Adonis Diaries

“The sticky Sesame Street program” by Malcom Gladwell

Posted on: October 23, 2008

The sticky Sesame Street program that experimented with children learning.

(Written in November 27, 2007)

Malcom Gladwell in his “The tipping point” explains how little things can make a big difference such as increasing the growth of a business, dropping the crime rate, or spreading infectious diseases exponentially.

I will provide a brief description of the factors for reaching the tipping point and focus on the chapter related to what stick for attracting the attention of preschool children in educational programs such as Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues.

There are three rules for spreading epidemics:

1. The first is the law of the few, such as connectors, mavens, and salesmen;

2. The second is the stickiness factor such as Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues children programs on TV;

3. The third is the power of context such as Bernie Goetz and the rise and fall of New York City crime.

Usually, people have a satisfactory comprehension of changes when the increment is in proportional rate, but when the behavior starts to vary in geometric rates people’s estimates and expectations fall far short of what is happening actually.

In most life cases, things change in a fashion that can be predicted and managed or controlled, but there are cases where the behavior gets out of whack and spread or increase in such dramatic fashion that nothing can control or comprehend the events.

For example, suppose that one thousand Canadians tourists come to Manhattan and are carrying an untreatable strain of 24-hour virus.  If only one in 50 individuals who comes in contact with the tourists is infected (a 2% infection rate) then the number of infected persons will equal the number who recover within 24 hours.

Now, if for some reason, like Christmas season, 55 people get in contact with each single tourist then we have an epidemic on our hands. If only 45 people come in contact then the flu would vanish within a few weeks.  In this case, the number 55 of contact is the tipping point.

This book is trying to explain certain rules in epidemic phenomenon and applying them to business cases, educational environment, or crime rates that behaved as epidemics.

The author also explains the 80/20 rule where 20% of the individuals account for 80% of the activities, production, or epidemics cases.

“Sesame Street” was a resounding sticky educational program for preschoolers for eight straight years and the children who watched that program performed better than others later on in their schooling grades. The successor program “Blue’s Clues” was even better in educating children and in performance.

The Sesame Street show for children insisted on being clever because it wanted to appeal to the parents so that lower-income families would be encouraged to participate in the education of their children; thus, the show was loaded with constant punning and pop culture references.

Actually, Lou Berger decided to apply for a job in that show after watching funny crazy fairy tales.  However, children hate puns because they cannot understand at this level of intelligence.

Sesame Street was constructed as a magazine show consisting of 40 distinct autonomous segments of three minutes each.  The rationale was that preschoolers did not have the attention span to handle longer segments.  Actually, the creators of the show were impressed by the power of TV commercials and Jim Henson was running a successful advertising shop in the 60’s when he joined the cast. Thus, each of the 40 segments meant to sell one idea or addressing a single educational goal.  It turned out that children don’t like commercials because they don’t tell a story.

The main insight was that if you can hold the attention of children then you can educate them.  However, the formal features of TV such as violence, bright lights, loud and funny noises, quick editing cuts, zooming in and out, and exaggerated actions that hold adult’s attention because we don’t have to understand but children are not necessarily stimulated by all the whizzes and bangs of the medium.

The idea was that kids would sit, stare at the screen, and zone out.

Research then showed that children didn’t just sit and stare.  They could divide their attention between a couple of different activities that were not random at all and not trivial.  When the sketches of an episode were specifically edited out of order then the kids stopped watching because they could not make sense of what they were looking at.

When two groups of children between 4 and 5 years old were shown the same Sesame Street show with one group assembled in a room crammed with toys and the other bare, the children in the toy room attended 50% of the time and children in the bare room 87% of the time.

The amazing results demonstrated that the two groups had the same comprehension level of the show.  Consequently, children attend strategically and distribute their viewing to the most informative parts of the program. Thus, children do not necessarily watch when they are stimulated; they watch when they understand and look away when they are confused, like when more than two adults are talking at once or shouting at each other or carrying angry conversations.

Children pick up on the signal that something is confusing and lose interest.  What is exciting is not much of a signal to keep their attention level.

Ed Palmer was hired as a psychologist whose specialty was the use of television as a teaching tool.  Palmer’s innovative technique was the Distracter; he would play a show on the monitor and then run a slide show on a screen next to it; the slide would remain for 7.5 seconds and he would record the events when a child is watching Sesame and when he is attracted to the slides.  The sections of the show that revealed low attention were reedited or re-shot until satisfied with children feedback.

However, the Distracter method was not adapted to investigating the understanding of what children were attending to.  Barbara Flagg was called in around the mid 70’s to applying her eye movement photography technique.

When we read, we are capable of taking in only one key word and then 4 characters to the left and 15 to the right at any one time because most of the sensors in our eyes are clustered in the fovea in the retina.  Thus, we pause long enough on a chunk of characters to make sense of the letters.  By tracking where the fovea is moving you can tell which information is being captured.  This technique was used to evaluating which method for word learning was most efficient.

For example, Sesame Street used two visual-blending exercises for words with distinct sounds for each letter.  In the first segment a female Muppet approaches the word HUG in the center of the screen; she stands behind each character and carefully sound it out going from left to right and in reverse and then pronounces the whole word.

