Saul Nassé - Great Stories: The Key To Great Teaching And Great Television

Date: 11.03.2013     Last updated: 18.03.2014 at 18.05
Category: Learning
Controller of Learning Saul Nassé's speech, given at the Education and Innovation Conference, Manchester, on 9 March 2013.

Hi. I’m Saul Nassé, the Controller of BBC Learning. My department is now based in Media City, Salford – along with Religion, Sport, Entertainment and, of course, Children’s. With that role call of subjects it sounds just like a school! Thankfully we’ve got a great headmaster, our own superhead, Peter Salmon, the director of BBC North. He’s had a vision for a different sort of BBC up north that’s been truly inspiring.

We’ve built BBC North to be closer to our audiences, rooted in new partnerships and at the forefront of digital innovation. That’s why you’ve seen brilliant new content like The Preston Passion, the 5 Live Octoberfest from Sheffield and the digital Olympics with 24 live video streams. The UK simply would not have had those great programmes without BBC North.

It’s working fantastically at a BBC level but it’s also working wonderfully from a personal point of view. I’ve discovered all sorts of pleasures since moving here - the People’s History Museum, the Manchester Art Gallery, the Britons’ Protection and the Marble Arch – two cracking pubs! – but one pleasure I never expected was being able to get up on a Saturday morning to whizz down to speak at a conference on education and innovation! And this is what it’s all about. New partnerships. Close to audiences. Full on innovation. So I’m delighted to be here.

Conferences on innovation always evoke mixed feelings. They are half exciting, half terrifying. I was editor of Tomorrow’s World, the BBC One science show, in the 1990s, which meant my job was predicting the future! Tomorrow’s World was always years ahead: covering computerised banking in the Sixties, mobile phones in the Seventies and touch screen computers in the Eighties.

But for every Raymond Baxter forecasting a technological revolution there’s a CP Scott. He was of course the legendary newspaper editor who edited the Manchester Guardian for 50 years and he wrote – "Television? The word is half Latin and half Greek. No good can possibly come of it."

Or Sir William Preece of the Post Office who said in the 19th Century, "The Americans might have need of the telephone, but we do not." Or even Thomas Watson of IBM who famously said after the War, "I think there is world market for maybe five computers."

All three of those great men were proved wrong of course, and huge technological change has swept through our lives. But, if I look back over my life I’m struck by one thing: the more things change, the more things stay the same.

We can spend so much time talking about what’s changing that we lose sight of what has remained the same. Home. Family. Love... The sublime things of life, but also the mundane! For instance, we may have ebank accounts, but we use them to pay the gas bill. We may have shiny sparkly iPads, but we use them to read the paper. And our mobile phones might contain more computer processing power than NASA had at their disposal in 1969 when they put a man on the moon, but we use it to call our mum on mother’s day. Oh, and note to self, DO NOT FORGET THIS YEAR...

Looking to the future from BBC Learning, it seems to me that, although there is so much changing in technology, in society, in the education system, there are still THREE big things that will stay the same. 1. People still want, ney need to learn. 2. The BBC still has to inform, educate, and entertain: the holy trinity set out by our first Director-General John Reith almost 100 years ago. And 3, and most crucially, EVERYONE LOVES A GOOD STORY. Always have. Always will.

Since the first cavemen sat around the campfire telling stories about their heroic encounters with sabre-tooth tigers – and probably exaggerating a little – right up to the present day, where stories are all around us: in books, blogs, newspapers, magazines, films, adverts, dinner parties, cafes, pubs, restaurants and also of course conferences like this.

We all love stories from the second we’re born. I know this from my three year old daughter, Nikita… She is already making up her own stories, although they are kind of along the lines of ‘Daddy was born. Daddy had green eyes. The end.’ Don’t laugh! Channel 5 have already optioned the series! But the truth is this: there is no better way for people to strike connections with other people than through story. Stories inform, educate and entertain. Through stories, we learn about ourselves and our place in the world. And, most of all, stories are an ENORMOUS source of pleasure.

So ‘great stories’ is the theme for this talk. After all, storytelling is the glue that holds us together in this great hall. Great teaching is based on storytelling. So is great television. Let me elaborate.

