Koche Sesame: Sesame Street in Afghanistan

Afghanistan President Karzai
Afghanistan's President Karzai discusses school issues with Afghan-American children during a filming session of the RAND-Sesame Workshop

logoKoche Sesame is a version of Sesame Street adapted for Afghan schoolchildren. It is a joint contribution of the RAND Corporation and Sesame Workshop to the educational reconstruction of Afghanistan. It consists of educational media kits containing ten 20-minute episodes for VCR, a teachers' guide, a poster, and school supplies. For more details, see a description of "Initial Rollout" (PDF) and the more recent description of "Lessons Learned."

In April 2004, the kits were formally handed over to the Ministry of Culture and Information and were distributed to schools, daycare centers, television stations. Additional requests for the materials have also come from groups working with demobilized child soldiers, from NGOs that run children's circus groups and programs for street children, and from orphanages.

The content was derived from Sesame Workshop's international programs, especially its Egyptian program, with local Afghan content added. The Afghan Ministry of Culture, Afghan educators and Afghan media groups participated in the design and composition of the segments, which were then translated and dubbed into Dari by Afghan media groups. Reaction to the materials by teachers and children has been recorded through classroom observations, qualitative interviews, and focus groups.

Koche Sesame tests the premise that modern media can play a constructive role in the education of children in settings where formal schooling is impeded by political, economic and social difficulties; and that educational messages, including social learning, can with some care transcend cultural differences and be universally relevant. Besides hypotheses, we approach this experiment with curiosity: how will children, many of whom have never previously been exposed to modern visual media, react to a program intended to entertain and educate them? How will teachers and local opinion leaders respond?

The Afghan educational scene remains, in Spring 2004, in a state of "hopeful disarray" - hopeful, because 3 million children have returned to school, a third of them girls; disarray, because the task of setting up an education system under the prevailing conditions is so inordinately challenging. These challenges include:

  • Devastated physical infrastructure. Decades of fighting destroyed most school buildings, including some of the most famous educational institutions of Kabul.
  • Lack of facilities. Many "classrooms" still consist only of straw mats under an outdoor arbor, a tent, or just a patch of dirt between some buildings.
  • Highly uneven levels of teacher qualification. Teachers include some who have not exercised their profession for decades; and some who are self-appointed and self-taught, having run clandestine schools during the Taliban years. They may have been trained in the former Soviet Union, in Pakistan or in Iran. The vast majority are out of touch with the global debate on didactics, curriculum, child development and pedagogy, and adhere to a frontal teaching style and rote learning. Many Afghan teachers themselves sense that this is not optimal, and persistently request training and retraining, as well as teaching supplies and support materials.
  • No regular student body. After decades of disruption, there is little correlation between age and grade level. Schools must deal with a random assortment of children and youths who have never been to any school; who have been only to a Koran school; who experienced sketchy attendance at an illegal home school; who attended some sort of school in a refugee camp; who went to a Pakistani or Iranian refugee school; along with some few who had a fairly regular school career. A school can have 6 year old, 10 year old, and 17 year old "first-graders". With already limited infrastructure, poor resources and under qualified teachers, the challenge of managing such a student body is almost insurmountable.
The Koche Kits contains five video cassettes (each containing two 20-minute episodes), a teacher's guide, a Dari number/alphabet poster (to view or print poster download PDF) and some school supplies.

We chose qualitative methods centered mainly on classroom observations and group discussions as a way to gather information about the reception and perception of this product - and about its audience, school age children in post-conflict Afghanistan and their educators. The "Koche Sesame" experimental project gives us the opportunity to explore a range of issues relevant to education support in situations of post-conflict reconstruction. The design, development, delivery and use of this educational input touches on questions that are fundamental to educational support and reform in the Islamic world. The questions raised by the Koche Sesame experiment cover a lot of ground. For example, we would like to know:

  • How do low-literacy, low-tech societies respond to educational inputs based on modern media?
  • What happens when you insert "modern pedagogy inputs" into "traditional pedagogy classrooms"?
  • Under what circumstances and to what extent do they lead to rejection, cooptation, adaptation, or change?

We do not expect to answer these very complicated questions. Rather, we hoped to gain some texture-rich insights by spending time with Afghan young people and teachers and sharing their school day. This expectation was fulfilled - stimulated by the Sesame Street input, we had informative discussions about the lives, concerns and experiences of Afghan children and families. As soon as the report is completed, it will be posted here.