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Lecturer Joe Blatt on 40 Years of Sesame Success

"Sesame Street was the first national television series to feature a fully integrated cast: the hosts were an African American couple, and their neighbors were a mix of other ethnic groups."

Joe BlattToday you would be hard-pressed to find an adult or a child who has never heard (or rather seen) Big Bird, Grover, or Oscar the Grouch. After all, Sesame Street, celebrating 40 years this week, has remained instrumental in captivating not only children's attention and learning, but also adults. We talked to Lecturer Joe Blatt, Ed.M.'77, director of the Technology, Innovation, and Education program, about the amazing success of Sesame Street and its impact on education -- and the Ed School.

Q. What does the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street signify for media and technology in education?

A. Remember, when Sesame Street made its debut, the idea of using television for education was innovative, largely untried and untested, and still unfamiliar, certainly to most parents and educators. Television producer Joan Ganz Cooney had the fairly radical idea that entertainment techniques -- including commercial-style jingles and celebrity cameo appearances -- could be repurposed for teaching the alphabet and other preschool content. Today, when children are engaged with so many new technologies, from video games to the web and to smartphones, the achievements of Sesame Street pose a real challenge for us: Can we be equally inventive in harnessing the new technology of our time to serve learning?

Q. How has Sesame Street made a lasting impact in education?

A.  It's hard to know where to start. After more than a 1,000 monographs and articles, Sesame Street is almost certainly the most thoroughly researched educational intervention in history. One clear finding is that the key to an effective learning program is a carefully researched and clearly articulated curriculum, constructed jointly by content experts and talented writers and producers. Another contribution is methods for testing audience appeal and comprehension while material is still in development -- what's called formative evaluation -- which has now become standard practice in creating educational media.

I also want to highlight two types of impact that are less formal but no less valuable. Sesame Street was the first national television series to feature a fully integrated cast -- the original hosts were an African American couple, and their friends and neighbors were a mix of other ethnic groups, not to mention multi-colored Muppets. Versions of Sesame Street have now been broadcast in more than 70 countries, largely through co-production arrangements with indigenous officials, educators, and producers. While the rest of us have started to recognize the importance of pursuing a truly international perspective in our work, Sesame has been doing it for decades.

Q. Sesame Street and the Ed School have a long-standing relationship. Can you discuss how Sesame Street Workshop remains an important contributor to the learning at HGSE?

A.  The special Sesame-HGSE relationship goes back to the very beginning, when HGSE Professor Gerald Lesser chaired the board of academic advisors who constructed the original curriculum for the series. To this day, colleagues on the faculty like Professor Catherine Snow and Dean Kathy McCartney -- who is, after all, the Lesser Professor -- continue to contribute their expertise. However, the Sesame Workshop is also deeply engaged with our learning at HGSE. A few years ago, I created a new course called "Informal Learning for Children," which Sesame generously supports, sending senior executives and researchers to teach a number of sessions, and sharing unique internal materials related to design and evaluation.  Every year Gary Knell, Sesame Workshop president and CEO, or another top workshop official, comes to campus to talk with HGSE students. Also, each semester a student from the Technology, Innovation, and Education master's program gets to undertake a virtual internship with the Cooney Center, Sesame's new hub for research on digital media. I think this relationship will continue to grow, and I am very grateful for the learning opportunities the workshop gives our students.

Q. Why do you think Sesame Street has maintained this unusual level of success of 40 years in television?

A. "Unusual" is too tame a word. It is extraordinary that a show would last that long, especially one aimed at children. I think there are three principal reasons for Sesame Street's success. On one hand, the series has never been static. There are new characters, new formats, and new curriculum goals being adopted every year, and the most recent season that started November 10 is no exception. You can watch for segments on nature and the environment, and a new 3D look for Abby Cadabby. On the other hand, the core values mutual respect among children and adults, love of discovery, belief that the world can be a friendlier and happier place these values have never given way to attitude or other fashionable trends in children's media. Finally, even as it reaches out to younger viewers, Sesame Street has not forgotten the importance of appealing to parents and caregivers. I've never met anyone of any age who doesn't like Grover, and who else can you say that about?