Sesame Street, produced by Sesame Workshop (formerly known as the Children's Television Workshop), premiered on November 10, 1969. What began as an experiment to use television to help prepare preschool children for school, particularly those children from minority and low-income families, has grown into a cultural icon. Sesame Street has won more Emmy awards than any other series in the history of television. It is watched each weekday by one million children in the United States who are between two and five years of age, and it has been viewed in more than 140 countries, including twenty co-productions.
Sesame Street was a revolutionary departure from the existing state of children's television in the late 1960s. While some television series conveyed positive messages to children, none attempted to address a set of specified educational goals—to teach a holistic curriculum that encompasses traditional academic subjects (e.g., number and literacy skills) and interpersonal skills to foster self-confidence and getting along with others. In 1966, Joan Ganz Cooney, a producer at Channel 13 (a New York affiliate of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)), developed the original vision of using television to educate preschoolers, an idea she discussed with Lloyd Morrisett, Vice President of the Carnegie Corporation of New York. With funding from the Carnegie Corporation, the Ford Foundation, and the U.S. Office of Education, Cooney formally launched planning for Sesame Street.
In the context of adorable, warm, and zany muppets, nurturing adults, and lots of humor, Sesame Street is designed to foster intellectual, social, and cultural development. Reaching far beyond letters and numbers, Sesame Street introduces children to a broad range of ideas, information, and experiences about diverse topics such as death, cultural pride, race relations, people with disabilities, marriage, pregnancy, and even space exploration. For many children, Sesame Street may be the first place they see a ballet or see someone who resembles them on television. Moreover, it may be the only place they see a ballet performed by a girl in a wheelchair.
Formative and Summative Research
Formative research is conducted while the story or a segment is being produced, or at times before production begins, to investigate questions such as the appeal and comprehension of the messages among the target audience. Research results then inform subsequent production decisions and revisions.
In 1983, Sesame Street dealt with the death of its longtime storekeeper, Mr. Hooper. Will Lee, the actor who had played this character since it was created in 1969, died in 1982, and the producers decided to deal with his death on the show rather than replace him with another actor. This single episode was kept simple, conveying the following messages: Mr. Hooper is dead; Mr. Hooper will not be coming back; and Mr. Hooper will be missed by all.
Prior to broadcast, the Sesame Street Research Department conducted a series of formative studies to answer the following questions for the production staff: (1) will children understand the three key messages about Mr. Hooper's death; (2) how attentive will children be to the story line; (3) how will parents respond to the treatment of such a sensitive topic; and most important of all, (4) will children be disturbed by this story either immediately after viewing or during the following week?
Research revealed that the majority of four-and five-year-olds understood that Mr. Hooper was not coming back and that Big Bird and the adult characters felt sad. The second study revealed that on average, the majority of the children were attentive during the show. Reception of the show by parents was overwhelmingly positive, with parents using words such as "well done," "compassionate," "helpful," "honest," and "age-appropriate" to describe the episode. Approximately one-half of the twenty-one parents who were interviewed stated that they discussed death with their children after viewing the show, and none of the parents reported any negative immediate or delayed reactions in their child.
Summative research is conducted after the production of a television series is complete, and it is intended to assess the effect of the series on its viewers. Although most of the summative research is conducted by independent researchers, the following is an example of a summative study conducted internally by the Sesame Street Research Department.
For the twenty-ninth season, the producers of Sesame Street decided to revisit the science curriculum. The objective of the "Science of Discovery" curriculum was to link the natural curiosity of preschoolers with their love of exploration by illustrating both science content and scientific processes. The topic of space was included in the science curriculum because the production department decided to develop an eighteen-week story line featuring Slimey, Oscar the Grouch's pet worm, as he participates in the very first "wormed" moon mission for the Worm Air and Space Agency (WASA).
A longitudinal study was designed to assess (1) children's understanding of space, the moon, astronauts, and space travel and (2) the degree to which their understanding of such concepts changed as a result of exposure to the "Slimey to the Moon" story. Baseline results revealed that preschoolers from a middle-income center had significantly greater knowledge of space and space exploration than did preschoolers from a low-income center. After viewing the programs, children from the low-income center demonstrated the greatest gains in comprehension. These children gained knowledge about what to call someone who travels to the moon, what astronauts do and how they travel to the moon, what astronauts wear on the moon, and that the planet they live on is called "Earth." Although preschoolers from the middle-income center already had a good understanding about space, they also showed some significant increases in their knowledge of how long it takes to get to the moon and what astronauts wear on the moon. Overall, children enjoyed the space shows, remained interested in the story, and most important, they acquired more specific knowledge about astronauts and space travel over a period of time.
