Lessons from the Sesame Workshop: A Conversation with Michael Preston

Join Credly CEO, Jonathan Finkelstein, for a series of conversations with people advancing change that leads to a better and more equitable future of work. Meet change-makers, problem-solvers, and leaders who are bringing big ideas and doing the hard work.

In this episode, Jonathan chats with long-time friend Michael Preston, Executive Director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at the Sesame Workshop. The Center “focuses on the challenges of educating children in a rapidly changing media landscape.” 

Media consumption, along with its content, is constantly changing and the future of childhood programming is evolving right along with it. The Cooney Center and Sesame Workshop have been leading the way for over 50 years.

Against the backdrop of tremendous change -- from the Black Lives Matter movement for racial justice and equality to the disruptions to formal learning brought on by COVID-19 -- how should parents and educators best support children in developing the most fundamental skills to navigate a future that will look different than today? What can businesses learn from Sesame Street to help them navigate change?

Listen to Jonathan and Michael chat about parenthood, equality, and the future of credentials and learning in this dynamic, insightful interview.

 

Conversation with Michael Preston

 


Jonathan Finkelstein:

Hi, everyone. And hi, Michael Preston. It's great to see you.

Michael Preston:

Hi, Jonathan Finkelstein. It's great to see you.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

So, Michael Preston is not only the executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, which you might know through its affiliation with Sesame Workshop, also known as Sesame Street, where I came from, but he's also a friend that I have known for what feels like my whole life. And Michael, you've managed to be present, not just at many moments, but at some of the most important moments in my own professional life. And this is one of those moments. And I'm glad that you could join me on camera to talk about some things that are on my mind.

Michael Preston:

Thanks, Jon. And I've always felt fortunate to know you and follow your career. I always thought you were 10 steps ahead of whatever I was thinking about at the time. Maybe in our conversation today, some of those examples will come up where you were involved in something or other that I thought was new and had a long view, but then came to become something that was very normal for everybody. So I'm here to see whatever that is right now, I want to know what it is.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

Well, that's very kind of you to say. Perhaps this is the 'Gift of the Magi', because at just about every moment when I was thinking about something new, it was interactions with, with you that really provided both the inspiration and the courage. I'll give you an example. Here we are doing an online interview. And many years ago I had a job in which we were creating a real-time meeting platform to help people learn and educate. And we decided to do some online talk shows to show people how it worked. And you were one of my first fans and guests and inspirations for that. And here we are, we're back doing it again, Michael.

Michael Preston:

And this is what everybody does now, right? We talked online.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

This is what we all do. This is the new normal. We're all a talk show host of one. But look, there's many reasons I wanted to touch base with you. The world is kind of crazy in ways that none of us could have imagined even just a few months ago. On a personal level, my world is very different than it was just a few months ago. I mentioned how you've been around every time I had an idea for a startup and helped provide a proving ground and a place to experiment and try things out and even be the first partner in all of these activities. My latest startup is that I have a son. I never could have imagined I would be a dad. You're a dad. You also work in a profession in which you are thinking about children and how we should think about their development and what we can do to create good and great lives for every young person. So I come to you as a dad and also as somebody who leads the Cooney Center for some guidance. Can you just, for folks who aren't familiar with the Cooney Center and the relationship between the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and Sesame Workshop, what is it, and what do you guys do?

Michael Preston:

Thanks for asking. So the Joan Ganz Cooney Center's named after the founder, the visionary female founder of Children's Television Workshop, which is now known as Sesame Workshop, and the creator of Sesame Street, which had its first season in 1969. So we just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the show. And Joan's work in this field, she was a documentary producer for channel 13 in the '60s, and had this idea with her friend Lloyd Morissette, who was leading programs at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, to take this television thing that was in every household and had already demonstrated a lot of power to educate and inform, but not necessarily for little kids, and they posited, "What would it look like or what could we accomplish if we made television enriching, engaging for young children? And what if we did it at a level that was as exciting and fun as the game shows and commercials that all the kids were watching and memorizing the jingles for and all that kind of stuff?" And so Sesame Street was born out of that, her initial vision. And she did the first study funded by the Carnegie Corporation to establish the case for making a show that became Sesame Street in 1969.

Michael Preston:

So the Cooney Center, the organization that I lead, is a part of Sesame Workshop, but we also have some independence from their mission, the Sesame Workshop mission, to serve young children and families, particularly to educate them. We get to look more broadly at Joan's larger question of how to use the emerging media of the day to improve kids' learning. And so that is focused on one level, but also broad in that we can look at all kinds of things. And we also look at bigger kids too, not just the early childhood group. We look at them through middle childhood as they grow out of those years, something you get to think about in a little while, and what happens when they go into their tween and teen years a little bit too. So the same way children's development has a trajectory, their media habits change. And frankly, we're in a very dynamic media environment where that changes all the time too. So it's a complicated world and a lot of fun to study.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

Yeah. That you guys just celebrated your 50th birthday is pretty amazing. I don't think Big Bird looks a day over 10, really.

Michael Preston:

No, he has some secret regimen that he won't share.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

Yeah.

Michael Preston:

Birdseed probably.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

You're talking about how, how rapidly the media landscape is changing, and you're always needing to think about new ways to engage in the kinds of things that are important. If ever there was a landscape that was rapidly changing, it's this moment in time, and you and I are speaking to each other, Michael, where the world was already complex, and we add to that a pandemic, an incredible movement for social and racial justice. We also have, I think, an unprecedented level of distrust in media and in government right now. Where does one even begin to start to think about how do you educate children from a young age? How do you focus or ground the work when everything seems to be moving?

Michael Preston:

That is the question of the day for sure, and one that I ask myself personally all the time. I think to your earlier point, it's an interesting convergence of our personal and professional worlds. Having kids, trying to be the best parents we can be, thinking about the way they take in information and their participation in the world that we're bringing them into, and then the overlap of that agenda with what we're trying to accomplish as educators and people who support educators. Some of this to me connects with thoughts that I have about screen time, which is another issue. A lot of families are concerned that their kids are spending a whole lot of time with their devices, which has negative consequences. People have a perception that there are negative consequences to that, as well as the opportunity costs of other things that kids may not be doing. It's probably not as black and white as that. There's also a richness in what kids do on screens.

Michael Preston:

But as a parent, I think it's about being involved and engaged the way you would be in any environment, whether it was in your kitchen face to face or through some sort of other media things. So knowing your kids and understanding what they're doing and talking to them about it and helping them develop a sensibility of how to handle themselves and know themselves as they grow up and kind of explore these things. So there's still guardrails, there's still a dialogue, there's still an opportunity to really engage. And similarly, I feel like that's an approach that we have to take through all of these changes, that it still boils down to, if we just take a classroom, for example, we have 50 million or more kids at home right now in the K-12 systems of this country who have largely been doing some kind of remote learning, from really robust kinds of things that we aspire to, to really not so great stuff, completing worksheets online. And it comes down to what are the core principles of education? What's the purpose? What are we trying to accomplish?

Michael Preston:

And I think it's an interesting reckoning right now. Are we actually asking the questions like "What's this for? Have we really invested in the right things?" There's a lot of constraints. In the example I provided around remote learning and just general preparedness to actually execute that, this was not the online learning or blended learning plan we all had in mind, this experiment. But it does create a place to talk about it and see where we fell short and reevaluate what we were doing all along to see if it's right.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

The moment we're in may be a signal or a harbinger of what the future looks like. We may be going into a world that only becomes less certain or where change happens at a pace that we've never prepared ourselves for. When it comes to whether it's remote learning, whether it comes to looking at what's happening and how to talk about things like the Black Lives Matter movement and protest, what are the fundamental skills when it comes to teaching children to process change? Going back to your example of screen time versus not screen time, we grew up without screen time because there was a limited number of kinds of screens. You had a TV that you shared in the living room. Some people listening to us went back further than that and didn't have any screens at all. But there is no such thing as no screens in the lives of young people today. There was no before. So how do adults, who have a very different experience than the children they are teaching and parenting, try to empathize with and prepare their young people for a world that's not known to any of us? What are the certainties, I guess, in an uncertain world? There's a lot there, Michael. You can pick any of them.

Michael Preston:

That's great. I'll try to decide where I want to dive into that. That's really good. I think it's a couple of things. One is, I don't know if you've read any of Jordan Shapiro's work, but he's a big advocate for just jumping in with both feet, that as educators or parents, you have to go where the kids are and understand what they're doing. The old trope, if you can't program your VCR, find a young person to do that for you. What's a VCR, is the next question most people ask. But how we can't let that go by when are kids are involved in these media applications and collaboration, communication tools that they come and they go pretty quickly, you kind of know where the kids are, because if you have kids with their own device, which is a new thing, right? You talk about sharing a screen. Sharing a screen is actually not really a feature anymore. If we go back to Sesame Street, the show was designed to be watched together, that the children would watch it and there were enough interesting adult-facing moments or special guests that it was enticing for adults to watch it. And by being together, they would have an interesting conversation maybe during the show, or even after the TV was turned off. Nowadays, kids are watching devices by themselves, not necessarily on somebody's lap. And so they're exploring on their own.

Michael Preston:

And I think as parents, you just have to know, you have to be part of that, you have to know what it is. And as the kids get older and start doing things that are more connecting to the world outside, you also want to understand that. And the road rules of kindness, empathy, building connections to other people, it's the same set of rules, maybe an add-on of be a little more careful because the signals are not as clear when you're not in person. So it takes more. And so all the more reason that as a parent, you just have to be a consumer of that stuff too and be really invested so that you can understand the potential challenges you have to be ready for. Because you don't want to protect your kid. You're not going to wrap them in bubble wrap. You want them to actually know what those are and be prepared to handle it themselves.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

Yeah. I bet there's some dimension to the work that you do at the Cooney Center and that the workshop does, that's thinking about parents as an audience and a consumer as well.

Michael Preston:

That's for sure. Joan's original blueprint actually spoke of... I actually encourage everybody to read her 1966 report, which we just republished last year as our contribution to the 50th anniversary celebration of the show. But there's a whole section on what they imagined the resources for parents might look like. They actually talked about doing a show for parents that never came to fruition and creating complimentary resources that went with the Sesame Street show so that there would be activity kits or things that families could do with their kids that stemmed from the things they might've seen on TV. So she was definitely thinking about that as well.

Michael Preston:

And nowadays, we talk about families as part of the engagement. That [inaudible 00:14:37] connection of kids learning, the school community and home connections are different, and being cognizant of kids transporting themselves or being transported among those, there's a continuity of their interests and learning and there's interesting ways to sustain them. And so how do we think of libraries as partners in our work? Or how do we use those more flexible opportunities to sustain what kids really care about? So that also is an invitation to families to think differently about what their kids are up to and how to help them.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

Now, speaking of families, it's a good reminder that the word 'family' means different things to different people. Not every child has what we would consider back when Sesame Street was first aired, the idealized state of a family. And I know that you speak at the Center about a special focus on young children who are struggling and thinking about things from both a formal and informal learning environments. What does that mean when you think about a struggling learner? And does that include struggling that may come from lack of access to... I mean, you're talking about people who've largely had to move their learning online for remote learning. How does the Cooney Center think about the struggles that come with socioeconomic issues, with equity, with access? Maybe you could just talk more about how you think about the struggling learner.

Michael Preston:

Yeah. Good boy, another good question, Jon.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

Yeah, I'm only giving you the easy ones today.

Michael Preston:

Yeah, no softballs from you. So some of this, as you were talking about race and justice earlier, and we know how because of the way race tends to map to community in this country nowadays, how more segregated than ever this country is, that learning opportunities are not as... High quality learning, let's say, is not as available to kids in poor communities. That's always been the story in this country. And in some ways it's worse. And that we know that early childhood development and preschool and kindergarten, the need for high quality engagement there, as well as what happens at the home, are all necessary and also predictors of later academic success. And so a lot of this really is based on the original premise for Sesame Street, for sure, is trying to just focus on readiness for school, but that it is in some ways more complicated now and requires even earlier intervention than we thought. We know this now.

Michael Preston:

So there's the systemic side, and then there are the ways in which schooling, just the way we think of school, it's set up for kind of a typical kind of environment where you have a single teacher and a room full of kids and they're all kind of doing the same thing at the same time, which is the usual stuff we talk about and sort of the calling card of every reformer and techno innovator who wants to come up with some new way to reinvent school or introduce a product that gets to the research-backed approach of just tutoring a kid one-on-one, that that is the optimal educational model. And we do the opposite generally. So how do we use time and people more effectively and computers to kind of create a better way to engage kids?

Michael Preston:

And taking this remote learning experiment that we're living through right now, a lot of folks have called for much deeper relationship building, engagement, attention to social-emotional issues on the part of the teachers, and less focus on getting through the content, which tends to be showing content to kids, either a video or something to read, and then answering some prompts and calling it a day. And this is not in any way to impugn the hard work of districts and teachers. I think this was a Herculean task for everybody and has involved a lot of hard work and stress. So it's not about that. It's more in that the easiest, first reaction we could have was to just do something like this. We had already had this stuff in place, by which I mean the online content and activities. We weren't prepared for replicating the teacher-student connections or the peer connections that are actually a much deeper benefit of going to school every day, and kids' sort of ability to develop their identity and grow and learn more because they're around other people.

Michael Preston:

So it's an interesting moment, I think, where we can think about if we want to... We can call kids struggling learners. We can also just say they're different learners, they're in different places. They have different needs. And a lot of the identification and addressing of those is by people. And so if we remove that human contact layer, then we're not getting the right signal or the full signals. So how do we deal with that?

Jonathan Finkelstein:

You talked earlier about how at the Cooney Center, you've moved the timeline to include older children as well as younger ones. Let's fast-forward that out even further. Let's talk about adults for a second. Sesame Street and the work that the Sesame Workshop has done is a real common experience here in the United States. It's part of virtually everybody's upbringing. That's a very rare organization that can do that, very rare brand to have such a common experience across generations. If you were talking to business leaders today, and you were extracting some of the most important lessons that you focus on solving for when it comes to young people and apply them to the workplace today, Sesame Street and Sesame Workshop and the Cooney Center have been far ahead in thinking about issues of diversity, access, inclusion. What are the lessons from Sesame Workshop and the Cooney Center that should be at the top of the what to do next list for businesses thinking about how they can be more engaged in issues of diversity and justice? In other words, everything I needed to know, I learned from Sesame Street. What are those things? 

Michael Preston:

I can think of a few ways in which the ideas that drove the show might be generalizable lessons. It's interesting, we assume, to your point, everybody has had some experience with Sesame, that there is some common cultural, shared cultural understanding that's based on our exposure to the show. Although you could also argue it has waned a little as the single screen and proliferation of television channels of all kinds has changed the landscape a bit. When the show started, though, it was really the only, or one of a very small number, with Mr. Rogers and some other shows that were places for kids to get something enriching on television. But the show took a lot of chances. The two biggest ones, let's say, were putting a multiracial cast on live television, which in 1969 was groundbreaking. It caused Mississippi to ban the show for a month or two in the first season until the public response caused them to put it back on the air. And a lot of adults now reflecting back on the show remark about how the presence of people who looked like them on TV made a really big difference for them. And this is what public television and public media are so well-equipped for, which is representation. The stories that you see of people on public media more accurately reflect the audiences of that medium, let's say.

Michael Preston:

And so it was a very big deal that Gordon and Susan were who they were, and that the neighborhood, the block that Sesame Street represented, like a typical New York City brownstone block with trash cans and salty characters who lived in them and other things like that, it was just a happy neighborhood where people lived together and learned together. And it was a groundbreaking thing. The other risk that they took was Jim Henson. And in hindsight, it seems like hardly a risk. That was the magic in some ways that made Sesame as powerful as it was, because kids wanted to listen to those Muppets. And Muppet characters are all children. They have different ages. Big Bird is about six. Elmo is three and a half. And so each of them has kind of a space they occupy in the developmental continuum. And the kids really, really latched onto those. I know I did, and the toys and everything else that went with them so that they could have Sesame Street characters in their home. And those parasocial relationships were really the core element of Sesame and continue to matter to this day.

Michael Preston:

So those were two big innovations. I mentioned earlier that Joan and Lloyd were thinking about how their kids knew the words to all the jingles, the commercial jingles on TV. And so there's also an enormous amount of great music. The New York Times did a wonderful long form piece on the music of Sesame last year that's really worth reading. And you'll see the titles and you'll know all of them because you heard them, you sang them. There was a lot of brilliant songwriting over the years.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

I think this is a time to going back to fundamentals and the basics of, of humanity. And your reference to thinking about Sesame Street as the neighborhood, I think this is a time to going back to fundamentals and the basics of humanity. And your reference to thinking about Sesame Street as the neighborhood, I think one of the things that I’m sensing in this particular moment while you and I are recording is the impact of the current Black Lives Movement combined with having had people holed up, if you will, during a global pandemic, is people have a much greater sense for human contact and human suffering. And to see suffering upon suffering upon suffering in such a stark and transparent way at a time when people are particularly raw and perhaps more in touch with what makes them human is a very unique moment in time. And it is the kind of time to go back to think about the fundamentals and the basics of what makes a neighborhood and how do you love your neighbor and how do you deal with the differences and how do you make sure that you create communities when you have an opportunity to that actually look more like the world than just perhaps your world. So there's a lot to learn from the work that you do at all levels.

