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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Educating the Educator

Nov. 1, 2016

Charlotte Cole, one of the experts running workshops at this year's Japan Prize, has had a long career in educational TV around the world, including a stint with "Sesame Street."

The Japan Prize is the only international contest for educational media, and it's now in its 51st year. The Grand Prix will be presented on Wednesday.

But just as important are workshops that introduce participants to the latest in educational media and digital learning.

Cole was part of the team that developed "Sesame Street," one of the gold standards of children's television.

But first, let's look back at the 50-year history of the Japan Prize.

Teaching wasn't always the main goal of TV but in 1965, the idea of educating through television was gaining momentum. It was also the first year of the Japan Prize.

The judges gave the top award to the Finnish Broadcasting Company. It focused on the environment, using only the sounds of nature to express the importance of conservation.

The groundbreaking first award set the tone of the Japan Prize as a space to explore the possibilities of educational content.

Since then, the prize has gone to a wide variety of educational programs for audiences of all ages, from young children to adults. Winning projects have often focused on contemporary topics such as the lives of working women or bullying.

One program followed a 13-year-old girl as she tracked a load of garbage to its final destination. The story aims to teach young children that their actions can make a difference.

The prize has kept pace with the changing media landscape, moving from TV into new digital content, including games and websites. Since the prize was inaugurated, creators have submitted more than 9,000 works.

And the event has become a forum for groundbreaking discussion about the future of educational content and how it should address national and generational boundaries.

In workshops and symposiums, participants have a chance to meet, reflect, and share their ideas with the world.

Charlotte Cole is one such participant. She has spread the vision of "Sesame Street" around the world, and supported producers in other countries trying to make their own versions.

"The impact of 'Sesame Street' is about the same as the size of effect you will find when you study the effect of a high-quality in-school preschool program," she told the audience at one event.

One episode of the show's Indian version uses fun characters to teach kids to wear sandals to protect their feet.

Cole's workshop, titled "Developing High-Impact Local Content," will help spread the 50-year mission of the Japan Prize to creators around the world.


Charlotte Cole, Executive director of an NPO called the Blue Butterfly Collaborative, joins anchors Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Shibuya: Charlotte, in recent years, you have spent most of your time working with TV producers all around the world. What have you learned from this experience?

Cole: So much, but my experience has really been oriented around children's television and building children's TV that meets the needs of children in different countries. And I think what's interesting is to learn about the differing needs in different places. Children all over the world are developing and growing, and what we know as educators is that they really learn best when the educational materials they have match their cultural context and their experience.

Beppu: Let's see some concrete examples, which we have here.

Cole: This is through the "Sesame Street," the development of different co-productions of "Sesame Street." These are indigenously produced. And I can choose one example of Kami, here. Kami's the muppet in the middle who's holding a book. And what's wonderful about her is she loves to read. But Kami was developed in South Africa, where educators were really saying children need to learn about HIV and AIDS. It's a very big problem there, and kids need to have very good information about it, and they also need to have a lexicon for talking about it the disease, and for expressing themselves around it. So Kami was designed as a muppet who is HIV positive. And she's really wonderful. She provides a way to help break the culture of silence around HIV and AIDS, and give parents and children a vocabulary for talking about it. And that's one of the contributions "Sesame Street" has made.

Beppu: Is that what you're sharing at your workshops here in Tokyo?

Cole: At the workshop, it's really about a process of how do you make educational TV so that it's fun for kids, or any media. How do you integrate the educational side with the creative side? So in the workshops we really talked about how to make that seamless. And if you go back to these characters, there's a seamlessness between, if you have a character like the Count and he's already oriented towards mathematics. There's a kind of orientation that as educators we would call an affordance because the count affords opportunities to teach about math. And so a lot about what is good educational programming is that it integrates the educational element and also the fun. We talked a lot about how you develop the characters, how you develop the setting, how you develop all of the different elements of the production to make that seamless. "Sesame Street" has done this for years so beautifully, so I think that other producers can launch into those same learning and use it in their own work. And that's certainly what we're doing now in Haiti with new programming that we're doing with a team there, where they're developing their own animated series that uses some of these same principles.

Beppu: What do you think is the future of educational programs in this world that is so complicated in developing countries? We see a lot of polarization. We see populism. And in other countries there are countries of war, famine, refugee crisis. What is the role of educational programs?

Cole: It's a big issue. In the last century, we focused on building brick-and-mortar schools. And we still need those. Now, in the new century, we have so many new technologies and ways to carry educational information. But we need to develop the skills in local people to develop educational content that's really good and engaging. So to me, the future is that we need to be investing in it. Just in the same way that we invest in building schools, we need to be investing in building content that's really good. And the only way to do that really is to train teams in the best practices because we do now how to do it but we need to be making sure that that capacity is something that is across the world, particularly in the developing world. Because the other thing is, with these new technologies come huge opportunities to reach more people simultaneously in a world where there are more mobile phones than toilets. That teaches us really what we should be focusing on in terms of building educational content that is really vibrant and that is really going to have a high impact on children.