Education

‘Sesame Street’ Incorporates Theories on Cognition

By Mark Walsh — December 06, 1995 2 min read
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A new “Sesame Street” season usually brings some updated themes, perhaps a new Muppet or two, and cameo appearances by a fresh band of celebrities.

For the venerable show’s 27th season, which began last month on the Public Broadcasting Service, its creators have made some changes that are less conspicuous, but equally important from an education standpoint.

To make the show more responsive to the way children learn, the “Sesame Street” staff consulted the work of Howard Gardner, the Harvard University professor known for his theory of “multiple intelligences.”

In planning for the 130 new hourlong daily episodes, the producers have tried to incorporate Mr. Gardner’s theory, said Valeria O. Lovelace, the director of research for “Sesame Street” and the assistant vice president of the Children’s Television Workshop, which produces the show.

“In some ways, we always felt we were doing this,” Ms. Lovelace said. “We always believed we were emphasizing some things musically, or stressing interpersonal communications. Now we are able to take this theory and present it more systematically.”

One on-air result of the process is that certain concepts will be presented more frequently in clusters, rather than appearing randomly throughout an episode. For example, a lesson on the letter N might include three separate segments in a row.

“We were very surprised at how children in our research responded” to clustering, Ms. Lovelace said. “By the second segment, they are more animated. By the third, they are very much engaged.”

“Sesame Street” will for the second straight year stress literacy. Another focus this year will be interpersonal communications, Ms. Lovelace said.

Children and Celebrities

The show will also give its child actors greater prominence alongside Muppet characters, such as Big Bird, Elmo, and Zoe, and the longtime adult characters. Cameo appearances have been set for singer Tony Bennett, comic Ellen DeGeneres, and actors Patrick Stewart and Laurence Fishburne.

“Sesame Street” was credited in a major study released last spring with helping prepare children for school. (See Education Week, June 7, 1995.)

But critics have persistently argued that the show teaches children to love television more than learning. In this fall’s City Journal, the magazine of the Manhattan Institute, a public-policy organization in New York City, writer Kay S. Hymowitz lambastes “Sesame Street” for instructing children in the “conventions of anti-intellectual pop culture” and for doing more harm than good to literacy.

“Stripped of all the noise and color, the fun and the speed, the sophisticated design-school aesthetic and the unfailing wittiness, it is nothing more than a disjointed series of animated flash cards,” Ms. Hymowitz writes.

Ms. Lovelace responded that it is difficult to hold children’s attention even for a beneficial show like “Sesame Street” and thus it must be made entertaining.

“We know that television can be a positive tool in learning,” she said. “Knowing that people are critical of ‘Sesame Street’ only makes us work harder to do a better job.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 06, 1995 edition of Education Week as ‘Sesame Street’ Incorporates Theories on Cognition

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