April 18, 2013

By Marie-Louise Mares

Research on the Research: Meta-analyzing Sesame Workshop and Finding Good Things

Chamki from India's Galli Galli Sim Sim entertains and educates children on the streets of Delhi.

Marie-Louise Mares is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Sesame Street has always been unique in terms of how much research goes into designing each episode and evaluating how effective the program is. That research happens not only in the US, but also for the various versions of Sesame Street around the globe. Extraordinary amounts of work go on, conducting research studies in countries as diverse as Bangladesh, China, India, Tanzania, Mexico…

I didn’t do any of that work. But what I have done over the past two years, together with my colleague, Zhongdang Pan, at University of Wisconsin-Madison, is do research on that research. Sesame Workshop turned over all those studies that were conducted in countries outside the US and we read them all, and coded the types of learning and the context, and recorded the statistical findings from each study. We coded how rigorous the study was, and how carefully the outcomes were measured. We then combined and analyzed all that information to get a picture of the effects of Sesame Street around the globe, including in some of the world’s poorest regions.

It took a long time. My hair is a lot greyer than it used to be. But Pan and I found significant, positive effects of preschool-aged children’s viewing of Sesame Street. Not for every kid in every study for every outcome (of course!). But across all those studies there was a real effect – on average, those children who watched Sesame Street knew more letters and numbers, knew more about the world around them (including health and safety information), and had more positive attitudes toward other social groups than those who didn’t watch.

This is impressive. Other research indicates that it’s really hard to create early educational interventions that are effective and can be scaled up to reach more than a handful of children. There are literally millions of children around the world who watch Sesame Street. Our findings suggest that doing so makes a real, measurable difference in their skills and knowledge.

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