In a recent Freakonomics podcast, host Stephen Dubner outlines three approaches to early education: bribing parents, better conversations and simply watching Sesame Street.
Freakonomics Co-author Steven Levitt and two other economists opened a pre-school and a parent academy, where they offered cash to parents if their children handed in their homework and attended classes. The venture led to white and Hispanic children performing better at school, but failed to help African-American children. The researchers also found that children who couldn’t sit still or concentrate at the start of the program didn’t show any improvements.
Dubner also speaks to the director of 30 Million Words, an organisation that helps parents to speak more to their children and vary their vocabulary. The group has found that children from poorer homes may have heard 30 million fewer words than their more affluent peers by their fourth birthday. That may prevent them from grasping the basics of language, making it a struggle to learn new words.
Finally, Dubner investigates the ‘Sesame Street’ effect – the cartoon has been credited with helping to educate children since its premiere in 1969. He speaks to two academics who found that kids who watched the show were less likely to fall behind at school than those who grew up before the show aired.
In order to rule out other explanations, the researchers compared the Sesame Street generation with children who lived in US states where the TV signal was too poor to watch the show; the former group still outperformed. African-American children benefited the most from watching Big Bird, Cookie Monster and the crew; the researchers speculated that could be down to the show’s urban setting and several African American characters.
Listen to the podcast here.