Who, What, Where, When, and How Children Learn from Educational Television

Over the past sixty years, television has moved from an obscure military invention to one of the most pervasive inventions in American culture. Over 98% of American homes have a television and, according to several studies, children watch an average of 22-28 hours of television per week. This number can differ according to age, gender, socioeconomic status (SES) and race, but the presence of television in the lives of developing minds is a prominent one. This paper seeks to discover who, what, where, when and how children learn from educational television and how this presence affects their socialization.

Theories of educational and child development

The major education and youth cognitive theories were in place by the time television became popular in the mid fifties and do not address its potential. However, these theories are pivotal in the creation of educational television a constant factor as it combines the important aspects of interactivity, individualization, dynamic audio/visual synchronization and play necessary for learning. The original theories are briefly described, and their application in the televisual medium is postulated.

John Dewey (b. 1859) initiated the study of education, emphasizing the essential role of the teacher and requirements for the curriculum. Dewey believed that education was “a process of living and not a preparation for future living,” and established criterion for conditions that make an experience educational:

  1. It is based on the children’s interests and grows out of existing knowledge and experience
  2. It supports the children’s development.
  3. It helps the children develop new skills.
  4. It adds to the children’s understanding of the world.
  5. It prepares the children to live more fully.

Therefore the teacher’s role is to make sense of the world for children and guide them through new experiences, not simply offer information to the child with the expectation of retention. He theorized that the teacher must have a strong knowledge base and knowledge of the children as well as invest in observation, planning, organization and documentation to ensure a proper curriculum for each child’s needs. Thus began the exploration into scientifically documenting education in children, which continued through the twentieth century and changes with every new technology.

Maria Montessori (b. 1870) also conducted her studies at the turn of the century investigating the essential role of the environment in Italian insane asylums. Trained in pediatrics, her ability to teach the “unteachable” led to an experimental school in the slums of Rome, which was repeated around the world. Montessori theorized that the in order for children to develop as functioning individuals, they should be surrounded by a beautiful and appropriate environment, often a far cry from their impoverished home life. This referred not just to the aesthetics of the classroom, but to the objects as well. Montessori redesigned her school using smaller, child-sized chairs, tables, and tools for which the children themselves were responsible. She believed that real tools could lead to real work and real responsibility. She believed that teaching the child to appreciate and maintain her workspace fostered competence and responsibility and allowed for an appropriate learning environment. Her theories have changed the way young children are educated and the development of primary school facilities. It also emphasizes the focus on the different learning needs of children, a point still echoed in educational institutions.

The cognition of children was addressed shortly after Dewey and Montessori conducted their in-classroom observations. Youth developmental stages are often attributed to Erikson and Piaget, who primarily address cognition and development respectively.

Erik Erikson (b. 1902) investigated the different stages of social and personal development, looking specifically at how the child developed a relationship with the world. According to Erikson’s 1950 publication Childhood and Society, personal development is encouraged and fostered by social interactions and each stage emphasizes a specific relationship with the self and the world. In the first year of life, the child learns to trust (or not to trust) the world around her by developing attachment and empathy to specific entities. In order to learn that the world is a good place to be, the child must receive constant attention and love in a consistent environment. During the second and third years, the child battles between autonomy and shame or self-doubt; the acquisition of independence fosters self-esteem, pride and confidence. The primary example of this development is the process of potty training; without proper control over the self, the child will experience intense shame thus affecting other interactions. This is fully realized in the fourth and fifth years as the child learns initiative over guilt. Independence is encouraged during this stage; the child learns to take control of the environment and learning is focused on the real world. According to Erikson, it is at this point the child recognizes the human potential for glory or destruction” (Mooney 2000). The child must learn how to use her energy to constructive ends in order to properly integrate into society. This stage should be completed upon preschool; however, each child’s timeline is different.

Jean Piaget’s (b. 1896) interests from social interaction to internal interpretation and studied the methods by which children create knowledge. Trained as an epistemologist, he theorized that the children learn by interacting with the environment and construct knowledge by “giving meaning to people, places, and things in their world” (Mooney 2000). For the first eighteen months, or the sensorimotor stage, children learn through interactions and sensory stimuli. During this time, interactive toys are essential to learning as infants are relatively immobile; yet require cause and effect to comprehend their agency. From eighteen months to approximately six years, the child is in the preoperational stage and forms ideas from direct experience, leading to a very egocentric period of development. Echoing theories of Dewey, children in this stage do not learn well with definitions offered, rather learning improves with multiple examples of the subject combined with assistance from adults. The concept must emerge for the child rather than delivered fully developed (Fowles 1974).

