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Gary Knell

How to Educate on TV

Tania Menai, New York

The man who runs Vila Sésamo speaks about the return of the program to Brazil and says that technology is an ally in the struggle to teach children.

“Television and other media are natural teachers of children. The question is what to teach.”

The American Gary E. Knell, 53 years old, is a father of four children. But he’s also very concerned with the education of other’s progeny. He runs Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organization whose educational activities range from the distribution of books to the television series Sesame Street, aimed at children of the pre-school age. The first foreign version of the program, broadcast in the United States for the past 38 years, was the Brazilian Vila Sésamo. On the air between 1972 and 1977, it charmed a generation of Brazilians with Garibaldo, the big bird, and the elephant Funga-Funga. Vila Sésamo, present today in 120 countries, will return to Brazil in October, broadcast by TV Cultura and affiliated channels. With one hour a day, the program will have a new character, called Bebel, and films about Brazilian cultural diversity. With a degree in political science and journalism, Knell travels the world to promote educational programs. He gave this interview to Veja in the Sesame Workshop’s extremely colorful office in New York.

Veja – Do Brazilians still remember Vila Sésamo?
Knell – The last time that I was in Rio de Janeiro, a man walked up to me and introduced himself as Garibaldo. His parents chose the name because of the character. That gives an idea of the impact that we had in that time. We are excited to return with a new series that educates and, principally, entertains little Brazilians. We are the longest street in the world. Sesame Street was born in New York in 1969 as a part of a campaign called The War against Poverty. It was a way to use television to raise the national level of education. We were dealing with the use of this media not only for viewers to learn commercial jingles by heart, but also to augment scholastic activities. Children memorize letters, numbers, shapes and norms of health. In this way, children from the lowest economic level improve their scholastic performance.

Veja – Could television also be useful in the education of Brazilians?
Knell – Children don’t learn only when they’re in school. They learn from the moment they wake up until the moment that they close their eyes to sleep. Television and other forms of media are natural teachers in the way that they have attraction. The question is to know what they are teaching. If we succeed in using the power of television and other media to promote teachings about writing, numbers, the environment and diversity, typical themes of Vila Sésamo, we can use this “free time” in front of the TV to stimulate a love of learning. That will help not only the scholastic performance, but also the future of the child.

Veja - Does Vila Sésamo intend to approach topics like violence, a reality in the lives of many Brazilian children?Knell – We live in New York and we cannot make decisions about the curricular focus in any of the countries in which we work. We don’t pretend to be specialists in India, Japan, or Brazil. It’s the role of Brazilians to decide which curriculum is most appropriate. I always say that we design the kitchen and the countries decide what to cook. In the case of Brazil, the first season will deal with learning letters and numbers, as well as approaching the racial diversity of the country and topics about the environment. The choice was from the Brazilian team.

Veja – What do you know about children’s programming on Brazilian TV?
Knell – Brazilian commercial television is one of the biggest export products of the country. But it lacks putting the Brazilian culture, which is marvelous, in a children’s educational program. We want to make something even better than we made in the past. Today we have educational programs and animation from channels via satellite. I always remind my team that I’m not the boss. The boss is a 4 year old girl, seated on a sofa in Sao Paulo, holding a remote control, who, if she gets bored, will turn the channel. If we don’t know to offer this child something interesting, we haven’t fulfilled our mission. Note that, through watching a lot of television, children have a refined palate.

Veja – Sesame Street actually creates fairly polemical characters, like the South African child with AIDS. How does a viewer react to these new things?Knell – On Takalani Sesame, our South African version, we use seven languages and approach the issue of HIV and AIDS, since one in nine children have the virus and suffer terribly from prejudice and discrimination, even in school. The character Kami represents a girl with HIV who is asymptomatic, happy, but orphaned by her mother, a victim of AIDS. In this way, you teach that children can hug their friends and play with them without contracting the disease. That is a spectacular tool to educate a great number of people. Kami is a huge success in her country and has become a symbol of UNICEF for children with AIDS.

Veja – The Israeli version had Arab and Jewish characters living on the same street. Today, due to the seriousness of the conflict, each group has their own version. How do you struggle with situations of this type?
Knell - I just returned from Israel and the Palestinian territories. The existing division over there is difficult to overcome. But we hope to help form a generation of children who don’t get stuck in the prejudices of their parents. We are bringing the same kind of work to the Balkans. Also in Northern Ireland we are finalizing a partnership with the BBC to narrow the abyss between Catholics and Protestants.

Veja – What are the biggest challenges in areas of conflict?Knell – Psychologists recommend three provisions to struggle with conflicts. The first is self-esteem. That is, there’s no way to feel good in relation to others if you don’t feel good in relation to yourself. The second is empathy: putting yourself in the place of the other. The third is a comprehension of the impact that your actions have. In the case of the Israelis and Palestinians, the situation reverted after the start of the intifada. We are walking behind. It became physically impossible to bring together the producers to work on a common street. So we created parallel programs for Israel, Palestine and also Jordan. All approach the themes of tolerance and respect.

Veja – How has Vila Sésamo dealt with the war in Iraq?Knell – There are 700,000 children of preschool age who are children of soldiers sent to war. Many of these men and women are called to military service already for the second or third time, and each one has a duration of six months to a year. This situation is problematic for families that have to deal with the comings and goings, absences, especially when one of the children takes a paternal position while the father is away. So we created a kit called “Talk, Listen, Connect” to help the parents deal with the children. We made 400,000 kits, as well as online versions and for television with the actor Cuba Gooding Jr. The idea is that, when a father is sent to the battlefield, it’s as if the family was together. It doesn’t matter if you are against or for this war. Our focus is on the children who didn’t have a choice and have to deal with this reality.

