Has educational TV (Sesame Street) been discredited?

My friend is fully recovered from COVID-19 (previous post). As part of his twin passions for minimum effort parenting and ensuring that his children go to an elite university (just like mom and dad!), he has been parking the 3-year-old in front of Sesame Street. I said that I admired his dedication to making sure that the child got to see Dr. Bill Cosby, but that the kid would be bored catatonic by anything from PBS:

Educational PBS TV was a creation of marijuana-fogged urban elites of the 1960s and 70s. I would think that it has been totally discredited by now. Learning the alphabet over and over again? How does that help a child who can learn it in 20 minutes once old enough? Shaun the Sheep is good for kids 3+ in my opinion and there is plenty of mental challenge in following a narrative story.

So… that’s the question for today. Has the idea that children can learn useful stuff about arithmetic, reading, etc. from a TV show such as Sesame Street been discredited or not? “It may be educational, but what is that TV show really teaching your preschooler?” implies that there might be some education, but that children learn to be aggressive as well. “Why TV toddlers are lost for words: Educational programmes do not help young children develop language” (Daily Mail, 2014)

(Our kids watch about 20 minutes of TV per day, on average, and content is selected purely for entertainment value, e.g., the movie Soul on which their cousin worked as an animator. What can be learned from Soul? Not history! A character refers to Charles Drew as the inventor of blood transfusions when, in fact, successful human blood transfusions were developed 100+ years prior to Dr. Charles Drew’s work in blood banking. (There is no mention of Dr. Charles Drew’s colleague, Dr. Jill Biden, MD.))

From SeaWorld Orlando, February 2020:

(The park is open right now, but warns visitors:

Exposure to COVID-19 is an inherent risk in any public location where people are present; we cannot guarantee you will not be exposed during your visit.

“inherent risk”? Even with “protective masks”? Those are fighting words here in Massachusetts!)

14 thoughts on “Has educational TV (Sesame Street) been discredited?

  1. The wikipedia entry on Sesame Street goes into depth about the educational theories (mainly: attention) and research on the effectiveness of the show. I wonder if the best way to gauge the effectiveness is to compare it cross-culturally, because it’s largely a US phenomenon? Wikipedia also notes that the ETS only measured the show during its first two seasons, but once it became big, of course, more studies validating the studies were done.

    I think it would be interesting to compare it internationally, since Sesame Street is primarily a US phenomenon.

    “Author Malcolm Gladwell said that “Sesame Street was built around a single, breakthrough insight: that if you can hold the attention of children, you can educate them [this is a breakthrough insight?]”.[51] Gerald S. Lesser, the CTW’s first advisory board chair, went even further, saying that the effective use of television as an educational tool needed to capture, focus, and sustain children’s attention.”

    “Cooney credited the show’s high standard in research procedures to Harvard professors Gerald S. Lesser, who the CTW hired to design the show’s educational objectives, and Edward L. Palmer, who was responsible for conducting the show’s formative research and for bridging the gap between the show’s producers and researchers.[75] The CTW conducted research in two ways: in-house formative research that informed and improved production,[76] and independent summative evaluations, conducted by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) during the show’s first two seasons, which measured its educational effectiveness.”

    Sesame Street began just around the time I was born. I didn’t watch very much of it in my earliest years, according to my parents. The most important thing for them was to read to me / with me from a very early age. Later on, I watched SS more as entertainment. I remember turning it on myself around 3 years old. However, I don’t recall anything specific that learned from it, since my parents did a lot of work on their own with me. I was also lucky enough to attend a pretty good preschool. Usually when I was bored I watched regular old, adult television, unsupervised except for the “bad stuff” at night (like Hill Street Blues or something like that.) We did not have cable TV/HBO/ETC until very late in the game because my father refused to pay for television.

    I think one of the most important early resources and stimulants for self-learning was the Childcraft “How and Why Library” series of books, recommended by my pediatrician when I was three years old. By that point thanks to my parents I was already able to read a good portion of what was in them and ask about the rest. I dog-eared a lot of the volumes in that collection. Mine looked exactly like this:

    I think in terms of “cliff’s notes” level knowledge of the world, I retained (don’t know about learned, but definitely retained) much more from Schoolhouse Rock than I ever did from Sesame Street. Music.

    “I’m just a Bill. Yes, I’m only a Bill. And I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill.”….

    • Addendum: I remember being a bigger fan of “Mr. Rogers Neigborhood” than Sesame Street. Probably someone could write a book about the reasons why, but I recall being absolutely fascinated by his real-world guests and their sojourns to real-world places where people were doing interesting things, and the way they filmed, paced and explained them.

      I’m trying to find an old episode where his guest was a woman who made jewelry out of semiprecious stones. They had them all laid out on a surface of some kind, and as the camera zoomed in and panned over his hands, he asked her: “May we touch?” And he proceeded to gently touch the jewels and turn them over with his hands so the camera could catch all their different facets, etc. I was absolutely hypnotized. The phone rang near the end of the segment and I almost jumped off the couch. Mr. Rogers did a good job of holding attention, that’s for sure.

      Sesame Street also had one segment featuring a couple of muppet alien-like creatures trying to “talk” to a ringing phone. “Brrrrrriiiiiinnggggg.” “Brrrrriiiiiiiiing.” That made me laugh for a couple of days (including now!) Anyway, I’m rambling. I liked Sesame Street but I don’t think I got as much out of it, ultimately, as the other things I’ve mentioned.

    • @Scott: No, that’s not the one, but that episode is an awesome example of the early Mr. Rogers Show and Tell pedagogy. He kept the terminology, the machinery, the basic know-how and so forth, and the polite connection with his guests. He didn’t “talk down” to his audience in terms of things like: “200 million years old!” or the geological nomenclature.

      I’m still searching for the episode I’m referring to, which was filmed in color, so it was a bit later. After watching it, I inveigled my parents to buy a rock tumbler and made my own collection of semiprecious stones, which I also used for “show and tell” in elementary school. It actually helped me during Earth Science in middle school (sedimentary vs. igneous and so forth.)

      Great example, though.

  2. Seaworld is open, but has a temperature check tent at the entrance and requires masks inside. I did not notice any mask police, however. Compliance was high but a few people wore chins masks. The crowd on average seems young. Stadiums have every other row blocked off.

    The dolphins seemed to be struggling with their training in the age of corona. Their trainers are required to wear coverings over their blowholes, even during shows. As a result, the show was shorter than I remembered during previous visits, and the dolphins didn’t always obey commands. Dolphins are still pretty good at recognizing physical commands, but they must be confused and/or alarmed that the trainers are now muzzled.

  3. Sesame Street is cultivating chick mediocrity. Go with Barney re-runs for toddlers combined with Blues Clues reruns for children a little older, if they do not yet know calculus. Shari Lewis re-runs including later Lamb Chop’s Play-Along show is OK too. Tested several times with no misses.

  4. Sesame Street? Mr. Rogers?

    Everybody knows that the best TV show on PBS for educating and calming children was The Mechanical Universe

    • They did watch it in two sessions. On many days they don’t want any TV. Hence the 20 minute average.

  5. My recollection of the studies summarized in “The Origins of You: How Childhood Shapes Early Life” is that parental interventions like picking which TV shows to watch don’t have much effect on later success. We also know from “The Son Also Rises” that offspring of high IQ parents will typically do well — most likely because IQ is largely genetically determined and IQ is the biggest single determinant of success. So it probably does not matter if the kids of these probably high IQ parents watch Sesame Street, F Troop, or Mixed Martial Arts Fighting. They will likely do well regardless.

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