Big Bird, Meet Dick and Jane

A critique of Sesame Street

In still other ways we could make clear to children that writing is an extension of powers they already have, and that they got for themselves: namely, the powers of speech. We should constantly remind them that they figured out for themselves how to understand and talk like all the bigger people around them, and that learning to write and to read writing is easy. Writing is a kind of magic or deep-frozen speech, which the writer can use, day after day, to say to everyone who looks at it whatever he wants to say. It is an extension of the voice of the speaker, and since children sense their littleness and want to be larger and more potent, the idea tha through writing they can make their voices reach much further could be very exciting to them.

We might find ways to reveal to children that all the writing they see about them began as someone speaking. With compressed time we could show very vividly the transition from spoken words to words written on signs or posters, where a great many people could see them. We might show a number of ways to write things, with pencil or pen or felt-tipped pen or typewriter, with ditto or mimeo, with printing, with electric signs, even with skywriting. We could show children tricks by which they could teach themselves to write. A small child could ask an adult or older child to write some words for him; the other, using a heavy felt-tipped pen, could write the words in large letters; then the child could put a piece of paper over these, and by tracing them, make his own writing.

The number stuff on Sesame Street and in the Learning Kit could also stand much improvement. In the first place, teaching children to count is not a good way to introduce them to the world of numbers. It leads many of them to think that numbers are a kind of procession of mythical figures, dwarfs maybe, always walking in the same order, the first named One, the next Two, and so on. Even if they have been “taught” to “count” a group of objects by touching them in order, saying “one, two, three," they may not realize that the number is a way of talking about the quantity of objects before them. Later, they may think of all arithmetic as a set of complicated and mysterious ritual dances done by these number dwarfs, without rhyme or reason or connection with anything else. Much on Sesame Street would encourage such fancies. More often than not, numbers appear on the screen only as numerals, with nothing to show the quantities they represent. When a number of objects is shown, the pace is often so fast, the change from one number to the next so quick, that most children cannot tell that the numeral and the number of objects are the same. On one show “7” was the star. Seven rabbits appeared and disappeared, but too quickly to count or notice. A playing card, the seven of clubs, appeared; the black shapes came off the card, turned into birds, and flew into a box, but again much too quickly.

Instead, for any given number, we could show visually many of the properties of the number: whether it is prime or composite (that is, whether it has factors, two numbers that will multiply together to make it); if it has factors, what they are; how many ways it can be divided into two subgroups; how many ways it can be divided into even more subgroups; how we can use the notation of arithmetic to express these properties. Thus, of the number 8, we could show that it is composite; that it can be arranged in rows of two, or rows of four—that is, it has the factors 2 and 4; that we can write this 4 x 2=8, or 2 x 4=8; that it can be divided into two subgroups of 7 and 1, or 6 and 2, or 5 and 3, or 4 and 4; that these can be written 7 + 1=8 or 1 + 7=8 or 8 - 1=7 or 8 - 7=1, and so on. For 7 we could show, among other things, that it is not composite but prime, that when we try to arrange it in two or three rows we always have one left over, or if in four rows, one too few. We could show children figuring this out, so that children watching at home could work out the properties of other numbers without having to wait to see them on the program.

As long as Ernie and those lovable monsters have such a thing going about cookies, why not put it to some use? We might have Ernie deciding to give a little cookie party for the monsters, and trying to figure out how many cookies he would need to give each of them two, how many to give each three, or four, and so on. Also, what it might cost to buy this many cookies. Or we might find Ernie with a supply of cookies, trying to figure out whether he could divide them evenly between two, or three, or more monsters, and how many each would get. He could do the same thing with jelly beans, or he might divide up a supply of jelly beans by weight, as well as by counting them out. Or he might have a cookie eating contest between two monsters, and time them with a stopwatch to see which could eat a certain quantity of cookies in the shortest time.

Shapes. Schools like children to know shapes, so Sesame Street and the books “teach” shapes. On one show we saw a picture of a square, also a line draw ing of a bus. A teachery voice began to ask, in a coaxing, answer-pulling tone, “Now, where do we see the shape of the square on the bus?” A couple of coy Wrong Answers—"Is it the wheels?” The square very slowly approached the wheels, so that children had plenty of time—for once, much more than they needed—to see that the wheels weren’t square. “Is it the windshield?” Same business. “Is it the window?” Again as in school, the teacher’s voice had changed enough to give the answer away—and why is it that the Right Answer so often comes after two wrong ones? This time the square came down over the windows, and we could see that, yes, they were square. On a later show there was a funny bit with Ernie and Bert, Bert trying to get to sleep while Ernie mused about the properties of shapes that squares have all sides equal and all corners the same; that rectangles don’t have all the same sides but that their corners are the same, and like those of squares; that triangles have pointier corners than squares. Then the question that would apparently keep Bert awake all night—does a circle have one side, or none, or many? All very good—but why in words?

