Big Bird, Meet Dick and Jane

A critique of Sesame Street

I have watched Sesame Street, perhaps a dozen or more times, off and on since it began, most recently a number of times in succession. I love Ernie, Bert, the monsters, and indeed all the puppets. The animated cartoons are done with great style, verve, and wit. The music is very good; some of the tunes, like the theme, or the one for counting from 1 to 10, really stick in the mind. Most of all, I enjoy the humor of the program—dry, deadpan, ironic.

The show is much better than most of what has been offered to children on TV, and it seems to be an unqualified success. Children watch it, like it, and according to tests, are learning much of what it is trying to teach. Nonetheless, and in spite of all its successes, I feel very strongly that Sesame Street has aimed too low, has misunderstood the problem it is trying to cure, and will be a disappointment in the long run. I also feel that it has misunderstood the nature and underestimated the opportunities of its chief subject, the three R’s, and its medium, television; and therefore, that even what it sets out to do in the short run it does not do nearly as well as it might.

The operating assumption of the program is probably something like this: poor kids do badly in school because they have a “learning deficit." Schools, and school people, all assume that when kids come to the first grade they will know certain things, be used to thinking and talking in a certain way, and be able to respond to certain kinds ul questions and demands. Rich kids on the whole know all this; poor kids on the whole do not. Therefore, if we can just make sure that the poor kids know what the rich kids know by the time they get to school, they will do just as well there as the rich kids. So goes the argument. I don’t believe it. Poor kids and rich kids are more alike when they come to school than is commonly believed, and the difference is not the main reason poor kids do badly when they get there. In most ways, schools are rigged against the poor; curing “learning deficits,” by Head Start, Sesame Street , or any other means, is not going to change that.

The program asks, “How can we get children ready to learn what the schools are going to teach them?", instead of “How can we help them learn what the schools may never teach them?” This is the first of its lost, or not yet seen, opportunities—to be very different from school. Instead, it is like a conventional school run by supergifted teachers. It is full of little invisible lesson plans, complete with behavioral objectives and motivating devices. It assumes, like most schools, that nobody ever learns anything by himself, naturally, incidentally, as a byproduct of doing or attending to something important to him; that on the contrary, everything, however trivial, must be deliberately taught, and will be thought best if it is taught all by itself, cut off from all connections with the rest of life. Sesame Street schedules a couple of minutes to “teach” the difference between the words “more” and “less,” or between the words “think,” “hope,” “imagine"; to teach that the corners of a square are all alike, that the numeral 7 has the name “seven,” that people don’t change just because they put on different clothes, or whatever it may be. The continuum of, life, or experience, is everywhere destroyed; the separate bits of one Sesame Street program can be interchanged with the separate bits of any other.

Learning on Sesame Street, as in school, means learning Right Answers, and as in school, Right Answers come from grown-ups. We see children figuring things out. As in school, we hear children responding, without much animation or imagination, to leading questions put by adults. But we rarely see them figuring things out; in fact, we rarely see children doing anything. On two recent programs, children did a dance shown them by a grown-up, followed grown-ups in bringing cardboard hoxes so that Big Bird could make a tower of eleven of them, played a dull same-difference game with shoes, and sat mute while the grocery-store keeper asked them a question that none of them could answer. In one episode, two children played a game with a jigsaw puzzle as big as they were. But most of the time when we see children on the program, they are standing around, often looking uneasy, while an adult shows or tells them things, or asks school-style questions to which he obviously already has the answer

In spite of its visual medium, Sesame Street is still strangely aural. To be sure, there are plenty of images, film clips, animated cartoons, dramatized stuff with the Muppets, and so on, and some of the time the pictures do carry the meaning. On one recent show, there was a film clip of young animals and children learning new and difficult skills, with a sound track of children’s voices shouting encouragement. On another, there was a good clip about the postal service showing what happens to the mail which is picked up, taken to the post office, sorted, canceled, sent to where it is going, and so on. But most of the time, what is on the screen seems to be there only to catch hold the child’s attention, to sweeten the learning pill. A child listening to the program but unable to see it would get 90 percent of what he was supposed to learn. The screen is almost never used, as it might be, convey ideas, information, relationships that cannot be conveyed with words—ideas that would be of far greater subtlety, complexity, and power. Caleb Gattegno, in Towards a Visual Culture, has suggested what some of these might be, and many of the ones I propose here draw on his thought. From the point of view of education, learning, instruction, much of what is done on Sesame Street and in the Sesame Street Learning Kit* seems to me to be clumsy, misleading, and just plain wrong, typical of the worst things done in schools. This is a great pity. Sesame Street , for example, puts great stress on the alphabet and on learning to count to ten, or more recently, twenty.

What we must do in helping anyone learn to read is to make very clear that writing is an extension of speech, that behind every written word there is a human voice speaking, and that reading is the way to hear what those voices are saying. Like the schools, Sesame Street far too often blurs and hides these truths. That is all the more unfortunate, because TV can make the point more clearly and vividly than a teacher in a classroom. Suppose that children were to hear a voice speaking and at the same time see the words, as they are spoken, appearing in print. Cartoon figures and the Muppets could have word balloons over their heads, as in comic strips, a convention which many children already know; even when live figures are speaking, the TV screen could be split, with the words appearing at the side—a TelePrompTer in reverse.

