Sesame Street Undermines Education?!

Growing up in the 70s and 80s, Sesame Street was a part of my television viewing diet – “…can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street.”  Bert and Ernie, Big Bird, Snufalufagus, Oscar the Grouch, The Count and Grover were all part of my early learning days.  My mother would find me in front of the television during the show singing the latest number song of the day and still singing it a day later – “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 122222222.”  I remember some of them to this day.  So when I read the quote about Sesame Street  by Neil Postman, I was shocked – ““…We now know that “Sesame Street” encourages children to love school only if school is like “Sesame Street.” Which is to say, we now know that “Sesame Street” undermines what the traditional idea of schooling represents.” In other words, children will only love school if there is an entertainment value to it which they experience through watching “Sesame Stree.” Perhaps there is some truth behind it, as today we may replace “Sesame Street” with Fortnite or Mindcraft. But, there is also a need to look at the value and role of AV technology in education from a more contemporary point of view.

When I consider the traditional ideas of school, I develop a picture in my mind that is very different than what I would see walking into a classroom today. I remember my early years of education involving sitting in rows, working on worksheets, reading Dick and Jane, and dutifully listening to the teacher teach a lesson on the blackboard. There were occasional filmstrips and listening activites, but much of my early learning involved putting pencil to paper and doing my very best to receive the stamp or sticker of approval. Teaching and learning was centred around and directed by the teacher. Learning was something you were expected to do, not necessarily for the love of doing. It was behaviorism mixed in with a little cognitivism. Don’t get me wrong – I am still a proponent of reading books and putting my pen to paper. I actually have my students write their rough drafts in a notebook before turning to the computer to compose. While I value the traditional ideas of schooling, I also believe teaching and learning have evolved and become so much more, and AV technology has a lot to do with that.

“Sesame Street” has been with us for 50 seasons!!! It all started in the 1969 and is still airing today. According to Wikipedia, “Sesame Street” has been watched by approximately 86 million Americans, has received 189 Emmy awards and 11 Grammy awards. Throughout its history, “Sesame Street” has responded to changes in viewer attention spans, events in society and cultural shifts, and even to some extent changing learning theories. They employ teams of researchers to support the writing of the educational content and even to conduct studies to determine the impact and effect of the programming on its young viewers. This is not just some show produced in a back room, but one that has a team of people behind it creating content that is backed by theory and research.

So that being said, what could be the element of truth in Postman’s quote? It is the idea that television and technology create an expectation that education and learning should be entertaining and fun. I have often found in conversation that I referred to myself as an entertainer. I believe in one of my previous blog posts, I mentioned that I had done everything, almost to the point of doing a handstand and juggling balls, to engage my students in learning. So, in some ways I can see where Postman is coming from. Teachers are competing with the flashy and exciting worlds of Fortnite, Mindcraft, and social media, and it is tough competition. But the incorporation of AV technology and social media into our classrooms is closing the gap. I think Nicolaou, Matsiola, and Kalliris (2019, p. 7) sum it up in this quote:

“…contemporary students belong to a generation that has a short attention span and wants to learn at their own pace; taking that into account, the incorporation of interactive online materials helps students to better comprehend the teaching material…incorporation of social media may result in the creation of progressive, interactive and effective learning environments.”

What teacher would not want a learning environment that is progressive, interactive, and effective? I believe it is what majority of teachers strive for on any given day.

When “Sesame Street” was conceived, researchers were recognizing that young people had short attention spans. “Sesame Street” created their programming with this research in mind by using short clips, humor, music, and visual aids to engage students in learning and to foster an enjoyment of learning. Today, educators harnass the power of AV technology and social media to engage our students and to adapt to their way of learning – through watching, interacting, and being actively involved in the technologies. As Nicolaou, Matisiola, and Kalliris (2019 p. 3), our “…contemporary society is highly visualized…visual media are essential elements, since they have the ability to increase the effectiveness of teaching…” Like “Sesame Street,” perhaps we can also argue that even though these visual medias bring an element of entertainment into our classrooms, they can also engage our students and promote an enjoyment of learning, taking us beyond some of the traditional ideas of schooling as a means to an end.

© Viktoria Kazakova/Shutterstock.com

Today with the introduction of learning theories like connectivism (Siemens, 2005), we are moving in the direction of learning being “…a continual process, lasting for a lifetime.” Siemens points out that signficant trends in learning include a move away from formal education, the idea that technology is rewiring our brains, and that many learning processes can now be handled and supported by technology. He further notes that many of the traditional learning theories, and even ideas of schooling, leave out learning that is done with technology, and that we are needing “an entirely new approach…” (Siemens, 2005) to learning. Today’s learning is steeped in forming connections and includes technology – “including technology and connection making as learning activites begins to move learning theories into a digital age.”

Photo by Oladimeji Ajegbile on Pexels.com

We can possibly look at “Sesame Street” as an early starter in the movement toward a connectivism learning theory. Through television technology, children were learning the abc’s and 123’s through visual literacy and connections with the people and characters they tuned into on a daily basis. Was it entertaining? Yes. Did it undermine the traditional ideas of schooling? Maybe. But is that such a bad thing. Maybe it is time to move away from the more traditional ideas of schooling and embrace learning that has connection to the students sitting in our classrooms. When we look at the meaning of the word entertainment, it means to amuse and provide enjoyment. As learning becomes a continuous process and a life long journey, what harm is there in making it enjoyable. A lifetime is a long time to be doing something one does not love and relish.

With the rise of the digital age, we must extend beyond our traditional thinking of schools, learning, teaching, and education. Although these traditional ideas may still have a place in our repertoires, we need to find new approaches from these ideas to use in our technology-enhance learning environments (Nicolaou, Matsiola, and Kalliris, 2019). Today, “technology has established a new form of literacy [and learning]…Educators of all educational stages should expand their concept and embrace visual literacy to match the current reality” (Nicolaou, Matsiola, and Kalliris 2019, p. 8). If it encourages motivated, engaged and active learning with some entertainment, fun and enjoyment thrown in, consider it a bonus. Sorry Mr. Postman!

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