In a combination of social and cognitive theories, Lev Vygotsky (b. 1896) emphasized that these forces interrelated for personal development and cannot be separated. Trained in literature, he brought offered an integrated interpretation. He established the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), or the difference between the most difficult task a child ca accomplish alone and the most difficult task a child can accomplish with assistance (i.e. scaffolding). This encompassed the child’s developmental abilities and the social environment (e.g. family, community, culture). According to this theory, curricula should be designed to extend the children’s knowledge, and not stop at what the children can learn on their own.

All of these theorists emphasize the role of play in the learning process. It offers the opportunity to rehearse the lessons learned. There are five major behavior patterns that children in the preoperational stage demonstrate: imitation, observation/drawing (assimilation and awareness of reality), symbolic/imaginative play (assimilation of reality to self), mental imagery (internalized imitation), and language (verbal imitation). These five behaviors appear almost simultaneously, emphasizing their social and developmental origins, and are essential to the processing, retention and measurement of learning.

How can these theories be employed through television?

The power of television as an educational tool is agreed upon, however, there is a distinct difference between learning and development; “educational programs of any kind, television included, do not influence development directly, but can enhance and enrich it through learning devices at its disposal” (Fowles 1974). Infants are not at the proper development stage to understand and therefore enjoy, television. In 2000, the American Psychological Association (APA) recommended that children under two should not be exposed to any television; a study found that educational television might actually impede children’s learning depending on their development (Anderson 2005). However, these studies were conducted before the emergence of Baby Einstein (including videos and DVDs) and Baby First TV (the “first network for infants”), two television projects designed specifically for infants cannot be expected to retain the same information from programs designed for children over three due to their distinct cognitive development. Despite this warning, the television may provide certain developmental needs for children whose home life may not be optimal. It can provide a consistent companion in unstable environments; it can teach trust, attachment and empathy when better models are not available, thereby limiting issues of separation anxiety and promoting a positive worldview despite current circumstances. Television can turn the home into an interactive, colorful learning environment and extend the experiences of the child, offering interesting worldly things they have not seen before. “This is television’s most useful mission” (Lesser 1974).

For toddlers and preschoolers (age 3-5), television expands their experience by offering more examples in multiple contexts. This allows the child to make stronger connections with reality and independently construct knowledge. Television can adapt to the egocentric needs of children by speaking an audience of many or an audience of one. It can aid in the development of autonomy by repeating daily scenarios that arise in children’s lives and offering potential solutions thus decreasing confusion, shame and doubt. This extends into Erickson’s third stage wherein the child battles between initiative and guilt; television demonstrates beneficial ways to express their energy and alternative ways of interacting with the environment.

The narrative convention of television is essential to its potential as an educational tool. It can teach informal concepts in the context of a child’s life (e.g. near/far, tall/short) (Fowles 1974); it can attach meaning to arbitrary symbols such as letters and numbers and teach the viewer to distinguish them in space and orientation. No former medium truly delivered this synchronization of audio and visual stimuli. With television, children could see the image of a cat onscreen, the word “CAT,” the sound of the animal, and the pronunciation of the word. With its national saturation in place by the mid-sixties, television held amazing promise for educating children regardless of location, primary language, socioeconomic status, domestic situation, and other demographic factors.

A brief history of education on television

Although the major theories of child development and education were established by television’s explosion in the mid-fifties, the educational potential was not addressed until the late sixties, after a generation had been acculturated to television as entertainment. Much of the theory before this time addressed the power of television as an adult educational tool, implying a captive audience; according to Williams (1956), “Television… probably holds greater promise for education than any other single development since the invention of the printing press.” The popularity of children’s programs caused producers to become aware of the power of television as a means of learning. Around the country, children emulated characters from Howdy Doody and The Lone Ranger, sang along to their favorite commercial jingles, and faithfully consumed their favorite programs, many of which were aimed towards entertainment and endorsement, not education.