From a recent program comes an example of something done extremely badly that might have been done well. Big Bird was standing by a wall on which he had put the letters OVEL. An adult came up, and Big Bird began to rhapsodize about the word he had put up, which he meant to be “love." The adult told him that he did not have the word "love” on the wall, and as they discussed this, said that Big Bird’s OVEL “did not spell anything.” This statement could not be more false, or misleading, or damaging. The letters OVEL do spell something. They spell a word that anyone who can read can pronounce. The word doesn’t happen to mean anything, but that is something else. Surely we have got past the Dick and Jane idea that you aren’t reading a word unless you know its meaning. But then followed something worse. The adult began to say, in that typical teacher condescending, explaining, how- could-you-be-so-stupid voice, “But Big Bird, you’ve put the L after the word, and you should have put it before it.” She said this several times, as if it were self-evident that “before” meant “on the left side" and “after” meant “on the right side,” and as if all she needed to do to make this clear was to say it often enough. In fact, there is nothing self-evident or natural or reasonable about it at all. We just do it that way. But nothing makes school more mysterious, meaningless, baffling, and terrifying to a child than tonstantly hearing adults tell him things as if they were simple, self-evident, natural, and logical, when in fact they are quite the reverse—arbitrary, contradictory, obscure, and often absurd, flying directly in the face of a child’s common sense.

What might have been done instead? Here is one scenario. The adult reads OVEL aloud, “oh-vell, oh-vell.” He says, “What does that mean, Big Bird?” Big Bird says the word says “love.” The adult insists it says “oh-vell.” As other people come up, Big Bird appeals to each of them. They all read “oh-vell,” From this we see what is very important, that one of the advantages of written speech is that it says the same thing to everyone who can read it. (This vital point was made very clear on the Misterogers’ show immediately following this one, in which a printed sign—GET THE PET TO THE VET—was shown to a number of people, all of whom read it aloud the same way.)

Anyway, after a number of people, adults and children, have told Big Bird that his word says “ohveil,” he says sadly that he wanted it to say “love." Then someone, preferably a child, says to him, “If you want it to say ‘love,’ all you have to do is put this L here.” No nonsense about “before” and “after.” Just move the letter. Then perhaps the child might say the word “love” slowly, moving his fingers under the letters matching the sounds. Big Bird might then say, “Oh, I see, the letters go that way.” Note that even Big Bird’s mistake, unlike most of the mistakes of children, was nonsensical. There would have been some reason to put EVOL on the wall, but not OVEL.

What is vital here, and in all reading, is the connection between the order in time of the sounds of the spoken word and the order in space of the letters of the written one. If so many children have trouble discovering this connection, it is because in most reading instruction we do so much to hide it—and this is no less true of the methods that, like Sesame Street, make a big thing out of “what letter does the word begin with?"

On a program presented one day by the letter X, another opportunity was lost. An animated-cartoon narrator was trying to think of words that ended with X. First a fox went by, and the voice said “fox"—but the letters FOX did not appear on the screen. Then other words—box, ox, ax, with appropriate and clever pictures to match, but still no letters. Instead, we might have shown what Gattegno calls “transformations,” the way the sound of a word changes when we change a letter in it—and it is making such transformations, not sounding out a word letter by letter, that good readers do when they meet words they don’t know. Thus, beginning with FOX, we might have moved away the F and brought in a B to make BOX, then removed the B to leave OX, then changed that to AX, and from there to TAX. We might then have brought in an O to make TOX. Here the cartoon narrator could have looked puzzled. “Tox? Tox?” he might have said. “I don’t think there is any such word as TOX. It’s a nonsense word. Some words you can say and write don’t mean anything.” Perhaps, then, a few more nonsense words. Perhaps a bit of business of looking up a word in a dictionary to see whether it has a meaning. Then perhaps back to FOX and from there to FIX.

As opposed to “capital letters,” and in place of the exact words “lower case,” the show follows school in talking about “small” letters. This is nonsense. Whether a letter is a capital or not has nothing to do with size, but with shape. Indeed, the point should be made that a letter, capital or lower case, can be as small or large as we care to make it. We might show writing on the head of a pin, big letters on a blackboard, children writing letters in the snow, skywriting.

A capital A is shown. A voice says that it is like an upside-down V with a line across. So far, so good. But why not show all the ways in which we can deform or change an A without losing its A-ness—make it taller, shorter, thicker, or more slender in the strokes, slanting left or right, and so on. Why not, with film clips, show children many different shapes of A’s in real life? Why spread the false and absurd notion that there is only one way to make an A? Why not show children making many different shapes of A’s?

The kindly grocer puts on the counter three groups of three objects each and one group of four objects. Then he asks, “Which group doesn’t belong here?” He sings a little song while the baffled anxious children look dumbly at the problem. Naturally they are confused. The group of four objects “belongs” on the counter just as much as the others. This is standard school business: ask an easy question, and then make it harder by putting it in ambiguous language, so that the point of school becomes figuring out what the teachers really want.

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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