HEWN, No. 294

"Tell me your troubles and doubts, giving me everything inside and out..."

I’m taking a break from social media — as one does — until I finish the draft of Teaching Machines (due in April). I do plan to continue to email you HEWNs, although depending on how the writing goes, their sending might become a bit irregular.

Social media isn’t just where I post my little mini-rants or links to the articles I’ve written; it’s where I watch for others’ rants and writings too. Social media has been a key element in my workflow. Twitter and Facebook are important sources, along with RSS, for the news and information that feed my own analysis of the sad state of education and education technology. But daaaaaamn, I can’t tell you how relieved and excited I am to not have to pay (close) attention for a while.

A friend said that he hoped that when I return to social media that I have a better attitude. I laughed daggers pointedly in his direction and crossed his name off the list of people I might mail handwritten letters to while I’m away. Asshole. But it’s true — so much of what I read about online infuriates me, even if I just stumble upon something casually. And all that crap does wear on a person.

Like this tweet, for instance, that I saw this week from the Sesame Workshop, extolling the virtues of entrepreneurialism, venture capitalism, and venture philanthropy in early childhood development by parodying (haha) the Shark Tank brand. It pretty much ruined my day.

Sesame Street has veered violently off course from its original mission in recent years. New episodes are now released on the premium cable channel HBO rather than on public broadcasting. It has set up a venture investing firm, funding popular ed-tech trends like coding and private tutoring — the latter being precisely the sort of inequitable educational activity that Sesame Street was originally created to forestall.

It’s bad enough, of course, that one of the high profile investors on Shark Tank has been associated with some of the ongoing #MeToo revelations. But what this short video and larger initiative underscore too is how the folks at Sesame Workshop (and the venture capitalists who’ve locked arms with it) now see early childhood development as product development (not to mention how they see children as consumers not citizens).

One of the VC “sharks” in this video insists that “All of us need to be thinking about the entire venture framework — distribution, customer, technology, fundraising, business models, team, and ultimately social impact.” No, bro. We don’t. The reason kids struggle isn’t that we aren’t doing venture frameworks right. Even more upsetting to me as I watched this piece of social media content™ was the total absence of a core element from Sesame Workshop’s long history: research.

As Joan Ganz Cooney, founder of the Children's Television (now Sesame) Workshop, wrote in the foreword to “G” is for Growing: Thirty Years of Research on Children and Sesame Street, “Without research, there would be no Sesame Street.” Indeed, Sesame Street may well be the most researched television show in history — and not just researched after-the-fact to ascertain how it has affected young children’s literacy and numeracy skills, but researched throughout its entire design and development process. That is something that has made (or had made) Sesame Street the antithesis of the venture capital-funded ed-tech startups, many of whom parrot the Mark Zuckerberg maxim “move fast and break things,” many of whom have been openly hostile to educational theory and research.

Early childhood researchers were central to the design of the show from the outset — in the development of the script, the human and puppet characters, the lessons and goals of each episode. There was attention to repetition and sequencing. There was careful consideration of when to use straightforwardness and when to use fantasy, to how dramatic tension and humor might affect young children's comprehension. There was thought paid not only to the intellectual but also to the emotional development of young viewers. (So please spare me, ed-tech entrepreneurs and investors, with your posturing that you've invented "social emotional learning," something no one has paid attention until you came along.) With a specific mission of reaching preschoolers of color, Sesame Street purposefully cast actors of color. The curriculum was relevant and timely and meaningful and age-appropriate. There was formative research and there was summative assessment with test audiences into how and if all of these pieces “worked.” In other words, the thought that went into the development of a single segment of a single episode of Sesame Street was far far far far far far more thoughtful and in-depth than the kind of A/B testing that today’s tech entrepreneurs think they’re so clever to utilize when gauging what gets the most clicks and “engagement.”

Know your history, folks. Be wary of the tech world’s deep-pocketed storytellers and story-funders. They're up to no damn good. (Because, if nothing else, for the time being, I’m not going to be around as much to point out the moose diarrhea salesmen.)

Related: Duff Macdonald on “The Miseducation of Sheryl Sandberg” and why Harvard Business School is pretty much the worst. “How the Silicon Valley set fell in love with sourdough and decided to disrupt the 6,000-year-old craft of making bread, one crumbshot at a time” by Dayna Evans. “A Business with No End” by Jenny Odell, a story that features Olivet University, Newsweek, Amazon resellers, and more. “How a future Trump Cabinet member gave a serial sex abuser the deal of a lifetime” by Julie K. Brown. “The Future of the Public Mission of Universities” by Robin DeRosa, the transcript of a recent talk she delivered that I think ties in quite nicely with the privatization and venture capitalization of Sesame Street. And this last recommendation is an article that’s over a decade old, but as one of the themes of this week’s HEWN seems to be illusion and misdirection, I’ll urge you to re-read this wonderful profile of Ricky Jay (may he rest in piece): “Secrets of the Magus” by Marc Singer.

This week’s pigeon is a crested pigeon:

(Image credits)

Yours in struggle,