Koche Sesame: Lessons Learned
Why Koche Sesame?
Following decades of conflict, the Afghanistan educational scene is in a state of “hopeful disarray.” On the “hopeful” side, the young republic greatly emphasizes education. Getting children of both genders into school quickly was a priority from the start. For example, the first day of school, right after the Afghan New Year (March 21), has been observed each year with much fanfare by the new government. And in opinion surveys, the majority of Afghan respondents express support for girls’ education, as well as for women’s ability to participate in the workforce.
On the “disarray” side, there are not enough teachers; the existing teachers possess very mixed qualifications; there is little correspondence between age level and grade level; there is insufficient and irregular funding for teacher salaries, construction and reconstruction of schools, provision of textbooks, and other costs; and there are significant physical infrastructure challenges, such as sporadic and/or limited electricity, a lack of a reliable transportation and communication system, and a lack of security.
This raises the question of how education can be supported in such a post-conflict environment. This project—Koche Sesame—is an experiment that seeks to help answer that question. Based on a preexisting relationship, the RAND Corporation and Sesame Workshop decided in 2002 to assemble a media kit consisting of Sesame Street materials (including 10 episodes), retrofitted and culturally adapted for Afghan schoolchildren. The media kit was completed in 2003 and delivered to Afghanistan in April and May of 2004 by a small RAND team. The materials were delivered on Afghan central and regional television, in women’s centers, through mobile media units, in schools and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working with traumatized children and demobilized child soldiers, in daycare facilities, in orphanages, in centers for out-of-school street children, in public libraries, and in hospitals.
Besides distributing the sets, the RAND team also held discussions with Afghan government officials and administrators and with NGOs engaged in child- and education-related work. It observed children viewing the materials in classrooms setting, discussed the materials with the children, and held focus group discussions with teachers and school officials. Altogether, the RAND team observed approximately 1,000 children as they watched the program. Four focus group discussions with teachers were held, and interviews with teachers were conducted in eleven schools. The more extensive observations in classrooms were held in the Amani School in Kabul, the Abdullah bin Omar School in Paghman, the Jamal Agha Girls’ School in Kapisa, and the Karte Parwan School in Kabul.
What Did We Hope to Learn from Koche Sesame?
By conducting the experiment, the study team hoped to test two premises. First, we wanted to see whether modern media can play a constructive role in educating children in settings where formal schooling is impeded by political, social, and economic difficulties. Second, we wanted to determine whether educational content, including social learning, can (with some care) transcend cultural differences.
Beyond these two premises, the study team also wanted to answer some other key questions: How would children, teachers, and local opinion leaders react to a program intended to entertain and educate? Would there be problems in comprehension? Would the aftereffects of the xenophobic, ultra-conservative Taliban regime cause teachers and perhaps children to regard the content of the episodes with suspicion and reject it?
What Were Some of the Lessons Learned from Koche Sesame?
After conducting the experiment, we learned the following:
- The program was appealing to all age groups.
- Receptivity to this medium is so high that infrastructure obstacles, such as the absence of electricity, became secondary.
- Social messages were indeed understood as intended. Feedback from students, teachers, and others illustrate that material reinforcing elements like supporting freedom of choice in women’s attire, promoting activities once prohibited by the Taliban (e.g., kite flying, birds as pets, and music), and presenting family and community life in positive ways were successful and in some cases praised.
- Teachers especially recognized child/adult relationships and the “patience adults showed toward children.”
- Expatriates (who had assisted in developing the project) did not prove to be good predictors of in-country attitudes. Direct involvement of the target population is preferred.
- Ethnicity is a non-issue, since Afghans either thought that the people in the episodes were Afghans, did not care whether they were, or were intrigued by the “foreignness.”
- Teachers were not prepared to use the materials independently and interactively; thus, suggestions were made that we produce an instructional video for the teachers to help them use the materials more creatively. Teaching aids should place few demands on the user and they should not require sequencing, consistency, or preparation to promote its use as a classroom tool.
- Afghan classrooms were traditional, with strong authority granted to teachers and other adults. However, this did not mean that the behavior of the children was repressed.
- The program should consist of self-contained units clearly addressing individual topics. Content areas to consider are livelihoods and vocations, health issues and first aid, and life skills, such as mine awareness, and civic values.