If a child can read, write, and count, but cannot converse, question and socialize, then he or she is not properly educated.
– Neil Postman
Neil Postman’s disputed quotes are something I find interesting to dissect as it brings to light some persuasive arguments regarding the ‘edutainment’ industry that is prevalent in our society and continues to be a hot topic of discussion.
In a book Postman wrote in 1985, Amusing Ourselves to Death, he states “…We now know that “Sesame Street” encourages children to love school only if school is like “Sesame Street.” Which is to say, we now know that “Sesame Street” undermines what the traditional idea of schooling represents.”
First off, I would like to understand what he means by “the traditional idea of schooling”. He quoted this about 35 years ago, which takes us into the mid 80’s. During this time, starting in the late 70’s, educators and parents were concerned for declining test scores, and therefore worried about the quality of education delivered in schools. In 1978, the US government established a new Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Act of 1965: Title II Basic Skills Improvement. One of the purposes of this new legislation was “to expand the use of television and other technology in the delivery of instructional programs aimed at improving achievement in the basic skills”. The focus on basic skills was a shift from the liberal educational practices of the 60’s and 70’s. This approach became the traditional way to educate, likely what Postman is referring to in this quote.
In another article I found, Postman explains this quote in a little more detail identifying that Sesame Street is “is a terrific television show and really uses all the resources of a visual image-based medium…they are learning their letters and numbers”. However, “they are learning that it must always be entertaining, that learning is largely a matter of images, and that learning has to involve immediate gratification. All these collateral learnings turn out in the end to be much more important than whether kids are actually learning their letters and numbers. Most kids learn letters and numbers in due time, anyway”. There are many types of learning styles that are addressed using the technology of television that aren’t necessarily used in a traditional school setting. Technologies, such as television, are sometimes a more suitable means for learning for our visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners that benefit from the imaginary, musical, and mnemonic approaches that shows like Sesame Street use.
I do understand his point but don’t necessarily agree with it. He says that he raised his children in a counter environment to television by exposing them to books filled with words, printed words and talked to them about printed words and they turned out to be highly successful adults (astrophysicist, writer, teacher). Of course, we still encourage our parents to start reading with their kids at an early age and to read daily, but why can’t this be in conjunction with other types of learning media. I know he feels that technology such as television, tablets, and smartphones are replacing books, I think all of these media are important to the development of our children when used in balance with one another.
He continues to argue that “television makes it increasingly impossible to sustain the idea of childhood and that in North America, especially, we can see its rapid disappearance.” I do agree that these new technologies are changing the childhood landscape that we grew up in, but there are always going to be benefits and detriments to this type of change, especially at the speed that is it currently changing. We need to learn how these new technologies and approaches to learning can be used effectively and efficiently in conjunction with other types of approaches in order to reach the diverse student learning profiles that we see in schools today. We can’t paint everyone with the same paintbrush and need to be cognizant of the socio-economic diversity that also impacts the overall development of our youth.
One thing I do agree with Postman is that:
“parents need to regulate how much time their children can watch television and what they can watch, what films they can see and even what records they can have. They must talk to their children a lot about what they are exposed to in these media. If parents are paying considerable attention to what’s happening, then I think it’s possible to provide children with a childhood. But, if you are too busy or your life circumstances, for whatever reason, don’t permit that, then NBC, CBS, Steven Spielberg, Coca-Cola, and Procter and Gamble will simply do the job.”
We need to engage with our children and the media that they are using. This ties in directly with teaching digital citizenship, an area for which I feel should be part of the written curriculum. However, we can’t simply shield our children from this new technology as it is a part of the world we live in. Instead, we need to ensure that it has a specific purpose and is used efficiently and effectively in order to help support our development in the world in all aspects, not just in the education world. Following up with our students when using these technologies is just as important as using these educational tools themselves as it creates new learnings and connects them to what a child already knows.
Many studies have been conducted to analyze the impacts of ‘edutainment’ technology, such as Sesame Street. Although Postman feels that this show gives a false representation of what traditional school is, some argue that it provides at least some educational opportunities for the 60% of the 4-year-olds who aren’t enrolled in preschool programs.
A study out of the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that Sesame Street is “the largest and least-costly [early childhood] intervention that’s ever been implemented” in the United States (Kearney and Levine, 2016). The annual cost per-child of Sesame Street in today’s dollars was just $5. The results also indicate that Sesame Street improved school readiness, particularly for boys and children living in economically disadvantaged areas. The study argues that Sesame Street was the first MOOC.
The idea of the tv program was to foster preschoolers’ “intellectual and cultural development” and, perhaps more importantly, to “reduce the educational deficits experienced by disadvantaged youth based on differences in their environment,” (Kearney and Levine, 2016).
“It [Sesame Street] normalizes other kinds of diversity, too—from learning disabilities to destitution to imaginary friends, the show teaches children that it was okay to be different, that everyone struggles and develops in their own ways.”
Another benefit of Sesame Street that didn’t exist in most educational settings was diversity. This exposure developed an awareness of ethnic identities and social status, along with the ability to make social comparisons, and these experiences of a variety of backgrounds can help shape perceptions of society.
So, Mr. Postman, although you have some valid points to your argument, I do believe that we have to embrace new technologies and incorporate their beneficial possibilities to fit the needs of our current student populations. These technologies have and will continue to change the educational landscape with much criticism and praise going forward. It’s up to us to figure out how to best integrate them to help increase the success rate of producing as many critical thinkers, creative masters, conscientious communicators, and effective collaborators into our society.
Below, take a look at some interesting educational changes throughout the decades that incorporate the advancements of technologies.