Learning from Sesame Street – The Stickiness Factor

Continuing from my earlier post on the Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, here is an important aspect of training delivery that often gets very little attention – The Stickiness Factor.

Sesame Street is a children’s television series created by Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett. The program is known for its educational content, creatively communicated through the use of Muppets, animation, short films, humor, and cultural references. The program was conceived in 1966 and by 2008, it was estimated that 77 million Americans had watched the series as children. As of 2009, Sesame Street has won eight Grammy Awards and 118 Emmy Awards—more than any other children’s show.

So how did the show attain its legendary status in spite of the fact that it chose television as the medium? Television lacks several key aspects that determine learning impact and retention. It is neither interactive nor does it provide any sort of individualized content based on the audience’s aptitude, strengths, or weaknesses.

First of all, the producers of the show tried the hardest to make an impact. They hired the best creative minds for the show, they adopted techniques from TV commercials, they brought in celebrities to sing and dance among various other things. Their fundamental premise for the show was if you can hold the attention of children, you can educate them. The producers of the show tried a number of different experiments before they launched an episode to find out if the show actually worked with children. Here are few examples:

  1. The viewing patterns demonstrated by kids were very different from that of the adults. It was found that short looks were more common among children and they did not pay attention if the show was rearranged in a way that had several scenes arranged out of order. All the bells and whistles like flashy colors and other distractions made no difference to this behavior pattern. If they couldn’t make sense of the scene, they simply stopped watching.
  2. There was another test where two groups of children were shown the same episode, but one group had access to some toys. The group of children that had access to the toys watched the show only 47% of time while the other group watched the show 87% of the time. However, when the two groups were tested to see how much of the show they actually remembered, there scores were exactly the same! It was found that the group that has access to the toys divided their attention between the toys and the show in such a way that they were only paying to the most informative portions of the show.
  3. The show’s producers recruited Ed Palmer, a psychologist to study the impact of the show. He came up with an innovation that involves what he calls a distractor. Essentially, Palmer observed children watching the show. They test audience were distracted by a slide show that changed pictures every 7 seconds and placed next to the television that was playing an episode of Sesame Street. Palmer and his team recorded instances when children would watch the slide show instead of the episode and could exactly tell which part of the show had the children’s attention. This gave the show’s producers an objective measure of the stickiness factor in each and every segment of their episode. More importantly, they started looking at “distractors” from within the show. They simplified dialog and abandoned certain techniques that they had borrowed from adult television programs as these elements only resulted in creating a distraction.
  4. Another major challenge was distractors by themselves did not tell the show’s producers if the children were actually paying attention to the things that they should be paying attention to. In other words, were they simply watching the Muppets or were they actually learning the concepts being taught? To get answers for this question they used an eye monitor on a group of children to see where they were focusing their eyes on the intended parts of the program.

In summary the most important point comes of out this unique experiment in educational television is that if you paid careful attention to the structure and format of the material being presented, you can dramatically improve its stickiness.

Srinivas Krishnaswamy

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I love to read and share thoughts on technology, enterprise learning, mobile and any thing cool that impacts enterprises.

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Posted in Learning, Teaching

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