Then Muppet Henry enters, repeat the word several times and then hug the little-girl Muppet.  The second segment is called “Oscar’s Blending“; the game is called “Breakable Words” and Oscar the Grouch call out letters which pop up on the lower left corner of the screen and then tells Muppet Crummy how they sound. The role is reversed when the letters pop up on the lower right corner. Then the word is formed and sounded and then drops from sight with a crashing sound.

On the Distracter technique both segments scored brilliantly but there was no way to know if the children were learning the process of forming a word. The eye movement technique showed that children were focusing on Oscar who was interesting and very active and making a fuss in the background; the word to learn was not close to Oscar and the kids were not reading from left to right.  The first HUG segment was a resounding success and kids were fixating on the word and also following the letters from left to right.

The producers of Sesame Street went along the paradigm of the time that mixing fantasy and reality would be misleading to children.  Palmer, four months before the show went on the air, discovered that children hated to see fantasy elements separated from the real elements which were in an actual street and with actual actors.  That is when Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch and Snuffleupagus were born to live along side real actors on the street.

Many shows were disappointing and research discovered the causes.  For example, preschoolers make a number of assumptions about words and their meaning as they acquire language; one of these assumptions is the principle of mutual exclusiveness so that any one object can have only one name.

Thus, when Big Bird decided to change his name to Roy because he wanted a name of his own and not a descriptive name then the children were befuddled and their attention dropped in that show.  Thus, an oak is an oak and cannot be a tree simultaneously.

The successor program “Blue’s Clues” ran for half and hour instead of a full hour and it didn’t have an ensemble cast but Steve, a live actor in his twenties wearing khakis and a rugby shirt. Each episode followed a single story line of the exploits of an animated blue dog named Blue.  The episodes are shot with a two-dimensional feel as a video version of a picture book.  The pace is deliberate and the script is punctuated with long pauses; there were no humor or word play or cleverness that plagued Sesame Street.

The character mailbox is called Mailbox, and a pail named Pail, and shovel Shovel.  Within months of its debut in 1996, Blue’s Clues was trouncing Sesame Street in the ratings and was capturing the attention of children during the whole session.  The children watching Blue’s Clues were performing much better than Sesame Street on all measures of flexible thinking and problem solving.

Todd Kessler, one of the producers of Blue’s Clues and who worked on Sesame Street, was dissatisfied with the magazine fast-paced format of Sesame Street and believed that children do have a much larger attention span and television is better used as a visual medium than verbal for educating children.

Sesame Street was still adopting the Piaget child psychology of the learning paradigm that preschoolers cannot follow an extended narrative.  The Blue’s Clues producers were more up-to-date in child psychology and applied the paradigm that stories were the main medium for children to make sense of their world.

Actually, experiment have shown that children reconstruct their daily events by narrating them as stories in temporal sequences too; the sentences are far grammatically correct and coherent when they recount the stories to themselves rather then telling them to people.

Blue’s Clues episode was telling a story about a single idea for half an hour and encouraging children to participate by guessing from the clues and the lengthy pauses for them to think at their leisure.  By accident, since the producers could not afford an episode each day, they let an episode run for a whole week.

The producers discovered that children were getting more attached to the episode every day and were acquiring a sense of affirmation and self worth by predicting the next answers and generating a different view with each day of the re-run and also helping Steve find the correct answers after his long pauses!  The repetition for 5 days of an episode that tells an animated story without too much verbal conversation and that encourages children to participate and guess and then predict was far more sticky than Sesame Street.

Children need repetition to learn.  In Sesame Street they repeated the one-minute bit of Wanda the Witch who wore a wig in the windy winter in Washington, etc on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, then skipped it on Thursday and then the bit was back on Friday.  By Wednesday, the kids were saying “not Wanda again” but on Friday they jumped and clapped when nostalgia sets in.

The success of Blue’s Clues to stick with children was mostly researching and conducting experiments for every single episode with children as to the order of the clues so that they offered the highest suspense and would not give away the answer.  In general, the content and script were not changed but just small changes as a result of experimentation made the big difference.  There is always a simple way to package information under specific circumstances to make it irresistible.

In summary, it is good to know what children hates and what really stick in educational visual programs:

First, children hate puns or plays on words because they cannot understand at this level of intelligence.

Second, children don’t like commercials that don’t tell a story.

Third, children attend strategically to information and distribute their viewing to the most informative parts of the program.

Fourth, children do not necessarily watch when they are stimulated; they watch when they understand and look away when they are confused.

Fifth, children hate to watch adults talking at once or shouting at each other or carrying angry conversations. Children pick up on the signal that something is confusing and lose interest.

Sixth, what is exciting is not much of a signal to keep children attention level but stories that they can understand.

Seventh, children hated to see fantasy elements separated from the real elements.

Eight, Children learn by using the principle of mutual exclusiveness so that any one object can have only one name; an oak is an oak and not also a tree.

Ninth, children do have a much larger attention span and are wiling to watch a half an hour program if suited for their understanding.

Tenth, television is better used as a visual medium.

Eleventh, stories are the main medium for children to make sense of their world.

Twelfth, repetition is welcomed by children and likes to be nostalgic.

Thirteenth, children prefer animated story without too much verbal conversation.

Fourteenth, children learn better when they are encouraged to participate and guess and then predict the next segment.

The main idea of this article is, when time and resources are available, always experiment with what is believed to be “common sense”.

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2 Responses to "“The sticky Sesame Street program” by Malcom Gladwell"

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