How Sesame Street set a gold standard for education
The children’s television show Sesame Street just celebrated its 50th birthday. I know my favourite character should be Count von Count, who shares my fondness for numbers. But I’ve always had a soft spot for Mr Snuffleupagus, Big Bird’s best friend.
Mr Snuffy was thought by every adult on Sesame Street to be imaginary despite being as real as Elmo. It’s 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 Street’s 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. 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 Children’s 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, Sesame Street was a bet that good television could make a real difference to children’s readiness for school, particularly for those starved of other opportunities to learn. 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 wasn’t 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 preschoolers in front of this brand new show, while a control group of other families would receive no encouragement.
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.
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 couldn’t 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 TV is so cheap. The benefits were particularly large for children who lived in deprived areas.
It is hard to read about this study without being reminded that Sesame Street was born in a very different world — one where children received Sesame Street via UHF broadcast, rather than watching Baby Shark on YouTube, where a version produced by the South Korean media brand Pinkfong has nearly 4bn views.
Like the Children’s Television Workshop 50 years ago, Pinkfong has lofty educational goals: its videos are supposed to teach English to Korean children. It has more than twice as many YouTube subscribers as Sesame Street, which struggled financially in recent years before cutting a deal with HBO.
But the vast, cosmopolitan and mysterious world of toddler YouTube seems unlikely to deliver the same educational benefits to children as Sesame Street, which was continually tweaked to help children learn rather than being relentlessly optimised for the clicks. As Alexis Madrigal observed in a long report for The Atlantic on toddler YouTube, the viral videos tend to be fast-paced and full of superfluous details. These features may attract the attention of preschoolers, but educational experts think they are unhelpful.
I’m an optimist. Online video could surely be even more educational than Sesame Street, given its ability to be interactive and to gather data on an individual child’s progress. But it would have to be carefully designed and tested, in the same way that Sesame Street was. An educational revolution doesn’t happen by accident.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 8 November 2019.