teach your children anything. I’ve seen too many cute educational video series that taught the kids even less than their text books. In fact, I’ve worked with educational developers who can’t understand how students fail to comprehend their wonderful lessons.

Still, BrainPOP is popular with teachers, and BrainPOP writers seem to do their homework. Best of all, each BrainPOP video takes less time than a cartoon, which seems ideally suited for an audience with the attention spans of bumblebees. I can think of a dozen far more moronic ways for kids to spend their time. At the very least, have your kids try the videos out.

Or, if your kids are like I was, and way too smart to get conned into something educational, say something to another adult when they’re listening like, “Whatever you do, don’t let your kids play BrainPOP on the iPad. If you think video games are a waste of time, this is even worse.”

That will get them to spend at least a few minutes face time with education before they realize they’ve been conned.

Jenny Manytoes would like to purr around BrainPOP, but she falls into a nap when they start a lot of math or science talk. And since they don’t keep archives of the daily movies, she thinks kids might be better off using the desktop computer you no longer use because you’re too busy playing with the iPad to let them watch the BrainPOP videos. Until iPad’s BrainPOP app carries more content than two dozen movies (only one of which changes) I can’t imagine too many students will use it.

1I’ll be the first to admit that some parents might not find Wikipedia child friendly, given its willingness to take on any topic (including bios and filmographies of porn stars). For my part, I think it’s worth it to risk my son Bryan stumbling across a porn star’s bio if it means he’s checking facts. But Bryan’s 30 and you may have different feelings about your kids.back
2First of all, I find it ironic that something I joke about, other people take seriously. I read the App Store reviews after writing this and one of the first posts criticized BrainPOP’s liberal bias. Forget what I said; reducing the number of cars on the road will reduce pollution. That’s not liberal bias, however much I joke about it, it’s a fact. How do I know it’s a fact? Because no one in their right mind would suggest that more cars on the road would reduce pollution.
Second, I really shouldn’t make fun of home schooling. After all, Jesus was home schooled and look how he turned out.back

The Jenny Manytoes Rating System

Jenny Manytoes, our polydactyl cat
  • When Jenny makes biscuits on a product she thinks she’s in heaven.
  • When Jenny purrs over a product she’s very happy.
  • When Jenny naps next to a product it’s okay with her.
  • When Jenny bunches her tail she can live with a product, but she has higher expectations.
  • When Jenny leaves it in the litter box….I don’t think I need to explain this one.


iPad Envy is created entirely using apps from my iPad
iPad Envy.


About Phillip T Stephens

Phillip T. Stephens disappeared into the Bermuda Triangle twenty years before he was born, creating a time travel paradox so confusing it remains unspoken between physicists and sci-fi writers to this day. Follow @stephens_pt
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