January 16, 2019

The Other Side of the Screen

As a researcher, Tiffany Maxon gets to help develop the next generation of children’s television shows.

Tiffany Maxon (left) readies tablets for classroom use as part of a Ready To Learn research project.

Tiffany Maxon’s lifelong interest in children’s television started early. With no cable at home—and five younger siblings to share the set with—she grew up on a steady diet of Sesame Street, Captain Kangaroo, and Square One. And even as she aged out of the target demographic, Maxon continued to watch—and enjoy—the shows.

“Being the oldest gave me an excuse to watch children’s television later into my adolescence than others may have,” she says.

Now, Maxon finds herself on the other side of the screen. As part of EDC’s Ready To Learn team, she conducts research on the impact of PBS KIDS’ shows—including The Ruff Ruffman Show and The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That! —and also on how young children learn at home. Not only does Maxon’s work impact what children see when they tune in, it also helps ensure that these shows continue to address disparities in access to education.

“I’m interested in supporting the development of educational media—definitely television, but also other media platforms too—that make informal learning more accessible,” she says. “How do we make quality content that lasts—content that isn’t dependent upon the latest new technology fad? And how can we make sure this content remains accessible to children from all socio-economic groups? I think Ready To Learn is helping to address a lot of those questions.”

Maxon didn’t always plan on becoming an educational researcher. She earned a degree in Cinema and Media Studies from the University of Chicago and graduated in 2008—right in the midst of the financial crisis. She decided to stay on campus to become a video producer, making short documentaries about scholars’ innovative ideas as well as the school’s pioneering campus infrastructure changes.

A move to New York City in 2012 gave her the opportunity to pursue media-making on her own terms. As a freelance video producer and editor, she worked on television shows, shot video stories for magazines, and helped produce a feature film. She says that her favorite assignments were always those in which she was helping others learn—a realization that eventually drove her to apply to graduate school to pursue a career in educational media.

“My interests in film, education, and working with kids all sort of intersected around educational media,” she says. “I decided to just go for it. I thought my dream job was to work for Sesame Street.”

During graduate school, Maxon took an internship at WGBH—a public television station in Boston—and realized that her ideal job, as she had envisioned it, didn’t really exist. Educational media relied much more on people with differing specialized skills coming together, rather than on people with the combined skill sets she had. She faced a choice: go back to the production world and try to work on properties for children or focus on her goal of helping others learn. So Maxon took courses in research and evaluation and tried to apply her knowledge about media to these new disciplines.

Only a few months after graduating with her master’s degree, Maxon joined EDC as a research assistant.

Maxon still tunes into PBS from time to time. She says that OddSquad—with its silly humor and creative characters—is one of her more recent favorites, partly because it reminds her of Square One’s faux-crime drama series MathNet. She’s proud of the contributions she is making to educational television in her own right and hopes that her research helps create shows that are just as good—if not better—than the ones she grew up watching.

“I think it’s the work that I wanted to do all along,” she says. “I just didn’t know what it was.”