Education and the Idiot Box – Guest Column

Sesame Street, an American television programme made history in the late 60s. Its aim was to use television to help children, particularly from low- income households, prepare for school. Educational experts believed that television was ‘low involvement’ and meant to entertain and dazzle while education needed a high involvement, interactive medium. The programme, however, proved all its critics wrong. It was based on the knowledge that children like cartoons, game shows, situation comedies, and that they responded to slapstick humour and music with a beat. So Sesame Street was born out of some of commercial television’s engaging traits.

Sesame Street has 19 different adaptations watched by 120 mn viewers in over 130 countries. The programme uses Muppets (a combination of ‘marionette’ and puppet)- characters that interact freely with human characters. These Muppets are the core and backbone of Sesame Street and serve as both educational and entertainment vehicles.

The programme, a unique integration of educational, research and creative expertise, addresses cognitive, social and emotional domain of children. It is a combined effort of educators, researchers, psychologists, child development experts, artists, writers and musicians that translates ideas into action.

The now famous Sesame Model applied rigorous research to achieve educational efficacy with state of the art entertainment techniques. Here are some extracts from published papers on research done.

Sesame is now planning to launch in India. Ravi Balakrishnan gives us some facts about the programme.
Kamini Banga

Education And The Idiot Box

Sesame Street is a shared experience for children throughout the world. So the children view a program that has the same essence as the series produced in the United States though it reflects local values and educational priorities. In South Africa – Takalani Sesame is an educational media project on HIV/AIDS for young South African children. The Sesame Street programme in Israel – Rechov Sumsum/Shara’a Simsim – aims to promote respect and understanding among children living in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.

Extensive and comprehensive research helps identify issues and cultural sensibilities for the continued success of the programme. A brief description of the different stages of research;

StepI  is determination of feasibility and need of such a programme. This, however, can take on different forms; in South Africa, research focus was on the state of media in the country and specifics about daily life. In China, interviews were done among preschoolers and their parents to examine viewing habits and parental attitudes about television.

Step II involves curriculum development with a team of educational experts. The curricula for various countries differ from each other with respect to their emphasis. Most contain a range of skills such as numeracy, literacy, social interactions, family life and traditions.

To arrive at the most relevant curricula, research relies on formal and informal processes. In Russia, researchers informally interviewed teachers, government officials and representatives from educational institutions about issues of importance to the program. In Egypt, in a more formal process, the team commissioned a series of papers on five topics that had been identified as of particular relevance to the project – Health, Girl’s Education, Language, Family and Religion.

Step III deals with Production Research and includes;

–  Set design –  This involves showing children prototypes of the sets and examining what attracts them. Also included is feedback about children’s daily lives for the set to reflect a child-centered orientation.

–  Character studies –  In 1990, research identified the need to introduce  a lead female character to convey pride and self-esteem and someone with whom young girls could identify. As the creative people worked on the design, researchers tested drawings of the proposed Muppet for the best colour fur to physical characteristics. Finally,Zoe, a star was born.

Research conducted for the first season of Ulica Sezamkowa in Poland was used to develop two Muppet characters: a dragon and a lamb. Children between 3 to 6 years were asked to point to their favourite characters. Further the children were asked to rate the characters using a 5-point scale that visually depicted faces from very happy (5) to very sad (1). The lamb fared better than the dragon. In an effort to bolster the relative appeal of the dragon, focus groups were conducted with groups of slightly older children. The children were shown a black and white sketch of the dragon and asked to colour in the sketch, The final rendition of ‘Bazyli’ is a multihued rainbow.

Step IV is about testing Appeal and Engagement. Appeal is tested using a combination of an eyes-on-screen measure (a measure of attention) and observations of children’s behaviour while viewing. Although a method used by other television researchers, it is far from perfect. Many children monitor a television program even without looking at the screen. Conversely, children who maintain a direct focus on the screen sometimes understand very little about what they have viewed. An alternate and somewhat more subjective method is known as the global method. This involves a qualitative judgment about the attention levels of viewing; highly, moderately or minimally attentive. Because eyes-on-screen is such a gross measure, it is essential that this data are collected in conjunction with data about children’s behavioral response to what is being viewed.

Step V involves Post telecast research. Here the focus is on general appeal and broadcast reach. The research highlights strengths and weaknesses of the programme and offers recommendations on the pace of the programme, relationship between the stated objectives and the educational goals, appropriateness of the series for its target audience and the broadcast schedule. Other studies have looked at market oriented information. A study conducted by Nestle in Russia explored viewing patterns of and attitudes toward Ulitsa Sezam across 11 regions of Russia with 1320 interviews among children and parents and teachers.

Step VI, the  educational impact of the series is probably the most critical. In Russia, for example, comparisons between children who had seen the programme over 6 months and those none at all, showed that viewers developed basic numeracy and literacy skills at a faster rate than their non-viewing peers. Rresearchers used growth modeling to compare differences among viewers and non viewers. The methodology aims to assess systematic differences in development over time and provides a more reliable measure of growth.

Step VII is the final stage of Summative Studies that provide the pattern from around the world to indicate children gain basic skills from watching Sesame Street coproductions. The strongest findings, both historically and across cultures, have been noted in the literacy and numeracy areas. However, testing understanding of elements such as emotions and social relations still poses great challenges to the researcher.

These studies provide evidence of the elements of learning that children share across cultures and at the same time highlight the importance of presenting learning opportunities that relate in the most direct way to the child’s own world.

Edited By Kamini Banga

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