Research and Production
Sesame Street was the first series to employ research as an integral part of its production. From the beginning, the Sesame Street team realized it would need substantial and ongoing involvement by experts in education and early childhood development to develop curriculum goals and to work with the producers and writers to create appealing and educational stories and segments. The Sesame Street Research Department, with guidance from educational advisors, develops the Sesame Street curriculum and evaluates it annually to incorporate current changes in knowledge and understanding of children's growth, development, and learning; innovative educational methods; and changes in society. The research department also conducts formative research studies with preschoolers to inform the production team about the appeal and comprehension of the content of the program. In addition, the research department contracts independent researchers to evaluate the effect of the series through summative research.
This unique, ongoing integration of curriculum development, formative research, and summative research into the process of production is known as the Sesame Workshop model. This interdisciplinary approach to television production brings together television producers, educational content experts, and educational researchers to work hand-in-hand at every stage of production. Many media professionals and educators predicted that this operating model would never succeed because of the very different backgrounds and values of the three groups. However, the model was effective and this "marriage" between these three groups of individuals continues today as the cornerstone of the long-term success of Sesame Street.
Sesame Street is the most researched series in the history of television, with more than one thousand studies examining its educational effectiveness in areas such as literacy, numeracy, and prosocial behavior, as well as investigating the use of production features to enhance children's attention and comprehension. The following is an overview of the key studies on the educational effectiveness the series has had in the area of school readiness, academic achievement, and social behavior.
Before any production began, the Educational Testing Service was contracted to design and conduct an evaluation of the educational effectiveness that Sesame Street had on a variety of cognitive skills during its premiere season. Both before and after the broadcast of the first season, children who were three to five years of age (predominantly from disadvantaged backgrounds) and were from geographically and ethnically diverse backgrounds were tested extensively on a range of content areas including knowledge of the alphabet, numbers, relational terms, names of body parts, recognition of forms, and sorting and classification skills.
The results of the study indicated that exposure to Sesame Street had the desired educational effects across content areas. Children who watched the most showed the greatest gains between pretest and posttest, and the topics getting more screen time on the show (e.g., letters) were learned better than were topics receiving less screen time. The gains occurred for children across the ages (although three-year-olds showed the greatest gains, presumably because they knew the least before viewing), for both boys and girls, and for children from different geographic and ethnic backgrounds. The study also showed that these results were not influenced by whether the children watched at home or in school.
The results of the second-year evaluation confirmed earlier findings, demonstrating significant gains in many of the same content areas and in new areas, which were added in the second season. Moreover, viewers who watched Sesame Street on a frequent basis were rated by their teachers as being better prepared for school (e.g., verbal and quantitative readiness, attitude toward school, relationships with peers) than were their classmates who watched infrequently or not at all.
With success comes questions and criticisms. Some question whether television is a suitable medium for teaching intellectual and academic skills, particularly those that depend on language, because its salient visual qualities interfere with children's processing of language. Others criticize the rapid pace and entertaining qualities of Sesame Street that leave children with little or no time to process information at more than a superficial level (i.e., learning information by rote rather than acquiring skills at a deeper or more conceptual level). For both criticisms, there is little or no supporting evidence.
In fact, several studies assessing the long-term effects of viewing Sesame Street echoed the earlier research on the positive educational benefits of the program. Researchers at the Center for Research on the Influences of Television on Children (CRITC) found that preschoolers who watched Sesame Street spent more time reading and engaged in educational activities, and performed significantly better than their peers on age-appropriate standardized achievement tests of letter-word knowledge, mathematical skills, and vocabulary development. Results from a national survey conducted for the U.S. Department of Education revealed significant associations between viewing Sesame Street and the ability of preschoolers to recognize letters of the alphabet and tell connected stories when pretending to read. In addition, when they subsequently entered first and second grade, children who viewed Sesame Street as preschoolers were also more likely to read story books on their own and were less likely to require remedial reading instruction.
Perhaps most notably, a "recontact" study by researchers from CRITC and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst employed a sample of high school students whose television viewing as preschoolers had been tracked ten to fifteen years earlier. The results showed that adolescents who viewed Sesame Street on a frequent basis as preschoolers (compared to those who rarely watch the program) had significantly better grades in high school English, science, and mathematics; read more books for pleasure; perceived themselves to be more competent in school; placed higher value on achievement in math and science; and elected to take more advanced mathematics courses.
Clearly, the curriculum goals included in the Sesame Street segments cannot directly improve high school grades. Rather, it is more likely that a related series of processes can be initiated by watching educational programs. Children who watch Sesame Street enter school not only with good academic skills but with a positive attitude toward education. Perhaps as a result, teachers consider them bright and ready for school, expect high levels of achievement, place them in advanced groups, and give them positive feedback. Early school success, in turn, fosters better learning and greater enthusiasm about school, leading to a trajectory of long-term achievement.