In 1967, Joan Ganz Cooney, a non-commercial television producer who was trained in education and journalism, approached the Carnegie Corporation with a plan “to foster intellectual and cultural development in preschoolers” (Cooney 1966 in Polsky 1974). Sesame Street was designed as an experimental program for educationally disadvantaged 3-5 year olds. After two years of formative research (conducted before production) and summative analyses (conducted after production to confirm that the material meets goals and examine impact), Sesame Street debuted on November 10, 1969 as the first program with a curriculum that comprehended the learning needs and styles of children.

The necessary conditions for learning, from television or otherwise, are attention, comprehension and retention, all of which can vary by development, personality, and environment (Jonassesn 1981). Sesame Street producers were acutely aware of educational and developmental theory as well as the difference between intentional and incidental (or serendipitous) learning. Regardless of age, viewers learn from both instructional and entertainment television, and this incidental learning is a major component of youth social development. Cooney, the “founding mother” of the program (Borgenicht 1998) recognized the learning potential of commercials and sought to employ their techniques: “if we accept the premise that commercials are effective teachers, it is important to be aware of their characteristics, the most obvious being frequent repetition, clever visual presentation, brevity, and clarity” (Cooney in Polsky 1974). It was necessary for Sesame Street to present its curriculum in an entertaining but educational fashion in order to compete with other programs.

Before venturing into the studies of what and how children learn from education, the criticisms and potential shortcomings of television as an educational medium must be addressed. Television was (and is) criticized as a passive medium, fostering images of hypnotized couch potatoes and mindless zombies. The actual experience of watching a child in front of the television is very different; they are active and interested, eager to interact with characters onscreen, but quick to shift their attention to something more stimulating. Television must complete for the their attention, balancing lessons with entertainment, avoiding content that is not cognitively appropriate, and elicit reactions from the children to keep them interested.

It was also postulated that children would not transfer the knowledge taken from a televised model into the real world. In a study conducted by Bandura, young children watched a video of a woman hiding a teddy bear in a room, while the control watched a woman through a window. With practice, the children in the experimental video condition performed as well as the children in the control condition (1976). Exposure provides the necessary practice to transfer meaning from video images into reality. Once again, social and cognitive development are interrelated and inseparable.

Despite children’s ability to translate televised models into the real world, many criticize the effects of observational learning, based in imitation theory and otherwise known as modeling. This states that by watching models, children learn what is possible, appropriate and permissible by imitating desirable behaviors like altruism, courage and self-control (Lesser 1974). However, critics claim that observational learning can limit the type of learning resulting from television; “It reduces learning to a mechanistic, associative process whereby the viewer copies the behavior (not the thought process, reasoning, intention, or other internal mental process) of the television model without regard to its importance, inference, or meaning” (Jonassen 1981).

Many of these issues are directly addressed by Barbara Fowles in her 1974 paper, “Piaget Meets Big Bird: Is TV a Passive Teacher?” As the associate director of research for the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) and a professor of psychology at the City University of New York, she states that television can be used to guide a child’s thinking and activities as opposed to simply demanding a verbal or physical response. In other words:

“The kind of interaction that transpires between a child and the TV set, and its success as instruction, Is ultimately determined by the design of program content and thee degree to which it reflects understanding of the developmental process, rather than by the inherent properties of the medium itself.”

What do children learn from educational television?

With a curriculum that lists academic skills (numbers and reading), as well as emotional recognition, cooperation and sharing, and diversity as primary goals (See Table 1), extensive studies addressing attention and knowledge retention were conducted to discover the best method to impart this wide ranging lesson plan. Research, producers and educators were gathered to test, produce, and retest content multiple times before it was broadcast. They exhibited an awareness of Piaget’s developmental theory: “Sesame Street may be characterized as a program properly concerned with easing transition from pre-operational level (where a child is functioning) to the concrete level where most of the program’s (and the schools’) teaching objectives are located” (Fowles 1974). Therefore the program did not seek to supplant formal education, but to give the child the necessary tools to better deal with the learning environment before preschool, during influential time in their development.

Measures of Success: Comprehension

The success of Sesame Street and other educational programs is measured by to two scales: academic retention (the ability to recall major concepts presented in the program as well as academic performance in school) and social results in the classroom. The quantifiable evidence for academic performance is staggering. Across multiple studies, children who watch Sesame Street begin school with an advantage: they are equipped with basic reading and counting skills as well as an interest in learning.

