Five Questions with Marie-Louise Mares

April 18, 2013

by Susannah Brooks

Growing up in Australia, Marie-Louise Mares didn’t have a television. Even then, she still got the occasional glimpse of “Sesame Street.”

Now an associate professor of communication arts at UW-Madison, Mares and her colleague Zhongdang Pan, professor of communication arts, recently performed a meta-analysis of 24 studies of “Sesame Street’s” impact around the world. Their research indicates that watching international co-productions of the program has a positive effect on children’s learning and is an “enduring example of a scalable and effective early childhood educational intervention.”

Inside UW-Madison recently asked Mares about the show’s global appeal – and what it means to its viewers.

Inside UW: How does “Sesame Street” draw viewers in?

Marie-Louise Mares: From existing research, it’s clear: all of these different co-productions carry the trademark Sesame style. The interaction between humans and Muppets, and adults and kids, is immensely appealing. Music, sounds and short clips also help create a unique and recognizable format that’s standard across all of these co-productions.

Those qualities are proven winners for drawing kids’ attention. It’s no accident; since day one, they’ve based their strategies on tons of research. “Sesame Street” doesn’t just get kids to sit down and pay attention; kids watch and pay attention to the right bits.

IUW: What’s unique about this meta-analysis?

Mares: The beauty of this project is that when we ask “What’s the impact of this show?” we’re not just looking at cognitive outcomes (learning numbers and letters).

“Sesame Street” is an enormous intervention; it’s remarkable in its breadth. The show teaches this huge array of both informational and life skills, targeted toward the specific needs of each country. We see what and whether children learn about the world around them: washing hands, wearing a bike helmet, which musical instruments they have in their country. It’s nature, health and social information.

IUW: What else can enhance the show’s effectiveness?

Mares: It’s great when parents sit to watch with their kids, answer questions and follow up. But in the current study, the thing that’s interesting is that the effects were present even without that adult engagement. The effects might have been stronger with the parents present, but it encourages us to see that kids were able to take stuff away from the show either way.

IUW: Any surprises?

Mares: I was pleasantly surprised to find significant effects on children’s attitudes towards often-marginalized social groups. In Bangladesh, it involved children with disabilities; in Kosovo, it was attitudes about Serbians and Albanians.

In that context, children pick up stray comments and attitudes from all sides. They may well receive contrary messages – another reason why this is surprising. You’re not swaying them from a neutral position, but from a non-neutral position.

So the capacity of a TV show to sway children’s judgment is important and surprising. The effect wasn’t huge, but it was there – and in a positive direction – across several different countries and studies.

IUW: Did you find much difference between various countries, either in content or how kids learned?

Mares: The data that we had on the show’s popularity didn’t suggest, for example, that it was big in Tanzania but bombed in Malaysia. Because the show is co-produced, with some local material added in, it really seems that “Sesame Street” intends to avoid that kind of cultural cross-speaking.

But this also highlights the ways in which we’re all interconnected.