Thursday, March 18, 2010

On Education Part 2: Sesame Street and growing up in America

I am often told 'why lament what is missing in India, tell us what is available in US'. What does a child gain  by growing up in USA? I use USA as a shorthand for a "western, developed world".

When does education really begin? Putting aside psychological battles of pre-natal influences and neo-natal learning I'd focus on early childhood. Todays kids grow up watching TV a lot. Parents feel guilty about this but cave in due to life and work pressures. But lets not feel too guilty. We concede that most kids programs are 'educational' but rarely, very rarely do we even realize the truth in that passing comment "sesame street is educational". Several years back I read Malcolm Gladwell's blockbuster seller "Tipping Point". One of the chapters focused on two popular kid programs, "Sesame Street" and "Blues Clues". Much of what I learnt stunned me.

Sesame street debuted in 1969 thanks to a grant from Carnegie Mellon foundation. Joan Cooney is credited with the revolutionary idea of how to "master the addictive qualities of television and do something good with them". "Sesame Street was the first children's television program that included a curriculum "detailed or stated in terms of measurable outcome".
What we glibly dismiss as "educational content" had groundbreaking research in the background. Research that pushed the frontiers of how we understood children learned ideas. Two groups of children were put in two rooms with a TV in each. One room had toys in addition to TV, the other had no toys. When a sample program was played and children were observed for "attention span" naturally the children in the room with toys paid less "attention". But when the children were tested for what they "grasped" there was almost no difference. That was stunning. The children in the room with toys "knew" when to pay attention and grasped as much as the other kids who had no distraction. Elizabeth Lorch, a psychologist from University of Amherst did that research.Ed Palmer, psychologist from Oregon, was known for his research in using TV as a teaching tool. He was recruited for Sesame Street. Palmer devised 'distraction meter' , a notational system to document how kids watch attentively during a pilot run of an episode. It helped fine tune concepts and how they were presented. 

Harvard psychologists, educational researchers and many more are involved in the evolution of what turned out to be the most successful kids TV program on the earth. "By its 40th anniversary in 2009, Sesame Street was broadcast in over 120 countries, and 20 independent international versions had been produced."Thanks to globalisation and satellite TV's today kids in remote corners of the world grow up on what I'd easily call "American staple diet of education" irrespective of their cultural moorings. 

Barney shows, Thomas the train engine, Blues Clues all have very valuable educational edge to them. This is not just about teaching ABC's. Many episodes of Barney, Caillou etc teach nice civics lessons about sharing, forgiving, how to speak politely, how to respect orderliness by using a queue. At the same time none of them feign hypocritical obedience. Children are encouraged to be curious, not ashamed to ask questions. 

Thanks to Benjamin Franklin we have wonderful libraries that treat children as 'patrons' encouraging them to get their own cards. Books, boy there is so much a child in US can enjoy so cheaply and so easily. NYT runs book reviews for children's books. Fantastically illustrated books to teach poetry abound. 

Long back when I was waiting with my wife at a gynecologists office I saw a very instructive moment. A mom and kid were getting ready to leave. The kid, 3 or 4 years old, had drawn something and wondered if she should take it or leave it. The mom addressed her levelly "dear you can take it and show it to your teacher, if not you can leave it too, you have to decide". The kid gave a grin and took it. My thoughts drifted and I shall leave it at that.

References: Tipping Point - Malcolm Gladwell, 


Anonymous said...

Fully agree with you. Esp. Barney's book series & Scholastic books are really good and very educative. Playhouse Disney channel is a must see for Kids to learn new things.

Ron Goldman said...

Your are absolutely right. Caillou does teach about sharing. Especially when it comes to sibling rivalry. Here you can find some Caillou books and DVDs covering these topics: