Getting millions to learn: The impact of Sesame Street around the world

Editor’s Note: This blog series discusses select case studies, and what makes them interesting, that have been chosen for preliminary research by the Millions Learning project at the Brookings Center for Universal Education.

What is Sesame Workshop?

Sesame Workshop is the nonprofit organization behind the world-famous television program Sesame Street. It is the single largest informal educator of children in the world, reaching millions of children in more than 150 countries. Sesame Workshop’s projects occupy the unique intersection of early childhood education and media. What had started as an educational television program more than 40 years ago is now a multimedia platform that uses everything from radio, video, and books to the latest in interactive media and technology. Beyond math and literacy skills, Sesame Workshop’s programs teach children crucial lessons about health, emotional well-being, and pro-social interactions such as respect, gender equality, and de-stigmatization of disease and disability.

How did Sesame Workshop start?

The founders of Sesame Street conceived of the program in the late 1960s against the backdrop of the Civil Rights movement, which—among its many accomplishments—focused national attention on the gaps in school readiness between low-income minority children and their privileged counterparts. Since then, Sesame Workshop has tailored its programming directly to the needs and developmental level of its target audience, preschool children—especially those who are underprivileged and have no other access to preschool education.

The globalization of Sesame Street began shortly after its initial broadcast in the United States in 1969. International producers wanted a series that would address the challenges and educational needs back home. In response, Sesame Workshop created a flexible production plan that has continued to evolve over time and is now used to develop all of the international co-productions. This model is highly flexible and allows for different degrees of adaptation to the local context.

Why is Millions Learning interested in Sesame Workshop?

There are many reasons why we started looking at Sesame Workshop as a case study in scaling educational opportunities. Sesame Workshop provides informal learning opportunities for young children, particularly in contexts where formal preschool systems are not well-established or are beyond the reach of most of the population. There is a wealth of evidence that demonstrates children learn from Sesame Street’s international co-productions. A recent meta-analysis published in a peer-reviewed academic journal synthesized the findings from 24 studies in 15 countries and concluded that “…Sesame Street is an enduring example of a scalable and effective early childhood educational intervention.” In addition, Sesame Workshop programs have proven sustainable over 44 years and across vastly different contexts.

So how does Sesame Street do it?

    1. A Local Approach. In working with producers in other countries, Sesame Workshop provides the frameworks for the series that are to be created by local production teams within a country. As a result, all of the international co-productions share Sesame Street’s style and target age group as well as the core learning goals for that age group. But the specific educational goals of each country’s co-production are tailored to the unique needs of children in that country and culture. They are developed by early childhood specialists in each country in conjunction with a local production team. Studio sets reflect the local culture and are inhabited by local characters, developed specifically for each adaptation. This results in a fully local Sesame Street with its own name, language, curriculum, and Muppets.

For example, the Bangladeshi co-production, Sisimpur, emphasizes literacy, math, girls’ education, and the environment, while Kilimani Sesame in Tanzania has a special focus on malaria and HIV/AIDS education.

    1. The Role of Research and Data. From its beginnings, research has played a prominent role in the Sesame Street model. Programming is a continuous process that begins with the assessment of need. It is followed by a content seminar with education advisors during which educational objectives are outlined. Only then production takes place including workshops, script, material review, taping, and so on. Broadcast and material dissemination is followed by summative evaluation, which in turn feeds back to the needs assessment.
    2. Partnerships. The project’s long-term success has depended on a broad base of partners, including funding agencies, local production partners, broadcasters, government ministries, the education and academic community, and other private and public partnerships.

Sesame Workshop’s content creation model is a collaborative process among producers, researchers, and educational content specialists. Producers are responsible for the creative elements of the production, whether it be television, radio, print, or other media. Educational content specialists set the curricular priorities. And researchers represent the voice of the child and provide information about the program’s effectiveness.

  1. Financing. Sesame Workshop projects have received significant financial support from bilateral and multilateral donors including: the governments of Canada, the European Union, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United States; the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF); foundations including Bernard van Leer, Dell, Ford, Gates, and Rockefeller; corporations including MetLife, Qualcomm, and Sanlam; and broadcast partners.
  2. Technology. With the emergence of new digital platforms, Sesame Workshop has started experimenting with other ways to deliver educational content, including online, on mobile devices, and on game screens. Sesame Workshop has not only widened the menu of devices used, but has also maximized the potential of each medium to enhance learning. Several Sesame Street digital content and apps are available in Mandarin, Hindi, and many other languages. In areas where children lack regular access to electricity, television and computers, Sesame Workshop has started delivering education materials through “lower” technologies such as radio and print with the help of community organizations.

Flexibility to change with the times and to accommodate different contexts has been a hallmark of the expansion process to international contexts since the beginning.

We look forward to sharing more of what we learn from Sesame Workshop’s experience—the factors behind the program’s scaling success, as well as the challenges confronted and adaptations made along the way.

We hope you are enjoying our profiles in this blog series of some of the cases we are exploring, and welcome your thoughts and reactions as we continue.