Veja – The Canadian economist Don Tapscott says that “for the first time in history, the children are more comfortable, literate and have more knowledge than their parents.” Do you agree?
Knell – I certainly agree, above all because I have four children. One time, I was interviewed by Chinese television and the reporter said that children there are on the internet all the time, they play videogames, they watch television more than they should and don’t do their homework. I responded: “Geez, seems like you are in my house.” It’s a universal challenge. The children of today don’t know the world without the internet, cellular phones and digital media. The disadvantage of technology is that everything is so fast that nothing is durable. The challenge is to find a form in which the learning is lasting in areas like history, music, reading, writing or culture. We have to create citizens of the 21st century from the technology of the 21st century.

Veja – Some studies show that the excess of technology can be harmful to children, reducing their ability to concentrate and, as a consequence, to learn. Do you agree?
Knell –
My observation as a father is that it’s impossible for someone to watch a game of Ronaldinho on television, listen to Gilberto Gil, write to friends in Venezuela and do homework at the same time. On the other side, there is a lack of research in regards to this. We are creating a center of studies that will focus on ways of using technology in an educational process, primarily to teach reading. It’s compatible for us to find ways of using technology as a teaching tool. Our character Elmo, here in the United States, sends letters by cell phone to children. With this, 75% of parents from lower socio-economic groups who participated in the initiative said that their children learned the alphabet more rapidly.

Veja – Childhood obesity has grown so much that there is an unprecedented number of adolescents with type 2 diabetes. How do you see this problem?
Knell –
Obesity is a very complex topic. It has something to do with technology that makes it easier to live in a virtual reality and also with parents who, with fear of the insecurity of the street, don’t let their children leave the house. At the same time, the schools are cutting the hours of physical education. When I grew up, in the 60s, the television commercials were already selling food with sugar to children, but our lifestyle was different, more active.

Veja – Are videogames causing damage from violence?
Knell –
It’s not a question of whether technology is bad or good, but of using it in the right way. Videogames can perfectly promote positive learning in a creative context. I believe that it is possible to create games that entertain at the same time as they lead to an educational objective. As parents, we have to take advantage of that technology in the right way. After all, it’s incredible. As content providers, our work is to respect the child audience. We must produce an appropriate program, relevant and involving for the age instead of exploiting children with advertisements that, in truth, they are not prepared to understand.

Veja – How can Sesame Street win the attention of children when it needs to compete with million-dollar productions, like from Disney and Pixar?
Knell –
I like to say that we are a mouse on the dance floor of elephants. We are totally guided by our mission and we have to show our objectives with clarity in each project. What we do uniquely is research to know the necessities of each country. In Brazil, for example, it’s a need to bring children lessons of literacy, mathematics, respect for diversity and for the environment. Other companies don’t care about reaching countries in Africa, for example, because there isn’t money to earn there. They distribute their products without the work of researching about each culture.

Veja – About 40% of the revenue of Sesame Workshop comes from licensed products. Was it necessary to open the hand of idealism to survive?
Knell –
Our luck is to have a fountain of revenue that allows us to survive without searching for money from philanthropy or government, a thing that many non-profit companies have to do. A good part of the revenue comes from licensing of our intellectual property or our characters. In this way, children can play with Elmo or Garibaldo. The money that we get from selling books, CDs, DVDs, toys and shirts is put towards research and the production of our programs. We don’t have shareholders, we don’t seek profit. Our preoccupation is with the appropriate use of our characters. Food, for example. Our child characters only can be used on products that are in agreement with a guide that establishes correct nutritional standards. We put the characters on natural juices and healthy snacks. With that, we are giving up a bigger income that could come from big companies making more popular products but that don’t do so well for child nourishment.

Veja – David Kleeman, director of the American Center for Children and Media, who analyzes the child programming in the United States, says that “it is not the essence of the child that changes from generation to generation, but what is given back to them.” Do you agree?
Knell –
Yes. We have to protect the innocence of childhood, and in the world of today that is a difficult task. Our productions stimulate children to dream and impel them to reach their highest potential, opening a window to the world all around them. In India, a country on the road to becoming the third largest economy in the world, live 128 million children between the ages of 2 and 6. Two thirds of them don’t receive preschool education. In the Arab world, only one third of 52 million children in this age group complete primary school. Think of the impact of these initiatives.

Veja - How is it to raise four children in the digital age?
Knell –
Some parents maybe have been better than my wife and me, but we are very disciplined in relation to videogames in the house. We didn’t abolish them entirely, but also we don’t buy mountains of them. We encourage our children to read and to play musical instruments, participate in theater at school, practice sports and read a lot. They say that, if you delegate a task to a busy person, she does it better and even faster. The same is true for children. It is better that they not have a lot of lazy time on their hands. On the other side, it’s not worth it to be a purist and pretend that this technology is totally bad – the important thing is to know how to use it. Part of being a father and mother in the 21st century is to understand how to put these technologies in perspective to benefit children. That’s what we’re trying to do.

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Translated by Lauren Shweder Biel

[ copyright © 2004 by Tania Menai ]