TV that teaches: 11 shows you can justify watching during the school term

By Sam Gusway

School is starting (for some of you it already has) so that means the end of TV for the year .. or does it? Here are 11 great TV shows that are heavy on the education without forgetting how to be entertaining:

By Sam Gusway |

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Having trouble with a particular subject? TV to the rescue!

I love watching comedies and cartoons, but I also appreciate watching shows where I can actually learn something. It makes TV less of a "guilty pleasure" and turns it into a good use of my time.
Science and maths were always tough for me, because I found it hard to make sense of the numbers and rules that were thrown at me in class. But when I'd see it explained with animation or computer graphics, it suddenly made sense.
For those who struggle remembering the details of historic events or the big players of the day, TV's got you covered, too. History can be shown as the story it is, and you can appreciate it as a drama (or comedy or tragedy) if it's presented right.
So if you're looking for something to watch, and you don't want to just waste time on mindless television, check out the following shows:

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

That was a very big bang, Neil.

Celebrity scientist (Celebentist? Scibrity?) Neil deGrasse Tyson takes us on an intergalactic journey from the big bang to our modern world, introducing us to some of humanity's great scientific achievements (and embarrassments) along the way.

NdT is out of this world.
Photo: The Washington Post

There's a little bit of cheesiness in Cosmos, as this journey takes place in "the spaceship of our mind," but overall it's quite entertaining and the graphics are awesome. As we zip back and forth through history we meet some of the greatest minds in science, and their stories and achievements are told to us in animated segments.

Great for: Science, History, Neil deGrasse Tyson fans 


The Story of Science: Proof, Power, and Passion

Early astronomers finally put us in our place

The six-part Story of Science from the BBC takes an interesting look at science, as host Michael Mosley reveals the intrigue and political power that often went hand in hand with new discoveries. As we sadly learn, there are plenty of times in history where the ruling class actually slow down or stop the pursuit of science, as they are afraid it will be the end of their time at the top.

Dr Michael Mosley lives science

On a more positive note, Mosley does an excellent job explaining how certain innovations and inventions have worked together to change the world for the better.

Great for: Science, History

History Bites

Would vikings be media darlings?
What if there had been TV during major moments in history? That's the question comedian Rick Green asks at the beginning of every episode. Each installment of History Bites takes an event - such as the story of Cleopatra or the French revolution - and imagines how we'd be viewing it if we were flipping through the channels. That means home shows like Martha Stewart showing you how to cook a holiday meal while avoiding plague, game shows where the trivia questions revolve around the "current" assassination of Julius Caesar, or sitcoms like Seinfeld (I know, it's old) played out as if the actors were all British nobles.
The jokes are fast-paced and funny, but Green cuts in now and then to help us separate the facts from the ROFL.
Great for: History 


James Burke is your guide from Point A to Point Z
Science historian James Burke takes us on epic and convoluted journeys through time to see some of the surprising ripple effects new technologies can have. A typical show might have Burke explaining how a Dutch boat from the 1500s led (through numerous bizzarely related events) to the discovery of nylon fabrics. Even when the show is focused on one particular topic, you learn about a lot more along the way.
Great for: Science, History


What is really the real reality, really?
Another gem from the BBC, Horizon has been running for more than 40 years! Starting in 1964, the show has been promoting scientific and philosophical dialogue, allowing scientists to explain the latest results of their research. The show has won numerous awards, and many episodes have since been shown on other science programmes around the world.
Great for: Science, History, Philosophy


Nova tries to figure out your dreams
Inspired by the mission of Horizon, American producers premiered Nova in 1974. Since then this science programme has given a generation of viewers a new love for science, as it presents extremely advanced concepts in easy to understand packages. Nova often works with Horizon, with both programmes regularly sharing the other's materials with their audience.
Great for: Science, History

Anything featuring David Attenborough

David Attenborough hangs out with the locals on Madagascar
Ahhh, you can't got wrong with Sir David Attenborough. For more than 35 years the man has been bringing us the finest quality nature documentaries from all corners of the globe. Under cover of darkness, underwater, even underground, we see plants, animals and insects like we've never seen them - namely, in HD resolution. In fact, Attenborough and his crew are so patient with their productions that they have recorded animals doing things we never imagined, changing what we know about their hunting, survival, societies, and yes, even mating.
Great for: Science (especially Geography, Zoology, and Biology), and David Attenborough's soothing voice

The Nature of Things

Are your good grades from hard work? Or parasites in your brain?

NdT is out of this world.
Photo: The Washington Post

Another great science offering, this Canadian programme has been running since 1960. Biologist and zoologist David Suzuki has been the host of The Nature of Things since 1979, and has made it his mission to break down complicated scientific concepts into ideas that anyone can understand. The show is distinct from many of the other offerings in this list because as a dedicated environmentalist, Suzuki doesn't just focus on nature, but also the impact that humans have on it.

Great for: Science (especially Geography, Biology, and Zoology)

The Ascent of Man

Jacob "Bruno" Bronowvski explains how maths made us better
An oldie but an (extremely) goodie. This short series was created and presented by mathematician and biologist Jacob Bronowvski. From his personal viewpoint, he presents 12 landmark moments that altered the course of human history. For example, the first episode deals with how farming led to surpluses of food, which meant larger cities could be supported - and needed to be made stronger so they could defend this surplus from warring tribes. Other episodes deal with the development of alchemy into chemistry, and how mathematics changed societies around the world.
Great for: Science, History

Through the Wormhole

Question of the week: is time travel possible?

NdT is out of this world.
Photo: The Washington Post

What's better than a show that delves into the deep mysteries of the universe? One that's hosted by Morgan Freeman (The Lego Movie, Batman Begins). Through the Wormhole asks the great minds of science to come up with answers to fundamental mysteries of life, such as "Is there an edge to the universe?" or "Can time go backwards?" It's a high budget programme, so there are lots of great graphics to help illustrate the complicated maths and make it easier to understand.

Great for: Science, Philosophy

ESPN's 30 for 30

Lesson number one from the show: always save some money.
Wouldn't it be great being an all-star athlete, living in the spotlight, a hero to millions of kids, and rich, rich, rich? Guess what. It's not. Or at least not all the time, as we learn from ESPN's 30 for 30. Each episode focuses on a specific athlete or a particular moment in sport history. There are plenty of tales of glory, but there are also a lot of tears. We learn about athletes who came from rough childhoods and became millionaire superstars, only to lose it all through poor judgment. Many former athletes suffer from debilitating injuries the suffered while they were famous, but once they are out of the spotlight, they turn to drugs and alcohol. The series teaches some important life lessons about staying grounded and considering the big picture.
Great for: Sports, Life lessons