In 1970, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) commissioned two studies related to the success of Sesame Street. In the first study, 1000 children aged 3-5 were either encouraged to watch the program or not. After 26 weeks, children who watched the most showed the greatest improvement on a variety of standardized comprehensive test, with the largest gains in letter comprehension. These effects were evident across age, sex, geographic location, SES, native language, and location of viewing (students watched in school and/or at home) (Ball and Bogatz 1970). The study was repeated a year later, confirming the 1970 findings and following up on the prior study’s subjects who were now enrolled in school. Contrary to the critics, viewers were not bored, restless, or passive in the formal classroom and were often rated as better prepared for school than non- or low-viewing classmates.

These studies were criticized for not addressing the role of the parent in the child’s viewing experience (Welch & Watt 1982). However, a repeated study that addressed these factors demonstrated reduced effects, but still significant. In a 1995 report to CTW, Wright and Huston conducted a comprehensive, three-year, longitudinal study investigating at two cohorts (children age 2>5 and 4>7) that included all media consumption as well as parental education and other educational variables. Preschool children who watched more educational television (Sesame Street in particular) spent more time reading and engaged in educational activity. They performed better than peers on age-appropriate standardized achievement test of letter-word knowledge, math skills, vocabulary size and school readiness. These effects were significant even after moderator variables were removed, including parents and primary language (Wright and Huston 2001). This coincided with the 1995 longitudinal correlation study of 10,000 preschoolers. Students who viewed Sesame Street were more likely to recognize letters and tell connected stories when pretending to read. The strongest effect was seen in low SES subjects (Zill, Davies and Daly 1994).

Most impressively, in a “recontact” study, high school students who watched Sesame Street as preschoolers demonstrated significantly better performance in English, mathematics and science. Watching the program led to a Grade Point Average difference of +0.35 for boys and a +0.10 difference for girls (Anderson, Huston, Wright & Collins 1998). Furthermore, viewers used books more often, showed higher academic self-esteem and placed higher value on academic performance. Not only was Sesame Street capable of teaching children basic life skills, it created an interest and desire in learning that followed its viewers through high school and beyond, affecting their academic careers and their social interactions.

Measures of Success: Social Results

Social behavior is difficult to quantify; however the goal of affecting social behavior is an essential component of the Sesame Street curriculum (see Table 1). As mentioned earlier, viewers were not bored in the classroom (Ball & Bogatz 1971), demonstrated improved academic behavior including attentiveness and preparedness (Ball & Bogatz 1971, Wright & Huston 1995; Zill, Davies & Daly, 1994), and continued these behaviors over an extended period of time (Anderson, Huston, Wright & Collins, 1998). However, due to the difficulty in testing social behavior, studies offering these measurements are limited.

Theoretically, exposure to prosocial segments should inspire children to imitate this behavior but in a 1979 study, this was demonstrated not to be the case. Although viewing prosocial segments led to a decrease in aggressive behavior during free play, it did not increase prosocial behavior, despite subjects’ understanding of the concepts presented in the program (Bankart & Anderson 1979). Whether this discrepancy was caused by shortcomings in the program or the experimental design, contradictory evidence was presented in the 1995 study by Zielinska & Chambers, which used eight day care centers for data collection. Prosocial behavior increased after viewing a prosocial segment as compared to a cognitive segment, and this effect was evident regardless of whether viewing was followed by related activities or discussion (Fisch 1999).

The social education of Sesame Street extends to concepts of human relations, including racial diversity and an appreciation for other cultures. In 1989, CTW launched a 4-year race-relations initiative that “was designed to be more explicit about physical and cultural differences and to encourage friendship between people of different races and cultures” (Fisch 1999). The urban setting provided a diverse community on which to build this new module of the curriculum, but the emphasis shifted towards appreciating different cultures and removing barriers that may impede cross-cultural exchange. In a segment entitled “Visiting Iesha,” a young White girl named Olivia spends the night with her friend Iesha who lives in an African-American community. Olivia is welcomed into the group and is exposed to different food and activities. Many of the viewers recalled girls’ activities and 70% recognized that Olivia was happy to be in Iesha’s home. Furthermore, 70% of children said that they would want to play with a Black Barbie doll after viewing the segment (Fisch 1999). This is particularly important when considering earlier trends in racial self-image among Black children in the United States that show an unwillingness to play with Black dolls (Feinman 1979).

