Topic 3: Sesame Street

Sesame Street was conceived in a particular context -- a growing American concern for the underachievement of its poor kids and ethnic minority kids in the US public school system. There had been some classic research in the 1960s which located that underachievement in the 'cultural deprivation' of such kids. I have discussed this approach, and a similar concern in Britain in several files on this website (file 1file 2 , and  file 3 , for example). If the home backgrounds of these uinderachieving kids were 'cultural deprived', lacking in adequate stimulus material, impoverished in terms of the social roles kids could see enacted, bereft of rich linguistic interchanges among adults and kids (and all these are highly debatable), then why not use TV to provide these cultural enrichments and stimuli? Better still, why not smuggle them in, unobtrusively, so to speak, disguised as advertisements, clips from movies -- or just as play and fun? If kids are interested in popular culture, why not use popular cultural themes to educate them (a standard assumption of all educational TV I would argue)?

Thus was Seasme Street conceived, and, unlike many other kids' programmes, the whole series was designed on the basis of educational research and educational policy -- the programme makers were to bear in mind definite educational objectives suitable for the pre-school child -- encourage counting,  the naming of objects and the listing of similar objects, teach the alphabet, introduce and illustrate or demonstrate concepts (such as 'near' and 'far') (I paraphrase the precise objectives, but you get the idea). More generally, Sesame Street might also pursue some 'affective objectives' as they are known -- like raising motivation, or encouraging respect and tolerance for others. We have clear echoes of the goals of the comprehensive school movement in Britain in the 1970s -- raising ambition and minimising status differentials by 'social mixing' (see file ). There was one difference at least, though, between the USA and the UK -- the US did not pursue the same kind of 'progressive methods' endorsed by the Plowden Report in the UK. Thus the teaching on Sesame Street is pretty traditional by UK standards -- lots of drills and repetitions, beaming lots of information at an audience that was expected to remain watching pretty passively.

Nevertheless, Sesame Street would offer an effective means of introducing cultural stimulation, or some kind of 'Head Start' (the name of a well-reourced US 'compensatory education programme) for the most deprived kids, so they could commence their schooling on a far more equal footing. (NB the whole 'Head Start' programme has been extensively researched -- and so was Sesame Street). In the research that emerged, and in some of the critical commentaries on the programme, some important issues are raised for the whole project of educational TV, we shall argue.

First though, what of the methodological issues. Did Sesame Street actually work? It is still a controversial matter, this. It seemed easy enough, and at least the programme makers tried the risky business of actually measuring their own effectiveness (pretty rare this) -- they outlined their goals in nice specific measurable terms, so you would think it quite easy to measure kids, say on their counting abilities before and then after the programme, and see if there is any difference. In brief: 

  1. Early work suggested that  there was such a difference, that scores had been raised among kids exposed to the programme, compared to those not so exposed. This comparative approach is very important with young kids, of course, since they undergo rapid developments over fairly short time periods, and so you would expect clear improvements just as the result of maturation (a classic problem with any longitudinal or 'panel' studies, especially of young people, but often overlooked). 
  2. There were other problems too -- the researchers had tried to get the parents interested in the project (partly to get their cooperation in making sure kids watched the programme) -- but this raises the risk of unwanted effects on the data (since the parents were now more interested that they had been before, and this might explain the gains). 
  3. There was the issue of whether these gains provide any actual boost to deprived kids specifically, since less deprived kids also watched and liked the programme, and made gains too (another classic effect demonstrated here -- in the UK most educational reforms designed to help working class kids have benefitted middle class kids even more!). 
  4. Finally, there is the point made by Mattelart (see below) -- the programme makers wanted nice easily quantified data to help justify (and ultimately to sell ) their programmes, so they tended to go for the nice specific objectives. What of the much less easily-measured 'affective ' objectives -- in this case, especially the effects of the programme on kids' social beliefs and values? No-one really knows, because these have never been studied, but critics like Ellsworth and Mattelart have raised serious doubts about the unexamined underlying values (or ideologies) embedded in the programme -- we meet again the argument we met above, that these can contradict and undermine all the good intentions of the programme makers.
Let us get into this second sort of critical analysis, not trying to measure effects as such, but trying to analyse the texts of Sesame Street, to uncover its hidden meanings. If the first sort of research is the province of educational psychologists and sociologists, this second sort of research belongs much more centrally to familiar traditions in Media Studies. We have discussed the ideological effects of 'realism'. for example (here), and how it helps 'position' the viewer as a passive consumer of ideological views of the world. We have also noticed the work of Althusser (see file) on how various 'ideological state apparatuses' create the 'misrecognised' impression we get of ourselves as knowledgeable and active individuals, unaware of the true relation of ourselves to these apparatuses. 

