Sesame Street is one of the most studied and scrutinized educational programs in history. By all accounts, Sesame Street should not have been a success. Early critics were skeptical of the low engagement levels that accompany this educational medium. Traditionally, learning was focused on interaction. By playing to children’s strengths and avoiding their weaknesses, the teacher could tailor the education delivered to meet individual children’s needs. It was the way education had always been done. Three partners set out to prove “that if you can hold the attention of children, you can educate them.” On November 10, 1969, Sesame Street premiered on PBS to positive reviews and some controversy.
What made Sesame Street a success was not the Muppets, integrated animation, or diversity of adult actors. Yes, all of these characteristics were contributing factors, but Sesame Street was a success largely because it was engineered to perfect the learning process through the chosen medium, the television. They turned television’s weakness into a powerful educational tool. Despite the negative comments and in direct opposition to child psychologists and educational theories followed at the time, Sesame Street worked because three people believed that every child, from any background, across any culture should have access to the same learning opportunities at no cost.
Sesame Street experienced its share of growing pains. To prove the critics wrong, the creators needed to continuously refine their processes to achieve their mission of educating children. Every reason for integrating one approach over another was singularly focused on a clear objective. If children were not learning, then Sesame Street was failing. Many people may reflect on Sesame Street and think it was luck and timing that contributed to the show’s success, but the real truth is that it was carefully engineered. The creators studied who they were seeking to serve (preschool aged children), how they learn (focus groups), and the extent of their learning (the “stickiness factor”).
- Sesame Street Students: Joan Ganz Cooney, a television producer in the 1960s had a goal. She wanted to spread literacy using a medium that was already in most homes across the United States, the television. She wanted to develop a one hour program that could air five days a week and would provide children from disadvantaged homes an opportunity to gain a fundamental understanding of letters and numbers so they could be successful when they started elementary school. It was an ambitious goal. She was putting a lot of pressure on a one hour show to hold the attention of an active population of preschoolers. Her singular goal had a higher purpose, to counteract the growing poverty and illiteracy epidemics.
- Sesame Street Studies: The three partners who joined together to change the way education is accessed by preschool aged children knew they had a tough job ahead of them. While they may be young, their target population had very real opinions on what they liked and did not like. This mattered because to achieve their mission, children needed to pay attention.
Early in the show’s development, the creators listened to the advice of child psychologists who said that the fantasy elements of the show needed to be separate from the reality parts of the show to avoid confusion. During a focus group, the creators noticed that children paid attention when the Muppets were on the screen and they received low attention levels when only adults were on screen. Quickly, the creators learned “the artful blend of fluffy monsters and earnest adults.”
Through continued focus groups, the creators discovered several other nuances from their target audience. Ed Palmer developed the Distractor. An approach that used a slide presentation set up next to a television that would show a new slide every seven and a half seconds. Preschoolers were brought into the room and told to watch Sesame Street and when they lost interest, they would look at the slide show. Palmer and his assistants would make notes indicating, down to the second, which parts of the episode were working and what parts were not. They would plot the data points on chart paper two to three feet long. They developed Distractor scores in percentages looking to achieve a consistent 85-90%, at times they achieved 100%. When their benchmark fell below 85%, they went back to the drawing board.
Palmer and his assistants benchmarked Sesame Street against other children’s shows like Tom and Jerry and Captain Kangaroo. They took what they learned week after week, season after season and continued to refine Sesame Street until after the third or fourth season when they rarely had an entire segment go below the 85% Distractor benchmark score. They integrated and tested visual-blending exercises and eye movement photography to assure that the content was being delivered in an effective way. It was not just about holding children’s attention anymore, but also focusing back on their mission, to educate them.
- Sesame Street Stickiness: The show was making extraordinary strides in understanding how children’s minds work. It was vital to the show’s success and ultimately its mission. The creators not only wanted to hold children’s attention and deliver effective content, they also wanted the knowledge to stick. They wanted actual learning to occur so that a foundation could begin to form. Through continued focus groups, the creators continued refining the Sesame Street recipe by understanding how words, characters, and placement all worked together to effectively deliver the fundamentals of reading. While there may be Muppets present in the particular segment, the objective was teaching children watching how to read the word “hug” through visual-blending. Children would see the individual letters spread out, hear the distinct sounds of each letter, and slowly the Muppet on the screen would blend the sounds to say the word “hug.” Sesame Street’s creators understood that to make the lesson “stick,” it needed to focus children’s objective on the words and less on the Muppet.
Sesame Street’s success was not an accident. It was not the result of a late night of television watching coupled with too many slices of cold pizza, although I am not opposed to either of these approaches. Sesame Street is the result of a focused mission from a group of passionate individuals who believed that every child deserves access and an opportunity to achieve their dreams. This foundation begins with an education that is, far too often, just out of reach of those who need it the most. Sesame Street intensely embraced an outcomes assessment approach. They did not just want to create a one hour television show that might have a little impact. They made a deliberate effort to intentionally design a one hour television show that they could prove made a defined global impact. They continued to perfect the learning process because they believed that education changes lives.
How does your institution perfect the learning process and what can we learn from the Street?