November 25, 2008

And Joan Ganz Cooney Said, 'Let There Be 'Street'

You probably already know that the Children's Educational Television Workshop was co-founded by Joan Ganz Cooney to create Sesame Street in order to help ghetto kids learn their ABC's and 123's as easily as they learned advertising jingles. In other words, it wasn't just the educational impact of kids watching television, but of kids watching TV commercials, that was the motivation for the show.

I've never read the original 1966-7 survey and report prepared by Cooney for the Carnegie Foundation, but I just downloaded it in its entire 57-page, microfilmed glory. Titled, "The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education," it is the founding document of Sesame Street and the CETW [later the CTW, and now, Sesame Workshop]. Skimming through the first few pages, Cooney paints a fascinating, bleak picture of the landscape of child development, education, and television that's starkly different from today's, and not just because Adam West's "Batman" is considered "slickly and expensively produced."

I might take some time over the holiday to read and revisit Cooney's findings--she surveyed education, development, childcare, and TV professionals over about four months--and I'd love to hear other peoples' reads of it, too. In the mean time, here are just a couple of paragraphs from her introduction:

...very young children regularly view adult action programs. My own limited poll bears this out; it is difficult to find a young television viewer from Harlem to Greeley, Colorado, who does not cite "Batman" as his favorite television program. Beginning at an early age, we can assume, children are conditioned to expect pow! wham! fast action thrillers from television and certainly highly visual, slickly and expensively produced material...

Anyone who has small television viewers at home can testify to the fascination that commercials hold for children. Parents report that theri children learn to recite all sorts of advertising slogans, read product names on the screen (and, more remarkably, elsewhere), and to sing commercial jingles. It is of course open to serious question how valuable the content is that these commercials teach, but they do prove a point: children can and do learn, in the traditional educational sense, from watching television...television commercials appear to have adopted what have always been effective teaching techniques; unfortunately for our children, many teachers may have forgotten what Madison Avenue, with consummate skill, has cribbed from them.

Download a PDF of Joan Ganz Cooney's "The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education" [ed.gov]

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