How do children learn from educational television?

Attention: The role of attention in learning is intuitive: if one does not pay attention, one will not learn. However, the issues of attention with respect to televisual learning are far more complex. Attention must be actively elicited and retained, especially when the child is surrounded by alternative entertainment sources including family and toys. In addition, children’s processes of attention and retention are different from adult viewers, and proper cognitive capacity has yet to be quantified.

The development of attentional processes with respect to the television is as interesting as cognitive development. From ages 1-4, time spent with television climbs steadily upwards until it begins to level off. Children under 30 months watch television for short bursts of time and often prefer attending to mother or surrounding toys (Anderson 1976). At approximately 30 months, the focus of attention switches dramatically; children turn their back to mother and focus primarily on the television. At this age, it is believed that content becomes comprehendible through a combination of social and cognitive development. Prior to 30 months, the child cannot understand the storylines, editing styles, and general format of television; but with exposure and the right processing capabilities, the television becomes an intriguing, colorful, active component in the child’s life. It functions as a toy, a companion, and a learning source that seeks to maintain its viewers attention.

Even with viewers who understand the format of television, it was necessary to discover what aspects of television attract 3-5 year-olds. Moving images were not enough; the child must comprehend the segment in its entirety to ensure active learning. To accomplish this, Sesame Street producers hired Ed Palmer, a psychologist researching children’s television. He presented children with two monitors, one of which aired an episode of Sesame Street while the other presented a distracter, a slide show that alternated images every seven seconds. When children became bored or disinterested in the program content, their attention would shift to the slide show. Observers documented the children’s gaze during the entire program, resulting in a second-by-second analysis of children’s attention with respect to a given episode (Gladwell 2000). It was found that children were more interested in segments that were appropriately designed for their cognitive level visually, aurally, and academically. Furthermore, it was shown that children preferred to watch other children as compared to adults (Lesser 1974) and women to men (Anderson 1976).

In 1982, Welsh and Watt tested the effect of visual complexity on attention and retention by young children. Visual complexity is special to television; it holds the power to combine moving images with text and sound thereby enhancing the learning experience. However, if the visual field is too complex, children will not understand and divert their attention elsewhere. Their resulting path analysis is available in Figure 1. Static complexity (an increase in the number of objects and associated contours that define them) led to reduced attention, recall and recognition, while dynamic complexity (active or moving objects) led to an increase in recognition and visual attention, which in turn positively affected recall (Welsh & Watt 1982).

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Figure 1: Welsh and Watt (1982)

The shocker came when Lorch and Anderson discovered that attention was not correlated to comprehension of storylines and concepts. Children aged 3-5 watched Sesame Street in an empty room (control) or with toys. Although the visual attention in the control condition was nearly twice that of the experimental group, there was no difference in comprehension. However, visual attention led to greater understanding of characters, which is relatively inconsequential to the overall message of the program (1979). The most effective production strategy was to enhance comprehension thereby enhancing visual attention. In combination with the previous research, Sesame Street limited their segments to 3-5 minutes, reduced complexity enough to ensure attention without confusion, and refused to waste a minute of screen time.

Furthermore, repetition improved comprehension without causing a reduction in attention (Crawley 1999). Children showed a preference for repeated content; over multiple viewings, verbal and nonverbal interactions greatly increased, comprehension improved, and children demonstrated an increased application of problem solving strategy. When the subject reached the ceiling comprehension score, attention quickly dropped as the program became boring and actually repetitive. This supported earlier findings that the repetition of books causes children to ask more meaning-based questions superficial, and enjoyment increased with comprehension (Crawley 1999). With this knowledge in hand, Nickelodeon opted to play the same Blue’s Clues episode five times during the week, allowing for children to fully understand and interact with the episode before moving onto another topic and narrative. Increased mental effort comes with greater comprehension thereby causing greater interaction.

