What Sesame Street Can Teach the World Bank

This page in:

ImagePlaza SésamoZhima Jie. Takalani Sesame. Galli Galli Sim Sim. Behind the various incarnations of 'Sesame Street' around the world stands the Sesame Workshop, the non-profit group committed to help children (and especially young children) develop literacy and numeracy skills, build the resilience they need to cope with tough times, establish an early foundation for healthy habits, and help fostering respect and understanding.

Sesame claims that it produces the "most studied TV progam in history".  While I don't have hard data to support this assertion, I can't even imagine a potential competitor to this claim.  Long a touchstone for many of us who work in the educational technology field, I would add that it is probably the most studied educational technology initiative in history as well.

Recently a group from Sesame spoke to a packed conference room at the World Bank about what it does around the world, and how it does it.  It was an entertaining presentation -- videos of small children cavorting with the likes of Elmo and Kami do tend to engage people in ways that, say, arguments about multivariate regression analysis do not.  The event was organized by the World Bank's early childhood development (ECD) group, but attracted many people from our more diffuse 'EduTech' thematic community as well.  This led me to wonder: What can those of us of work on educational technology initiatives within large institutions like the World Bank learn from how Sesame Workshop operates? 

While attempting to answer this question for myself, I came away from the entertaining and thought-provoking presentation with quick notes on five core 'lessons' to consider:

1. go to where your users are -- and be interesting once you get there
Why should we be promoting the use of ICTs among children? Don't kids around the world already watch too much television and waste too much time using computers (playing games, etc.)? These are questions I hear regularly from certain quarters in 2012; one person asked a version of this at the Sesame presentation. In the paper she wrote for the Carnegie Corporation in 1967 that led to the creation of Sesame Street, Joan Ganz Cooney noted that lots of pre-school children were already watching TV -- and were especially fascinated by the commercials they saw.  Why not then adopt and adapt some of the successful tools and approaches of the advertising companies -- approaches which in many ways mirrored effective teaching techniques, she noted -- and put them to use to help educate children, especially if they were going to be watching TV anyway?  As a result, Sesame used a widely available common technology (in the late 1960s, this was broadcast TV) to go to where kids were, subverting some of the impactful approaches for using that technology for its own ends. In 2012, Sesame not only seeks to engage children via broadcast television (although of course it does do this, a lot), but also is actively exploring and experimenting with a variety of the technologies already at hand in the lives of children (from oversized picture books to the mobile phones that parents increasing hand to their children to keep them occupied.  (The first time I ever heard a name given to the 'pass-back effect' -- where parents hand their phones back to their children to keep them occupied -- was as a results of discussions kicked off by reading from the Pockets of Potential paper produced by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, Sesame's affiliated research arm).  Go to where the children already are, the Sesame experience teaches us, and be interesting and engaging when you arrive there.  Whether you do this via a printed picture book, a TV, or a mobile phone, the point isn't that you are using a particular technology, it's that you are effectively using a technology already in use.

2. embrace non-traditional approaches
Some may question whether you can really laud Sesame for 'non-traditional' approaches to educating young children, given that it has been around since the 1960s.  While continuing to be known largely for its television programs, the organization self-consciously proclaims that it is in its '42nd experimental season' as a way to remind its staff that they need to be forward looking.  Today in Bangladesh, Sesame sets TVs on rickshaws and pedals them into slum communities, bringing messages to students where they live and gather (one lesson for other groups doing this in similar settings -- make sure you use rickshaws small enough to navigate narrow alleys!).  Some of the available technologies that Sesame is trying to take advantage of may not be that obvious.  Recognizing that printers are really just (increasingly powerful) single function computing devices (with the display not an LCD monitor, but rather a piece of paper), Sesame is looking at how they can utilize these devices in innovative ways to help disseminate its materials without the need of standalone computers. Instead of inventing something new, Sesame prefers to adopt and adapt traditional or established technologies and put them to new uses.

3. put research at the heart of the process
"Research informing practice" -- this is a mantra that Sesame holds dear.  Many other groups espouse similar things as well, of course.  That said, in the cases of some such groups, this is perhaps more accurately stated as 'we need to do research before we start a new practice' (while at the same time 'old' practices remain unquestioned because they been followed for a long time, with tradition and inertia conspiring to support 'business as usual', even if there is no compelling no research base supporting them -- and in fact, even where there is evidence to the contrary!).  The 1967 report to the Carnegie Corporation noted that "There is no substitute for trying [something] and evaluating its effects", and this assertion still guides Sesame's work today.  Remain in continual experimental mode. The best way to figure something out is to do it. Learn from what you are doing. Change course along the way based on what you learn.  These were messages that the Sesame folks conveyed quite strongly.  This means that mistakes will be made, they said, but this is an important part of the learning process -- for organizations just as it is for young children. 

4. international models, contextualized locally
In some ways, Sesame Street looks decidedly different in different countries ... and yet there is no denying that the end product is still Sesame Street.  Essentially Sesame prescribes a process for local partners to follow, but not the actual program or product that is meant to result from the process.  Of course, it does offer many examples of successful programs or products from around the world for its local partners to emulate, and it does care (a lot) about quality control.  One of the benefits of developing things locally is that this helps ensure local buy-in.  Another benefit to this approach is that it can result in lots of context-specific programs and products (like Math Bingo in Nigeria) that those in 'headquarters' would never have anticipated.  While productions are local, and despite the diversity of approaches and products that results from local production, the Sesame branding remains -- and remains strong. 

5. to reach your target audience, you need to consciously reach out to other groups as well
If one were forced to reduce the World Bank's new Education Strategy 2020 to just three words, they would be: Learning For All. For the World Bank, "Learning for All means ensuring that all children and youth – not just the most privileged or the smartest - not only can go to school but also acquire the knowledge and skills they need to lead healthy, productive lives and secure meaningful employment."  Sesame Workshop's mission is "to use the educational power of media to help children everywhere reach their highest potential." In pursuit of this goal, Sesame understands that its audience is not just children, but also their parents and caregivers. If you want to reach children, you need to reach out to, and support, those who are closest to them as well. Do this in ways that are inventive and engaging, using the tools (including the ICT tools) at hand, and you are more likely to be successful in your overall mission.

These are some of the quick impressions I took away from the Sesame Workshop presentation.  No doubt there are examples from Sesame's history, or current practice, in each of these five cases where things aren't exactly as I have painted them here, where Sesame itself doesn't follow these lessons 100% of the time.  Such is the nature of organizations -- especially long established organizations.  But even if these aren't being followed all of the time, or if the quick lessons I have drawn are a bit fuzzier and nuanced in reality than how I have quickly presented them here, the general intentions and directions that help guide the staff of the Sesame Workshop are pretty clear.  What is also clear to me after spending two hours learning lessons from the Sesame Workshop experience is that, if they are to remain relevant (let alone helpful), initiatives within institutions like the World Bank (especially those in fast moving fields, like the use of technology in education) will need to continue to challenge themselves to learn from, learn with, and work with a wider variety of organizations than may have been the case in the past. "There are many paths to the top of the mountain", or so goes an old Chinese proverb.  Even if they all eventually lead to the same place, it doesn't mean that others won't get there first.

You may also be interested in research from the Cooney Center, the independent research and innovation lab at Sesame Workshop that catalyzes and supports research, development, and investment in digital media technologies to advance children's learning. And: Wikipedia contains a useful short summary of the 'influence of Sesame Street', primarily in its U.S. incarnation, including discussions of criticisms of the show and related controversies. 

Please note: The image used at the top of this blog post of an entrance to the Plaza Sésamo theme park in Monterrey, Mexico comes via Wikimedia Commons and was made available through a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication license. 


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000