Thinkabout (1979)

The Agency for Instructional Technology may sound like some actually-nefarious organization in the Fallout universe, but here in the real world they had a big role in creating and distributing educational programs and other tools to broadcast outlets and schools in the US and Canada. The ’70s saw a nation still rich with optimism about the television’s role in educational development, and it’s clear in the amount of educational programming that rolled out across the decade and into the ’80s. There are the big PBS names, of course, but for every “Sesame Street” there are five to ten “Thinkabout”s that ended up being smaller blips on the radar.

Cited in the title sequence as “a cooperative project for acquiring skills essential to learning,” Thinkabout was a series of sixty 10-to-15 minute episodes, mostly standalone, aimed at teaching a variety of skills from language arts to math to critical thinking.

There were no main characters to the series, each episode featured kids unique to that episode in either scripted or unscripted form. And these kids are so, so 1979-1980.

Some episodes had a narrative arc, like the bizarre episode “Why Bother” in which the main character Kelly meets a dream George Washington Carver who encourages her to seek out more sources for her research even though she thinks she’s got her bases covered. There’s also a subplot about the librarian dating Clark Kent.

Other episodes are a little more straightforward. “Plan a City of the Future” features real kids spitballing about future technologies. I know I bring it up a lot, but the enthusiasm here for the promise of technology’s ability to solve our problems combined with the unspoken assumption that those solutions were just around the corner is a remarkable feature of kids TV from the ’70s. It’s a constant presence in educational shows from this era, and it’s a really important and powerful idea.

Thinkabout ran for 60 episodes, finding its way into PBS schedules and classrooms well into the ’80s. My local PBS station in Florida didn’t carry Thinkabout, but when we vacationed in Georgia in the summers I’d see episodes run as fillers on GPTV between the bigger shows. It’s a special series with a special mission, and it has the best intro of any PBS show. The images, animation, and “Boards of Canada”-esque synth is the perfect expression of this optimism for the future.

-ds

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