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Want smart kids? Try TV instead of preschool

Teaching kids can prove to be a daunting task. While kids can look cute and adorable, they can also drive an adult up walls. Throw into the mix the need for knowledge to be passed on to them and you have a task worthy of James Bond. You must get these kids to sit still and listen long enough for any knowledge to be passed along is hard enough on its own. Coding this information so that the tot’s can understand it presents another challenge altogether.

Enters Sesame street with a solution for both dilemmas.

Most Americans born since the mid-1960s have a favorite “Sesame Street” skit. Jennifer Kotler Clarke watched hers on a black-and-white television set in her family’s Bronx apartment. There were two aliens: One of them had long arms that didn’t move, while the other had short, moving arms. The aliens wished to eat apples from a tree, and they succeeded, after a couple of minutes, by working together. “Let’s call this cooperation,” one of them says. “No,” the other replies, “let’s call it Shirley.”

The laughs as well as the lessons carefully and cleverly wrapped within them have for a long time been believed to stick with the kids. Recent research seems to be agreement with these assumptions.

The most authoritative study ever done on the impact of “Sesame Street,” to be released Monday, finds that the famous show on public TV has delivered lasting educational benefits to millions of American children — benefits as powerful as the ones children get from going to preschool.

The paper from the University of Maryland’s Melissa Kearney and Wellesley College’s Phillip Levine finds that the show has left children more likely to stay at the appropriate grade level for their age, an effect that is particularly pronounced among boys, African Americans and children who grow up in disadvantaged areas.

This is huge for educators of young children to understand. It’s almost in capital letters like telling them that education does not need to be dull. In fact it proves that education needs to be simplified more to cater to the needs of the young.

After “Sesame Street” was introduced, children living in places where its broadcast could be more readily received saw a 14 percent drop in their likelihood of being behind in school. Levine and Kearney note in their paper that a wide body of previous research has found that Head Start, the pre-kindergarten program for low-income Americans, delivers a similar benefit.

Math and reading

For a TV show to be compared to preschool with a proper curriculum in place, it must have had to meet certain criteria. It must match the expectations placed on the pre-school curriculum if the findings are to be considered scientific. His would mean answering the simple question of whether this TV show effectively passes on the same skills as those passed in an actual classroom. Math and reading are some of these skills that have been known to cause worry and difficulty for both preschool tot’s and their teachers.

The researchers also say those effects probably come from “Sesame Street’s” focus on presenting viewers with an academic curriculum, heavy on reading and math, that would appear to have helped prepare children for school.

While it might seem implausible that a TV show could have such effects, the results build on Nixon-era government studies that found big short-term benefits in watching the show, along with years of focus-group studies by the team of academic researchers who help write “Sesame Street” scripts. Several outside researchers have reviewed the study, and none are known to have questioned its results.

This says a lot about the show and helps to dispel worries that any parents may have concerning it. This should be taken as an encouragement for every parent out there to let their kids watch a little more TV. The secret is all in the “how” and not in the “what” the characters are saying. Trying to teach a child that two plus two equals four may prove hard for “Mrs Schuler” in a New York preschool but Elmo with the big eyes fluffy body and funny voice can have them doing it in a few minutes.

The new findings offer comforting news for parents who put their children in front of public TV every day and/or memorized entire Elmo DVDs, unwittingly.

They also raise a provocative question, at a time when many lawmakers are pushing to expand spending on early-childhood education: Do kids need preschool if a TV show works just as well?

This is a valid question but both the writers for the show and education experts agree that preschool remains relevant. Certain skills need to be learnt in just such a setting. Reading will be of no use if the children have no social skills. Such are only learnt over time and through interaction with other children their age. This can only be achieved in a preschool environment and not in front of a TV. This does not void the importance or relevance of the TV show to the development of those lucky enough to have it at their disposal.

Levine and Kearney see the study as a clear lesson in the value of a (very cheap) mass-media complement to preschool. The potentially controversial implication they embrace from the study isn’t about early-childhood education. It’s about college, and the trend toward low-cost massive open online courses, or MOOCs.

“Sesame Street,” Levine and Kearney write, was the original MOOC. “If we can do this with ‘Sesame Street’ on television, we can potentially do this with all sorts of electronic communications,” Kearney said in an interview. “It’s encouraging because it means we might be able to make real progress in ways that are affordable and scalable.”

The good news is that more and more broadcasters with a bias to kids have borrowed a leaf from this show. This has translated to more shows for kids with an educational value attached to them. This comes as a relief to parents knowing that their kids are not watching garbage but rather potentially educative material.

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