Edutainment – making it work

The idea of educating through entertainment is appealing, but it’s tricky to get the balance just right. As Terese has noted, Sesame Street got it right in the USA. The BBC got it right with The Archers in the UK. And it has worked in South Africa for Soul City – a multimedia health programme that I was privileged to work on in the nineties.

Soul City was the brainchild of a young doctor, Garth Japhet, who  had seen babies dying unnecessarily of dehydration, abused women who were too ashamed to tell the doctor the real reasons for their injuries, and patients who had contracted HIV through ignorance. Believing that if information could be put across in an emotionally engaging way, people would be moved to change their behaviour, Japhet and his colleagues set up Soul City as a non-governmental organisation. At the heart of their programme was a television soap opera, with each episode containing a well-crafted health message skillfully embedded within a highly dramatic script. The TV show is backed up by newspaper inserts in national newspapers as well as radio shows in nine languages, and pamphlets and posters distributed via clinics around the country.

Today Soul City has over 35 million viewers in eight countries, and the organisation has gathered an impressive body of evidence through ongoing evaluations to show that the programme has caused behaviour change on a significant scale. Its founder, Japhet, recently won the USA-based Everett M. Rogers Award for Achievement in Entertainment Education.

What is it that has made Soul City such a successful example of the edutainment genre? There are at least four factors, I think.

Firstly, the Soul City developers go to great lengths to understand honestly the needs and views of the audience – many of whom will recognise their own stories in the serial. So for example,  they dealt with the domestic violence story in a highly nuanced and sensitive way, showing Matlakala as a sophisticated professional woman (not the stereotype abused working-class woman), and showing how the drama is played out between both families, and not just the couple.

Secondly, Soul City uses a cross-disciplinary team to develop the content. I participated in workshops with social workers, medical doctors, police officers, counsellors and religious leaders, to develop the primary health messages. Educational people were in the minority at these workshops.

Thirdly, the Soul City television show has consistently used the best actors, directors and producers in the country. The show is worth watching in its own right, and the viewer engages with the “messages” primarily on an emotional level. (This is perhaps where the medium is at its most powerful.)

Finally, Soul City and their funders have a commitment to building in evaluation to every stage in every cycle of the programme. The evaluation carried out amongst Soul City’s viewers, listeners and readers is rigorous, and feedback obtained in this way is literally fed back into the programme to enhance further its impact.

So if anyone out there thinks education and entertainment don’t go together, I hope I have persuaded you otherwise!

Gabi Witthaus


Happy Birthday, Sesame Street!

Sesame Street is 40 years old this week. It was a surprise to me that Sesame Street was “born” in the same week as the internet. While I would not try to make the case that Sesame Street was as much of a world-changing force as the internet (please comment if you think it is), it certainly had impact on learning and teaching thought and practice.

What were the principles of Sesame Street? Noting that television commercials were very good at catching and holding children’s attention, producers of the programme decided to apply some of the same techniques for educational purpose: good music, easy-to-remember phrases, attractive images, and short film segments. While the programme was consequently blamed for contributing to children’s short attention spans, one can hardly fault the eminently practical approach. After all, little songs and rhymes have been a learning and teaching technique ever since anyone can remember. I still say to myself “I before E, except after C, or as sounded like AY as in neighbour or weigh” when spelling tricky words.

Another principle was the promotion of social values such as getting along with people different from yourself. Sesame Street was set in a multi-ethnic, friendly neighbourhood which did not look as affluent as did the settings of many American television shows. While much has been said and written about the political correctness of Sesame Street for good or ill, it was a refreshing challenge to television stereotypes and was therefore, if nothing else, a worthwhile experiment in encouraging children to think about such issues. I recently came across “The educational impact of Rechov Sumsum/Shara’a Simsim: A Sesame Street television series to promote respect and understanding among children living in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza” in the International Journal of Behavioral Development. To quote the abstract, “Exposure to the programme was linked to an increase in children’s use of both prosocial justifications to resolve conflicts and positive attributes to describe members of the other group.”  So the Middle East’s version of Sesame Street, which started airing in 1998, is seen as a positive influence, and while it has undergone various format changes, it is still on television.

But the most important principle of Sesame Street was FUN! Jim Henson’s Muppets were funny and clever and quickly became cultural icons. The little cartoons featuring the letter M were fun, as were the songs about “Chickens in the Trees.” I was already in primary school when Sesame Street made it to the airwaves in my hometown, and did not need it to teach me the alphabet or numbers. But I still remember rushing home after school to see it, and all my classmates seemed to be doing the same. We hadn’t seen anything like it before — it was educational and fun. What a shocking combination!

Happy Birthday, Sesame Street!

Terese Bird

Beyond Distance Learning Technologist and Assistant ZooKeeper

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