This is the tradition followed by Mattelart in her critique of Sesame Street (well, suitably modified, pretty common in Cultural Studies). Mattelart wants to use this theoretical tradition to examine modern TV especially (never really explored specifically by the Great Men) -- and her work is intersting in its own right as an attempt to do this. For example, she identifies the main technique of TV as not 'hailing'  or even 'positioning' but 'seduction' (developed a good deal since, with the recognition that TV has to win and then keep the attention of its audience, which is quite unlike the viewing conditionsof cinema which we saw above).In brief, Mattelart notes that Sesame Street uses the same techniques to seduce its audience as do TV commercials (quite deliberately so, of course), but asks whether this does not mean that education is reduced to consumerism, with kids being offered little bites of knowledge tied to pretty limited objectives. It is such a nice piece (but a fairly obscure one), that I have included a fuller summary of it in an aside --  click here to get it

This undesirable meshing of the educational and commercial worlds is a theme taken up in other pieces too -- Kinder (see below),or, rather differently, in Tulloch's critique (XX) of quiz shows and the views of knowledge they embody. It is a contribution to the more general work on consumerism as a mode of individuality that is entirely compatible with capitalism that you find elsewhere --eg Gottdeiner on the shopping mall (see file). 

Ellsworth's article is similar in a way. She argues that the forms in which education are delivered can have effects of their own, and critially examines the use of popular forms of communication to convey educational ideas. This is a popular technique across the spectrum, really, in the drive to make education 'fun'. Yet it can have bad effects too, since popular forms are also 'knowledge forms' and can contradict liberating educational intentions. Melodrama, for example, offer sentimental or emotional resolutions to problems, whereas educators might be more interested in cognitive ones. Popular narratives usually focus on individuals and their struggle, which can help conceal the very non-individual, collective or structural forces we are trying to teach about -- and so on. Again, there is a fuller summary of this major piece of work if you click here

Ellsworth offers another reminder of unintended and undesirable consequences of using popular TV as an educational device, in other words, to add to ones already voiced by Bates, Thompson (and for that matter Eco (XX) who also suggests that popular TV needs special cues or moments to break viewers out from a 'normal' and passive mode of viewing into a critical, 'educational' mode).

In fact, I have now recognised this approach as part of a familiar marxist project to warn about the 'commodity form' and the way it reduces the critical impact of cultural materials. This is a major theme in the debates between Adorno and Benjamin on the 'reproduction' of art via paperback books, cheap copies of music recordings or prints of paintings, for example (see gebhardt and thing 19XX). It is also a major theme in discussions of using cinema to convey radical and critical insights, as in the debate about Days of Hope (a famous attempt to use costume drama and soap opera conventions to introduce a Trotskyite view of British industrial and social history) or 'critical realism' (see file). I suppose, thinking aloud for a moment, it might even be possible to consider implications for some classic propaganda pieces that also use popular conventions (biopic, historical drama, soap opera equivalents, epics) to make propaganda fun. For notes on Marx's line on 'commodity fetishism', which is the inspiration for much of this, see this file

Some projects

  1. View some recent episodes of Sesame Street. Note down especially the cognitive objectives of the programmes. Are there any social, moral or affective objectives? How does the programme attempt to achieve its objectives?
  2. Summarise Mattelart's critique. Does it still apply to current versions of Sesame Street? To the CD version of Sesame Street? What about other Children's Television Workshop products (check out the CTW website for some examples of these)?
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