Commentary: How Sesame Street set the gold standard for education

LONDON: The childrens television showSesame Street celebrates its 50th birthday this week.

I know my favourite character should be Count von Count, who shares my fondness for numbers.



But Ive always had a soft spot for Mr Snuffleupagus, Big Birds best friend.


Mr Snuffy was thought by every adult on Sesame Street to be imaginary despite being as real as Elmo.

Its a good joke: Mr Snuffy, a strange anteater-mammoth hybrid, is colossal. How could the adults not notice him?



After the gag had run for 14 years, the adults finally realised that Mr Snuffleupagus was real, and apologised to Big Bird for doubting him.

This was a weighty decision: Sesame Streets writers were concerned about child abuse, and reflected that it might be unwise to portray the adults as endlessly disbelieving what the childlike Big Bird told them.

This was typically painstaking behaviour from a show that has always had ambitious ideas about helping children.

Karli's mum "needs help learning to take better care of herself." Photo: Zach Hyman/Sesame Workshop

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In 1967, a former TV producer named Joan Ganz Cooney wrote a report for the Carnegie Corporation titled “The Potential Uses of Television in Pre-school Education”. She made the case that carefully crafted television could “foster intellectual and cultural development in pre-schoolers”.

Two years later, her vision became reality, in the Childrens Television Workshop and Sesame Street.

It was a radical idea: Just a few years earlier, Marshall McLuhan had infamously argued that “the medium is the message”. It seemed natural enough to many that television was an inherently superficial medium with, therefore, a superficial message. .

By contrast, was a bet that good television could make a real difference to childrens readiness for school, particularly for those starved of other opportunities to learn.

READ: Homeless Muppet on Sesame Street imparts a valuable lesson on empathy

(Photo: Sesame Street)

Not only would it help them to read and count, but it would be racially integrated. Over the years it would tackle issues including death, divorce, autism, infertility, adoption and HIV.


Researchers swarmed all over Sesame Street, trying to figure out whether it actually worked. This wasnt as easy as one might think.

One early study, conducted by Samuel Ball and Gerry Ann Bogatz, aimed at a conventional experiment: Some families, chosen at random, would be encouraged to sit pre-schoolers in front of this brand new show, while a control group of other families would receive no encouragement.

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The problem was that Sesame Street became so popular, so quickly, that it became hard to distinguish between the two groups; everyone was watching. Nevertheless, the study authors did the best they could.

They found that children who watched more Sesame Street learnt more, and that “in terms of its own stated goals, Sesame Street was in general highly successful”. Perhaps the message is the message after all.

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Yet it is hard to be sure about causation. Did Sesame Street help kids learn? Or was the programme attractive to children who were already flourishing?

A recent study by two economists, Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine, approaches the problem from a different angle.

Professors Kearney and Levine noted that in the early years of Sesame Street, some geographical areas simply couldnt receive the broadcast signals that carried the show.

Two-thirds of US children could watch the show, and many did, but one-third could not. Based on this accidental experiment, Profs Kearney and Levine concluded that the children who had lived in a region where Sesame Street was available were less likely to fall behind at school.

The effect was about as large as attending the US Head Start early childhood education programme — impressive, given that TVRead More – Source