Elmo, We Need to Talk

Voices from the Field   03 May 2018
By Jennifer Davis Poon, Center for Innovation in Education

 

At home, says Ed, you can speak when you please, sit wherever you want, run around, ride a bike. At school, you raise hands, sit at your desk, and stand in line.

Jennifer Davis Poon
Fellow, Center for Innovation in Education

This article was originally published on Jennifer Davis Poon’s personal blog, Jen-ed.


So I’m watching Sesame Street with my 1-year-old daughter bouncing on my lap, singing along with those silly Muppets. A new song starts, featuring Ed Sheeran, and suddenly I’m no longer singing. I can’t. I can only observe as my professional endeavors are rendered impotent in just under three minutes. My eyes widen, and all I can think is: Ed, Elmo, what have you done?

They’re singing “Two Different Worlds,” a song about behavioral expectations at home versus at school. It is an attempt to socialize the young Sesame Street audience to the ways they’ll be expected to conduct themselves at school. At home, says Ed, you can speak when you please, sit wherever you want, run around, ride a bike. At school, you raise hands, sit at your desk, and stand in line.

It’s not wrong to equip kids with skills necessary to succeed in school, especially when school follows cultural norms that are not universal. What’s dispiriting is the clip’s unspoken but absolute acceptance of the way school should be: buttoned-up and disempowering.

Ed and the Muppets put on a good face about it. They maintain their smiles—as if Muppets have a choice—while they pantomime the restrained school experience. But, anyone who has been on Planet Earth knows how much less fun it is to sit in rows, stand in line, and silence yourself than it is to run around and ride a bike.

Ed’s lyrics justify forbearance because “learning takes focus, so you’ll need self-control.” He’s not wrong about that. But, self-regulation in service of learning need not look like a police lineup. That’s just what we’ve done with it. (Really, watch the clip.)

Instead, self-regulated learning is active, empowering, and inclusive of one’s identity. Students participate in goal-setting; exercise voice and choice when initiating action toward those goals; and self-reflect and reflect with others on their progress.

Even our youngest students—those personified by the Muppets—can have agency when learning, even if the learning objective is to learn the importance of taking turns. Ed Sheeran doesn’t talk about that.

 

 

We can and should do more to make school more reflective of home values and more representative of a greater society in which identity and personal agency matter.

Jennifer Davis Poon
Fellow, Center for Innovation in Education

Moreover, school and home ought to be a lot more congruous than Sesame Street’s “two worlds.” According to Ed and Elmo, school is the place where “learning is a goal.” Apparently home is not. School is “where I learn all I can be.” Apparently family is not.

Contrast this perspective to that of educators and policymakers in Hawaii who are reorienting the state’s entire education system to better “honor the qualities and values of the indigenous language and culture of Hawaiʻi”—including through more culturally responsive assessments (I’m looking at you, standardized bubble tests.)

Proponents of Hawaii’s new system understand that family and school are integral to one another—extensions of one another, even. It’s not good enough to teach kids to code switch once they get off the school bus. We can and should do more to make school more reflective of home values and more representative of a greater society in which identity and personal agency matter.

For me, though, the most disappointing thing about the Sesame Street clip is that I doubt the everyday parent will react the way I did. Some may have thought the clip was hokey (come on, who is THAT happy waiting in line?), but it probably resonated with their own lived experience as young students. The motif of School as Conformer isn’t fictional—it happens to us all.

So here is my charge to you, dear ally. Carry our cause to Sesame Street. Show pop-culture influencers a vision for school that is learner-centered and integrated with home values and identities. Show them how this is already happening in so many places. Tip the tastemakers. Change broad perception. Transform teaching and learning. Change the world.

Sign up for Voyager

×

Voyager is the publication for all things learner-centered. This free digital magazine is a great way to stay up-to-date on this growing field, discover learner-centered work, engage practitioners on the ground making it happen, and join the conversation.