Michael Preston:

And there's a lot to learn from what you do. I would say that what I've admired about the earlier work that you did in your career that you mentioned at the start of our conversation about online conversations, you were very focused on creating spaces in which people could hear from each other, learn, have a dialogue. And as we live in this world of massive platforms where anybody can talk to anyone or battle it out with someone they've never met and will never meet over something or other, maybe they're battling it out with a robot, we don't know, but the idea that neighborhoods and communities matter and that there's something about building those connections that is actually what it means to be human, it's not actually being able to broadcast your thoughts to millions. It might be about being able to relate to people in a smaller circle and have some mutual benefit from that. And I would be curious to know if you've been thinking about that at all in this...

Jonathan Finkelstein:

Yes. We'll save that one for the next conversation. I think there's certainly, at least among my colleagues at Credly, very deep conversations going on around the most meaningful ways to affect change and how locally that starts and how you have to look in the mirror, and even if what you see is uncomfortable, that's how you grow. I know the most growth that I've ever experienced personally have come in moments when my own mindsets have been challenged, often by someone who may have taken a risk by challenging me. And so there's a lot that comes from not interacting with a robot, but still having very candid conversations.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

Before we wrap up this lovely conversation, I'm thinking back to my son, who's just over five months now. And I was asked a few years ago when Credly first began its work around credentialing, and credentialing that was more democratized, that touched not just formal educational environments, but the workplace and associations and professional settings and so forth, whether I thought, this was a question in an audience at a conference I attended in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a parent/professional stood up and said, "Okay, you're talking about all these alternative credentials. My kid's a junior in high school right now. Should I be thinking about some alternative pathway or should we really be getting ready for college?" And that was probably actually seven or eight years ago I got that question. Little did I know, here I would be with a newborn, essentially, thinking what's life going to be like 17 years from now? Based on where you sit and your varied set of experiences, do you think Benjamin, my son, and knowing me, will my son wind up with a traditional degree and others born in his generation? Or do you think we'll see far more people have the license and the air cover, if you will, to pursue alternative paths to happiness?

Michael Preston:

Well, I hope that Benjamin, and I expect that Benjamin is going to be very well supported in your family to explore everything. We try to bring our kids up in a world of opportunity. That's what we want our legacy for them to be. And to me, the best preparation for that is a learning orientation so that you find the things you like, but you discover them through an openness that can come through a sense of safety and a confidence that you can go try things that are difficult or different, and that you're open to listening to other sources of information that challenge you and help you accommodate them and grow in ways that are not an easy path. To me, that is kind of core to what it means to be human, not just what education is for or how we might put kids on a timeline to some kind of outcome that we would hope them to be like. Every parent wants their kid to be self-sufficient in the world when they become adults, and then hopefully come back and take care of us.

Michael Preston:

But this idea that it's really a tough time right now in 2020 to predict what's going to happen in the education system we have. So we have a pandemic and we have financial challenges to the model we have. We also have a lot of discontent over what we've accepted as normal, the massive disparities in access to education and quality across K-12 and higher ed, the business model of higher ed and how lots of colleges and universities have become fiscally unsustainable. And it's hard to know what the right model is. You have a swing toward pre-professional training and hard-wiring kids with skills that map to careers. You also have a liberal education tradition here where people like you and I went to college and tried something kind of outside what we were thinking or what was considered strategic if we wanted to go get a job. And by choosing a path toward opening, we had the privilege to choose an opening pathway that maybe didn't prescribe a path for us, but it gave us maybe a set of tools that we use every day. And you, by pursuing kind of a visual and artistic path, and me by choosing a sort of cultural studies go away, get away from here and go dislocate yourself a little bit in another culture, that building those skills and that muscle may have lead to something else.

Michael Preston:

So I think that maybe we can do another conversation. I would sure love to interview you about what you think, how we re-conceive of the education systems we need for this new era. I think we also need to bring a lot more diverse voices into that. So what is it we really want if we're going to take a moment to actually design something new? So I'm up for that.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

Invitation accepted. I love that idea. So we'll just call this a pause in this conversation. We'll pick it up in the near future and talk about the future of learning. And you can all crowdsource Benjamin's future for me. That would be great. It's been a privilege, Michael, to have this conversation, and we'll talk soon.

Michael Preston:

Thanks, Jonathan. I've always loved talking to you.

Jonathan Finkelstein:

Take care.

Michael Preston:

Bye.

Topics: Videos, Interview, Conversations With Jonathan

By  Jonathan Finkelstein