Sesame Street's lesson in teaching with character

6th November 2009 at 00:00

This is a birthday card to one of my greatest teachers. Every time I use an index I give thanks for the teacher who taught me the ABC song and I still find timeless guidance and inspiration with my teacher: Sesame Street.

When Sesame Street turns 40 on Tuesday, Michelle Obama will guest on the programme (Sarah Palin would probably have shot Mr Snuffleupagus on sight).

My hope is that the programme will also honour the first lady of Sesame Street - and, arguably, children's television in general - Joan Ganz Cooney.

It was at a dinner party in 1966 that Mrs Cooney, a television producer, began chatting to Lloyd Morrisett, vice-president of the Carnegie Foundation, who described his three-year-old daughter's propensity to watch television, even staring at the test card at 6.30am.

As the writer Michael Davis describes in his book Street Gang, this conversation led to the Children's Television Workshop and a street built on one insight: if you can hold a child's attention you can educate them. This was the first time educators reached for the medium of television. The result is lessons some of you could still sing along to - and through the wonder of YouTube you still can: "Now I know my ABC" or "Let's sing a song about 10" (which features an accident- prone baker dropping a tray of chocolate cakes).

Recently on these pages, the sociologist Frank Furedi attacked the preoccupation with motivation that he perceives in our education system. He is concerned that "intellectual content ... is subordinated to the imperative of motivation". But I'd see that as a worthwhile path to follow - you can't teach if they ain't learning.

However, I think Furedi needs to make a distinction about the nature of the motivation involved. This is something that Sesame Street got right. These weren't sugared cartoons designed to mask the bitter taste of learning. The learning was the content of the motivation. Intrinsic to the catchy song was the learning about numbers, shapes or neighbourhoods.

The characters also taught vital life lessons. The BBC turned it down as authoritarian indoctrination, but from the outset Mrs Cooney knew she had a medium that could teach big lessons. Born in the civil rights era, the first character on the street was the role model of the decades ahead: Gordon, the black science teacher.

If there was an issue, Sesame Street addressed it. Down's syndrome, breast feeding, adoption - the street was open about the things children wanted to know and that adults would sometimes conceal. This was most in evidence on Thanksgiving Day in 1983. Actor Will Lee, who played old Mr Hooper, had recently died and, instead of writing the character out, Susan explained to Big Bird: "Mr Hooper's not coming back" in a scene that went on to epitomise unpatronising pedagogy.

The street was also crusading in its choice of setting. The old brownstone buildings drew on sketches set designer Charles Rosen produced on the streets of Harlem. Mrs Cooney confesses that when she first saw them she "turned several shades paler than usual", but, supported by workshops in city neighbourhoods, the decision was taken to consciously steer this educational initiative towards deprived, urban communities.

What made these streets different was the inclusion of a wholly other cast. At one of the campus meetings that led to the series, Mrs Cooney noticed "this bearded, prophetic figure in sandals" walk into the back of the room.

This was a time of campus unrest when radicals were blowing up buildings. Mrs Cooney asked someone if the hippie might be a threat. "Not likely," came the response, "That's Jim Henson." The Muppets had arrived.

Originally, researchers felt that it wouldn't work to mix the monsters and the real life. It proved the other way round. Muppets brought the street to life. They provided a way of engaging with children as they really are: bumbling, clumsy, grouchy, wild and hungry - it was all there, sign-posting the need for emotional intelligence as just as important a path to success as academic achievement.

In his book The Tipping Point, sociologist Malcolm Gladwell chronicles the efforts made by the shows makers to engage children, reflect their realities and play with their fantasies. It's this, he suggests, that gave the programme a quality he describes as "stickiness".

Isn't that what we're all seeking as educators - learning that sticks? Both as a learner and as a teacher I still watch this series and ask: "Can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?"

This article has been brought to you by the letter "S" and the number "40".

Magazine, pages 22-25

Huw Thomas, Head of Emmaus Catholic and CofE Primary School, Sheffield.

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