Other formatting techniques include nonverbal cues and music. In an investigation of audio processing, comprehension on concrete subjects such as cooperation and sharing were unaffected by the inclusion of English words (Fisch 2001), even though children seem to exhibit a preference for their native language. This is evident in many children’s programs where concepts are conveyed through visual information and non-sensical dialogue (e.g. 2 Headed Monster Story), a style that transcends these conditions. Along these lines, songs are regularly employed, and highly recognized and repeated by children. Despite active participation with the song (e.g. singing and dancing), songs emphasize recall without comprehension. Studies have shown that songs are processed at a superficial level and singing actually has a negative impact on recognition of verbally presented content (Calvert 2001). These issues echo concerns originally made by Fowles questioning the specificity of television. She claimed that television was too specific “because the concept is tied to a particular, concrete, usually familiar context” (Fowles 1974). In the case of learning through song, children become attached to the song itself, not necessarily the content (Calvert 2001).

Fisch’s Capacity Model: The method by which children absorb and retain information disseminated by television is still unconfirmed. It is a combination of intentional and incidental learning; children are aware that they are learning but it is fun, intriguing, and designed specifically for them, therefore, the learning process is not a forced one. It is clear what attracts and maintains children’s attention, but how is this information processed into long-term memory? According to Fisch, the answer lies in the limits of working memory.

The role of the working, or short-term, memory is to immediately process recently acquired information in order to determine whether or not the information should be retained in long-term memory. Adult working memory has a maximum capacity of approximately 7 ± 2 items (Miller 1959), and can quickly become overloaded if presented with information not properly designed for these conditions. The limited capacity of working memory constrains the amount and depth of processing when participating in simultaneous processes. Therefore, a well-designed children’s educational program should attempt to reduce cognitive overload by catering to the child’s limited resources.

According to Fisch, the allocation of working memory resources in children during television viewing is divided into two major categories: narrative content and educational content. Narrative content is defined by the program’s story including the sequence of events and character goals; educational content refers to the “underlying educational concepts” in the program’s curriculum including declarative knowledge (e.g. facts) and procedural knowledge (e.g. problem solving) (Fisch 1999) Television is culturally situated as an entertainment medium and primary resources are dedicated to understanding the narrative content; remaining resources are allocated to educational content.. The child struggles to comprehend both simultaneously and the quantity of required resources changes over time with the child’s physical and cognitive development, but programs can be designed for efficient processing. This is achieved by decreasing the resources necessary for narrative and educational processing, and by reducing the distance between narrative and educational content (See Figure 2).

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Figure 2: Fisch (1999)

Reducing Narrative Processing: There are many methods to reduce narrative processing: simplify the narrative as well as employ prior knowledge and schemas. Simple narratives are essential to educational television due to their power to convey ideas and concepts. In addition, if the child is familiar with the story, fewer resources will be required to understand it; hence the multiple parodies present in Sesame Street (e.g. News Flash: Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe). Television has the power to remind the viewer of earlier experiences thereby activating prior knowledge. The program may also decrease processing effort by using genres (e.g. westerns, music videos) and television conventions (e.g. cuts, fades, montage) that the child is familiar with. It takes time to develop these skills and experiences, and this development may be related to the drastic change in attention and viewing habits at 30 months.

The effects of reducing narrative processing are evident in the repeat format of Blue’s Clues. Over the week, the narrative becomes clear to the children and the resources necessary for understanding the story can be shifted to processing the educational content. In addition, attention and interest increased with repeated viewings (Crawley 1999), thus increasing the overall pool of resources dedicated to processing the program.

Reducing Educational Processing: Increasing the clarity of the presentation and the explicitness of the content can moderate the necessary resources for educational processing to ensure that this content is not lost. However, this is only beneficial if the child is developmentally prepared to receive the information, once again occurring after 30 months. Verbal and reasoning ability affect processing and viewer interest can increase total processing resources. Furthermore, activating prior knowledge can reduce the amount of resources required, thus leading to better comprehension of the presented information. Fisch emphasizes the effects of visual information and intonation in a 2001 study that measured comprehension across different concepts (cooperation/honesty) and verbal content (inclusion/exclusion of limited English words). As mentioned above, the inclusion of English words had a negative effect on the comprehension of the concrete concept of cooperation, but no difference in the comprehension of honesty. It seems that attending to the words actually placed more demands on processing resources unnecessarily (Fisch 2001).