In all this talk about numbers there is nothing about what they are for, or how people use them in the world, or how children use or might learn to use them. Numbers are for measuring. Why not show people measuring things in the real world? Why not have adults or older children show younger ones some of the tools or devices we use to measure with, and how to use them—ruler, tape measure, scales, thermometer, barometer, clock, watch, stopwatch, metronome. Why not show some of what we do with these measurements, how we write them down, what we use them for, what we can find out from them? Since certain small children appear regularly on the program, why not from time to time measure their heights and weights, make graphs of them, and show the watching children how to do the same? Why not show children how to hear and measure the rate of their own heartbeat, and compare this with swinging pendulums, or with a metronome? If we are going to use animated cartoons to talk about 7, let us show a cartoon character measuring a thing seven inches long. Better yet, a real basketball player seven feet tall. Or we could show a stopwatch marking off seven seconds, or a scale with a seven-pound weight, or someone jogging seven miles per hour. And so on.

Finally, there is the remarkable failure—could it be a refusal?—of the program to use as a visual and learning resource the city around it, the environment in which most of its intended viewers live. With all the streets of New York at hand, why does the pro gram have to be staged on an imaginary street? Could not at least some of the show be filmed on a succession of real streets, in New York or perhaps other cities, with the real children and people of the neighborhood? Surely it would cause great excitement in any neighborhood if everyone knew that Sesame Street was coming to visit them. Such a visit might do a great deal to pull a neighborhood together, and to create a new sense of community ‘and local pride, from which the children could only benefit.

Or we could take the camera, perhaps shoulder mounted, to any one of a thousand interesting places in New York, or other cities—to airports, to docks where ships, goods, and food come in, to markets, businesses, manufacturing plants, newspapers, TV studios, museums, city councils, courts. The puppets could talk about these visits later. We could show one or more children exploring different parts of the city, using the city as a resource far richer than any school could possibly be. We might, among other things, show children using public transportation—finding a subway station, going in, reading a map to figure out how to get somewhere, asking directions, buying tokens, getting on a car, and so on. Same thing with buses. On a recent show we had a puppet child telling a puppet policeman that he was lost. Why puppets? Why not show a real child looking for a real policeman, and the ways and places in which real policemen are to be found? If a poor black kid who is lost can get kindly help from policeman, let’s show it happening. If he cannot, let’s skip the whole idea and not sweeten it up with puppets. Better show children instead how not to get lost, how to read and use maps. Television can demonstrate that a street map is a very simplified picture of a city taken from above. Why not look at aerial photograph of an area, or neighborhood, then gradually blur out the details of the photo to make a map, put in the names of the streets, and then have a child use the map to get around that same neighborhood? An actor in the program plays the part of a grocer. Has New York City run out of real grocers? Why not film the action in real grocery store and tell how food gets into them, and explain the things that must be done before the food gets on the shelves? Why not let children discover where their food comes from—and please, no Dick and Jane farm with one cow, one duck, one horse… Here again, the matter of pace is important. On a recent show there was a film clip of trains, the camera swooping in and out, and the Swingle Singers singing Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. All very nice, but much too fast and remote for small children. Much better to show a picture or model of a train, and perhaps a child getting on a real train, giving a ticket to a conductor, getting off, and the like. The child has to be able to put himself in the picture he sees, or else it has no connection with his real or imagined life and world; if it is not part of his continuum of experience, there is no way he can grow or get into it—which is, above all else, what is wrong with almost everything that happens in school, and indeed the very idea of school.

A way of summing up all this is to say that Sesame Street still seems built on the idea that its job is to get children ready for school. Suppose it summoned up its courage, took a deep breath, and said, “We are the school.” Suppose it asked itself, not how to help children get better at the task of pleasing first-grade teachers, but how to help them get better at the vastly more interesting and important task—which they are already good at—of learning from the world and people around them.

* The history of the Learning Kit suggests that the Children’s Television Workshop has had a few second thoughts of its own. Arrangements for the Sesame Street Books and the Learning Kit were made before Sesame Street went on the air, and hence long before CTW had any reason to anticipate the resulting public enthusiasm. Book rights were leased to Time-Life, which then contracted with Pre-School Press for the actual editorial production of Sesame Street Books. The Learning Kit that emerged included five books, a record, two posters, a parents’ manual, and program guides (now obsolete and canceled after the program’s first season), all for $19.95. The price tag has embarrassed CTW officials, who think it much too high for all but a few of their 8 million television viewers. Nonetheless, more than 60,000 of the kits have been sold to date (along with some 300,000 of the individual books, priced at $3.95), through Little, Brown’s normal marketing channels, direct mail sales from Time-Life, book clubs; and other outlets. People at CTW have had grave misgivings about other aspects of the books, which they think too literally translated from television, insufficiently sensitive to the unique properties of book form, and finally, not very appealing to children. CTW has hired two editors, Christopher Cerf from Random House and Roberta Miller, a children’s book editor from Golden Press, to oversee all future CTW book production. With the cooperation of Time Life, CTW has modified its original licensing arrangement and quietly discouraged further merchandising of the Learning Kit. In turn, Time-Life has voluntarily agreed to discontinue peripheral marketing of the Sesame Street Kit, though reserving the right to sell its remaining stock through normal sales channels. Altogether, 75,000 kits are in print, and neither Time-Life nor Little, Brown is in a hurry to decide about future printings.

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