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An interview with HGSE Lecturer Joe Blatt

Lecturer on Education Joseph Blatt is director of HGSE's Technology, Innovation, and Education master's program. A long-time producer of educational television programs and new media, he has spent his career at the Ed School studying the effects of media content and technology on development, learning, and civic behavior. This spring Blatt is leading a new course at HGSE in collaboration with the Sesame Workshop, the creators of Sesame Street. Many of the students in Blatt's courses remember learning their ABCs with the help of the popular TV show. Through the new course, "Informal Learning for Children," he aims to help HGSE students learn from the successes of Sesame Street, and identify the best ways for electronic media to benefit children educationally in the highly saturated "digital age."

Q: Your popular course, "Growing Up in a Media World," is based on the fact that most children spend more than 40 hours every week in front of "screens." How is this generation going to be shaped by this unprecedented influx of information?

A: That's the big question, and research to answer it is still in relative infancy, although some useful guidance comes from decades of studying the effects of television. My belief is that we will see at least three really significant shifts in children's learning sparked by the growth of information technologies.

First, in terms of form, there will be increasing emphasis on visual and sound communication, on imagery and demonstration replacing description. As an optimist, I think this will help make learning more concrete, more profound, and more egalitarian. Second, the differences between content for adults and content for children will diminish. I'm not suggesting that media will enable kids to "fast forward" through developmental stages, but rather that hyperlinking and other uniquely digital forms of customization will encourage each user to consume information at the most appropriate and efficient level. Finally, children will learn more on their own than ever before, encountering unfiltered information and constructing from it their own meanings and understandings. That means it will be critical for teachers and parents to help children develop sophistication and taste, and learn how to assess a source, how to detect persuasion and manipulation, and how to synthesize their own views based on multiple inputs.

In "Growing Up in a Media World," we try to explore the positive potential of media, for learning and for other developmental goals, including socialization and civic participation.

Of course, children learn a lot more from media than information and skills. In fact, much research has focused on the dangers that television and music videos and videogames may pose to healthy child development. While we confront these challenges in "Growing Up in a Media World," we also try to explore the positive potential of media, for learning and for other developmental goals, including socialization and civic participation.

Q: You call Sesame Street "the most powerful and successful informal educational intervention ever devised." Is there a formula for great educational television?

A: The first classes I ever taught at HGSE were as guest lecturer for [Charles Bigelow Professor of Education and Developmental Psychology, Emeritus] Gerald Lesser. As most of the Ed School community knows, Gerry was one of the creators of Sesame Street, and when he was kind enough to invite me to talk, I would always relate the shows I was making to lessons I learned from him and the Children's Television Workshop. That was in the late 1980s, when the series had already been on the air for about 20 years.

Now when we discuss Sesame Street in my class, it turns out that almost all the students learned the alphabet from the Muppets and company. So there you see two elements of what makes the series great: it has set a record for longevity in television, and it helped give a good start to the wonderful graduate students we have today!

Is there a formula that underlies this success that we could clone into great educational television for everyone? In one sense, yes. Sesame Street has developed more than one hundred co-productions with countries all over the world. The secret of this success is precisely that the Workshop shares not its content, but its "formula"--an approach that meshes research, curriculum, production values, and evaluation in the service of education.

In a deeper sense, Sesame Street harnesses profound insights about learning for its two- to five-year-old audience. The series is based on a detailed curriculum, which is defined in terms of behavioral objectives, spelling out both what child viewers should learn and how you would determine success. There is strategic, child-savvy use of repetition and reinforcement. Sesame Street deliberately builds on identification, modeling, and other proven techniques for reaching children. All new concepts are pre-tested via formative evaluation, and there is a huge literature of summative research on various aspects of the series.

I'm delighted that we have begun to revitalize the relationship between HGSE and Sesame Workshop. This spring I will be teaching a new course, "Informal Learning for Children," which implements the Workshop's model of integrating research, educational content, and production for children ranging in age from six to nine years old. What's really exciting, however, is how involved executives from Sesame Workshop will be over the semester. Many have committed to traveling to Cambridge to give lectures in class. And, in addition to the course, we have developed a Web-based bulletin board of research opportunities, all directly tied to the Workshop.

Q: How important is it to make educational television programs or computer games entertaining, as well as informative? Do children learn better when they are having fun?

A: The secret of a good media experience, as in a good classroom or any other learning environment, is engagement. For most of us, learning happens when we are motivated to grapple with facts and skills and ideas, to do the mental processing and organizing that makes new material our own.

The secret of a good media experience, as in a good classroom or any other learning environment, is engagement. For most of us, learning happens when we are motivated to grapple with facts and skills and ideas, to do the mental processing and organizing that makes new material our own.

It turns out that for television and interactive media, one reliable way to engineer this kind of engagement is entertainment. Whether it's the excitement of participating in an online adventure, playing a role in a CD-ROM–based simulation, or following the story in a well-written documentary, these entertaining activities energize both our intellect and our emotions, and therefore catalyze learning.

I frequently work on science programs. Here the entertainment format that works best is often presenting a mystery. For example: Why did the dinosaurs disappear? Are there stars whose light we will never see? Will we ever be able to predict the next earthquake? In programs on themes like these, it usually works best to break up the big question, tracking down the answers to smaller pieces as clues toward solving the overall mystery.

Entertainment also gives creators the opportunity to attract an adult audience alongside the kids. Sometimes adult-oriented celebrities and topical references are thrown in just to swell revenue--Shrek 2 is a good example. But well-produced children's media can use these techniques to promote adult viewing, to reinforce kids' attention and involvement, and ideally to encourage discussing the content together afterward.

Q: Your production company, RiverRun Media, creates series and specials for national public television. More recently you have been concentrating on science television in particular. Are there discipline-specific challenges in teaching abstract concepts like math and science through television?

A: The first series I ever created for national broadcast was a children's program called Feeling Free. Chris Sarson, the executive producer, had a mantra which made me cringe when I first heard it. But, after many years I now truly agree with his belief that "television is not about ideas, it's about people."

So, in that spirit we don't try to make our math and science programs about abstract concepts. Instead we concentrate on the applications of those concepts in everyday life. In science shows that often means concentrating on the scientist rather than the subject, on a race between scientific teams, or on the potential benefits of the knowledge gained. That's why so many science shows are about medicine, energy, technology, and other subjects with direct payoffs.

In mathematics the "people story" can be trickier to find. For example, I once did a program about game theory, an analytic tool from economics that quickly gets quite abstruse. As we got deeper into the subject, I needed to convey the concept of a "mixed strategy"--behaving one way on some occasions and differently on others--by choosing randomly among a set of defined strategies in calculated proportions.

In response, I came up with what I call the "parking game." Say you need to run a quick errand, and you find an illegal parking place close by. If you take the spot, you'll save time, but you might get a ticket. Ignore the ethical question for a moment--just from the game theory point of view, should you take the risk? Solution: using the amount of a parking fine, the frequency of police patrols, and other data, calculate the odds of getting a ticket. Then bring along a game spinner, and use it to make your strategic choice. We played this out with actors, and had a lot of fun making a segment that many viewers remember.

By focusing on people and real-life applications, television can be a terrific way to help people learn about math and science. But you do have to make it a learning vehicle.



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