Reducing the distance: The third component of this model is the distance between the narrative content and the educational content. “When educational content is tangential to the central narrative of a television program, the two parallel processes of comprehension compete for limited resources in working memory” (Fisch 1999). Referred to as “content on the plotline” by CTW producers, this distance can be reduced if educational content is embedded and essential to the narrative content. If the educational content is integral to or intertwined with the narrative, there is no competition for the limited resources; the parallel processes are complementary. This was found to be true in a 1995 study of Cro, a Saturday morning cartoon teaching physics through the experiences of a young Cro-Magnon man. Episodes where the educational content was closely tied to the narrative produced significant effects, while those with a greater distance did not. This is well documented in the Sesame Street segment, “The Golden An,” where a couple of robbers try to hash out the plan to stash the Golden ‘AN,’ which involves taking it to Stan in a tan van, so he can pass it onto Fran (The Golden An).


Television has become one of the most omnipresent aspects of American life and children are habituated to television and its endless stimulation before they learn to walk. The power of television transcends race, gender, socioeconomic status, and location to name a few demographic factors. Even though Sesame Street was originally intended to offer basic skills to disadvantaged children in urban settings, it has become a global childhood phenomenon, spanning over 35 years and generating more than 30 different regional spin-offs. Sesame Street is the standard for children’s educational programming around the world, and its role in the hearts and minds of multiple generations is significant.

Who: Television is a complex medium with its own conventions which vary from culture to culture, however, its ubiquity among American homes makes it an educational venue for everyone. Sesame Street realized the potential of using incidental learning strategies to better prepare young children for life. Across multiple studies, viewing has led to increased test scores and improved social behavior in the classroom regardless of demographic status; in fact, low SES viewers often make the greatest gains. This may be due to initial disadvantage, however, Sesame Street’s diverse urban setting replicates this group’s current situation. Children’s comprehension of television narrative is enhanced when their ethnic and social class background matches that of characters and situations (Newcomb & Collins 1979).

What: Sesame Street can teach anything from letters and numbers to sharing and cooperation, from self-esteem to race relations. Although the strongest effect has been seen with letters and counting, the format, which actively involves children through a combination of entertainment and education, allows for less concrete concepts to be explained. In 1983, Mr. Hooper (a regular character) died and producers chose to address the event on Sesame Street. They sought to convey three major ideas: (1) that Mr. Hooper was dead, (2) that Mr. Hooper would not be coming back, and (3) that the other characters were sad. This format offered parents the opportunity to discuss death according to their beliefs, but explained that death was a part of life. Research found that more than three-fourths of the 3-5 year olds tested understood the concepts in the show (Fisch 1999).

Where: Sesame Street has become an essential part of childhood. In the 1969 proposal to the Carnegie Corporation, Cooney stipulated four differing viewing locations to emphasize: (1) in the home and educating mothers on how to interact with the program, (2) in the classroom working with teachers to integrate the program into their curriculum, (3) in daycare centers, and (4) in viewing groups created for impoverished areas (Polsky 1974). However, these viewing groups were phased out over time, as children were internally motivated to watch the program at home. Sesame Street’s format makes it applicable to a variety of locations and cultures far beyond the “where” that we are familiar with (e.g. Olga Oceano Ogro Oscar).

When: According to many theories, the curriculum and presentation must be designed for the cognitive development of the child. By targeting children ages 3-5, producers captured an influential segment of development where television can speak directly to their needs. Originally, Muppets and humans maintained independent scenes onscreen under the assumption that children could not merge fantasy and reality. However, “real world” scenes lost children’s attention; fantasy and reality were merged in their mind, and they expected to see this replayed onscreen (Borgenicht 1998). Once again television’s medium specificity allows this fantastical world to be delivered to children under five. It is simultaneously public and egocentric; it is simple and complex; it has the power to contrast regular experiences (television viewing) with beautiful, worldly things that children have never seen before, thereby expanding their daily life. All of these factors highlight the power of television to teach long before the standard educational system.

How: The system by which children learn from educational television is still a confusing one. It is a complex process involving attention, interest, and cognitive capabilities. The subjects are active, and easily distracted, but once their attention is captured, the teacher still has to contend with the workings of the infant mind, which can differ dramatically from a grown adult. The program must employ simple and familiar narratives with clearly presented concepts that fold into an integrated, exciting, presentation. This is a seemingly easy summation of the incredibly complex cultural phenomenon known as educational television. Perhaps this is best summarized in Cooney’s analysis of Sesame Street’s intention…

“A television program would be very useful which would teach young children how to think, not what to think.” (Polsky 1974).


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About charisselpree

The Media Made Me Crazy
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