Influence on Social Behavior
Sesame Street can have a significant effect on children's social behavior, but the research evidence is not as strong as it is with cognitive effects, nor are there as many studies in the literature. One of the earliest studies to examine the effect of Sesame Street on social behavior focused on cooperation. Levels of cooperation among children from disadvantaged, inner-city backgrounds were tested before and after viewing the third season of Sesame Street. Results indicated that viewers cooperated more than nonviewers when tested in situations similar to those presented on the program. Also, viewers were more likely than the nonviewers to recognize examples of cooperation presented in the show, to judge the cooperative solutions as "best," and to use the word "cooperation" in an appropriate manner.
These results were consistent with other studies conducted in the 1970s that found exposure to prosocial segments on Sesame Street was associated with positive social behavior only when the measures closely resembled the behaviors modeled in the program. However, results of a small-scale field observational study showed that viewing prosocial segments on Sesame Street reduced aggressive behavior (physical and verbal aggression) in free-play sessions conducted later on the same day.
More generalized effects of viewing Sesame Street episodes that had prosocial content were found in a quasi-experimental study conducted in eight daycare centers. Across eight days, children watched either prosocial or cognitive show segments and engaged in follow-up activities that were either cooperative or individualistic. Observations were made during the activities and during free play, with an eye toward several types of prosocial behavior: positive interaction, cooperation, helping, giving, sharing, turn taking, comforting, and affection. Viewers of the prosocial segments exhibited the highest level of prosocial behavior during the planned activities. Furthermore, viewers of prosocial segments who also participated in cooperative follow-up activities were lowest in antisocial behavior during free-play.
Over the years, Sesame Street has dealt with many social issues relevant to preschoolers (e.g., childbirth, marriage, death). Since its inception, Sesame Street has been a celebration of diversity, and race relations is a core curriculum area. In 1989, as a result of rising racial unrest in the United States, a four-year race relations curriculum initiative was launched to be more explicit about physical and cultural differences and to encourage friendship among people of different races and cultures. In collaboration with the production staff and with consultation from content experts, the Sesame Street Research Department developed curriculum goals to promote positive interactions among five cultural groups: African Americans, American Indians, Latinos, Asian Americans, and white Americans. Emphasis was placed on the similarities that make individuals all human and on fostering an appreciation of racial and cultural differences. Through these curriculum goals, preschoolers were encouraged to perceive people who look different from themselves as possible friends and to bring a child who has been rejected because of physical and/or cultural differences into the group.
Initial results from a series of formative research studies produced striking results, indicating that it was clear that preschoolers were not only aware of racial differences, but the topic was both appropriate and timely. For example, although the majority of African-American, Crow-Indian, Chinese-American, Puerto Rican, and white children tested said that they would want to be friends with children from other groups, less than half reported that their mothers would be positive about them having a friend from another race. Moreover, when given the opportunity to create a neighborhood using paper dolls, white preschoolers, in particular five-year-olds, were significantly more likely than African-American children to segregate cut-out dolls of African-American and white children in homes, schools, playgrounds, churches, and stores.
To achieve a better understanding of the children's nonverbal responses, small groups of white preschoolers were told a story about a group of white children who separated white and African-American children in each of the neighborhood structures. The children were then asked to explain why the children responded as they did. The majority of the white children agreed that the African-American and white children should be separated and gave the following reasons to explain the segregation: physical differences, economics, conflict, existing separate housing, and the opinions of others. However, they also said that the separation would lead to sadness for both white and African-American children.
Based on these results, segments were produced with the intention to counteract some of these beliefs. For example, in direct response to the segregation that was noted in the formative research, two segments were created: "Visiting Ieshia" and "Play Date." In "Visiting Ieshia," a white girl visits an African-American girl in her home. "Play Date" shows a similar family visit with a white boy visiting an African-American friend in his home. Formative research revealed that the majority of the children, regardless of race or sex, found the segments appealing and stated that the visiting white child felt positive about being at the other child's home.
While Sesame Street has varied its formats and approaches over the years to remain innovative, one thing remains constant—its desire to entertain and educate children. By addressing children on their own level, by employing appealing characters and authentic depictions of the children's own worlds, and by continually demonstrating the fun of learning, Sesame Street strives to help all preschool children reach their greatest potential.
See also:Children's Comprehension of Television; Children's Creativity and Television Use; Children's Preferences for Media Content; Minorities and the Media; Public Broadcasting; Researchers for Educational Television Programs; Television, Educational.
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Rosemarie T. Truglio