Extending Sesame Street’s success story

When educational media producers and learning scientists join forces
See-ming Lee, flickr.com, c
See-ming Lee, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Fifty years ago, public affairs producer Joan Ganz Cooney published a groundbreaking report on the potential of television as an educational medium for preschoolers. For her four-month-long study, Cooney surveyed cognitive psychologists, preschool educators, and her colleagues in entertainment. Nearly all liked the idea of a daily, hour-long program designed to be viewed at home by 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds.

Her vision eventually became Sesame Street, a children’s television series that used puppets, music, and humor to engage and teach preschoolers. The show exploded in popularity during its first decade on air and is now considered the single largest informal educator in the world, reaching over 100 million children and families in more than 140 countries.

Since Cooney’s initial report, a key part of Sesame Street‘s winning formula has been the collaboration of creative professionals with scientists throughout production. A number of children’s media producers are realizing the power of working closely with researchers — not only turning to them for feedback on a finished product, but gathering their insights during the creation process as well.

Several talks touched on this type of collaborative work at the Society for Research in Child Development‘s special topic meeting, Technology and Media in Children’s Development. The meeting brought together a diverse mix of developmental psychologists, technology developers, and media producers to discuss the role of technology and media in children’s lives.

Jillian Orr, Executive Producer of Children’s Media at public media station WGBH, described the symbiotic relationship between media and academia during her talk titled “The Power of Learning Scientists and How Educational Media Can Change With Their Involvement.” Her focus is digital media for preschoolers that include educational apps and games.

Traditionally for WGBH programs — for instance, Curious George’s Busy Day which teaches kids numbers and counting using 16 online games — Orr and her colleagues seek advice from educational consultants (e.g. early childhood professionals) throughout production. The finished programs are then evaluated by nonprofit research agency WestEd for educational effectiveness.

As with Curious George’s Busy Day, learning scientists are used to the roles of consultant or evaluator for media projects, but not co-developer.

“Curious George is a character that so many people know and love, so we were really happy that when all was said and done, WestEd did their research and found out that children in fact learned the mathematics concepts” she said. “But we wanted to know, what happens when we really involve learning scientists in the co-development process?”

Scientist as media developer

As part of a large 4-year grant from the National Science Foundation, public media producers at WGBH closely collaborated with researchers at two non-profit research centers, Education Development Center (EDC) and SRI International, to develop a new program called Early Math with Gracie and Friends. The team also received feedback from 53 teachers and over 300 children that guided revisions.

“For most of the projects, learning scientists tend to come in on at the end when we have a finished project, and they research it,” said Orr. “But this project is a true collaboration between content development and two different research teams.”

The research teams included experts in educational psychology, educational technology, and early childhood development. The Gracie and Friends project began with learning goals based on learning trajectories research. From there, a learning blueprint linked learning goals with instructional and assessment tasks, which guided every decision that the team made. The finished product consisted of 8 apps, 38 hands-on and traditional preschool activities, and a digital Teacher’s Guide.

In a randomized study of 170 preschoolers, the team found that children who used the Gracie and Friends material significantly outperformed the control group in a post-test on the related math content.

“This co-development project with learning scientists actually was the cornerstone project for a new initiative at WGBH that focuses on what technology is really doing for children,” Orr said. “How can we partner with pediatricians, parents, children, and learning scientists to really use public media to shape and support research? That was our end goal.”

The teamwork behind Sesame Street’s success

Rosemarie Truglio, Vice President of Education and Research at Sesame Workshop, outlined the collaborative process that has worked well for the long-running Sesame Street during her conference talk. The production model for the show started with Cooney’s idea that television could teach young children foundational skills to help them better prepare for kindergarten.

Then, the model uses interdisciplinary teamwork that brings many different points of view to the table — which can be challenging, but ultimately well worth the trouble.

“Developmental psychologists are key to bringing the learning sciences, but we also need the early childhood educators who know how to create curriculum, because the content we create across our platforms start with curriculum goals and a curriculum,” said Truglio. “Lastly, we have to work hand-in-hand with the creative process, and that’s where production comes in, your writers and your producers.”

The team first identifies an educational or societal need that the episode will focus on, such as literacy or STEM education. A curriculum seminar brings together Sesame Workshop’s internal team of developmental psychologists and early childhood educators, but also academic researchers for specific expertise. The curriculum is revised with their input, and the curriculum objects go to the content creators.

Finally, the content is reviewed using preschoolers for testing its entertainment and educational value before becoming finalized.

“Sesame’s curriculum is revised on an annual basis,” Truglio said. “It is a dynamic curriculum, and it has to be because we’re constantly learning about what are the best practices from the learning scientists.”

Both Truglio and Orr acknowledge that academics and creatives can easily butt heads during such collaborative work. But ultimately, such partnerships are first and foremost about putting children and their education first — a stance that everybody, no matter what their professional expertise, can get behind.