In television, it is actually all about the story. Tomorrow’s World was all about the story: the problem, the inventor’s solution, the will it or won’t it work moment. In drama, it’s all about the story: from Our Friends in the North to EastEnders. In entertainment, it’s all about the story: will Nigella’s puddings rise? Will Bruno give Russell Grant a perfect 10? Likewise, in religion, sport and radio: it’s all about the story. In news, we tell the story of the UK: from Richard Dimbleby commentating at the coronation to Kate Adie outside the Iranian Embassy and John Sergeant being shoved out of the way by Bernard Ingham as Margaret Thatcher faced the cameras on her leadership challenge.

Why our obsession with story? Well, story is the magic potion that enables the BBC to fulfill its Reithian trinity: to inform, to educate and to entertain. Stories give us permission to enter people’s homes and sit in their living rooms with them. Stories allow us to be with them when they are at their most relaxed and most receptive to learning. Stories make people listen.

But the stories are really just like Trojan horses. And, once the story has marched into their minds, that is the moment all the learning comes rushing out of the sides: whether it’s Doctor Who heading off in the TARDIS to Pompeii, David Dimbleby slipping in references to the history of St Paul’s in Question Time or Robert Peston explaining what Libor is on the BBC news website.

The educational imperative is the extra ingredient that gives the BBC a different flavor to other broadcasters. It is what gives us our unique character. It is what gives us our unique voice. It is what differentiates a programme like Strictly from a programme like I’m a Celebrity.

And the great thing is that the learning does not detract from the story. It is an integral part of the story. Which is what all great teachers know: that great storytelling is an essential part of great learning.

To illustrate this, let me whizz you all out of this room and take you back in to the TARDIS to… Bedford in the 1970s… Meet Dan Dickey. Dan was my English teacher. He was an amazing story teller. It might have been the story of his own capture by the Germans after his Lancaster bomber was shot down in France, and he ditched without a parachute. It might have been a free-wheeling action adventure that saw him leaping along the window sills, unfurling venetian blinds at breakneck speed. Or a morality tale on eschewed contraception.

When Dan Dickey told stories it felt like we were out of school, but he opened our minds to him, leaving him free to pour in whatever education he wanted.

Great teaching is great storytelling. All teachers know if they don’t grab attention quickly, the minds of the class quickly wander. It was always the case. All of the greatest teachers throughout history have also been great storytellers: from Mohammed, Buddha and Jesus through to Lincoln and Churchill. My father hails from India; I’ve spent a good chunk of my life living there - and I came across and old Indian proverb: "Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me the truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever."

Isn’t that true? Isn’t it funny how all the bits we remember from school are story-based: Beethoven struggling to write the 9th Symphony after going deaf, Van Gogh’s ear being ripped off in the heat of passion, Newton’s apple, Archimedes' bath, Bannister’s four minute mile, George Washington’s tree... And it’s not just the big historic anecdotes. Weren’t the best text-books also story-based? Who could forget the Dhome Family from La Rochelle in the Tricolore books; or Caecilius and Metella from Pompeii in the Cambridge Latin books. And by the way those characters also appeared in that Doctor Who Pompeii episode!

Of course stories don’t just make information stick. Stories inspire us - Churchill, Gandhi and Martin Luther King tell us we should press on, even when the odds are against us. Stories also improve our reasoning: as we see people like De Vinci and the Wright Brothers confronted by dilemmas, so we learn to deal with our own problems. Stories also strengthen us as individuals – the stories of Cinderella and Snow White can be very helpful to troubled children, helping them confront some of the most terrible problems, in a detached way. Stories truly are a most magical device.

1. Creating Great Stories

So this is what I see as my first responsibility at BBC Learning: making sure we’re creating really great and grabby stories which really properly and seriously engage the attention of our viewers, igniting their curiosity and inspiring them to learn more. Then we give those stories to teachers, ready to use in the classroom.

Let me show you a couple of examples.


Brian Cox has that special X factor which so many BBC presenters have had throughout history – from David Bellamy to Johnny Ball: unquenchable enthusiasm. It’s that enthusiasm that makes him such a magical storyteller. Enthusiasm is infectious. It sets off our mirror neurons. It makes us want to learn.

At the BBC, we absolutely have to grab people’s attention. We have no choice! If we fail, people will turn off – or, even worse – switch channel! Our audience is not captive. They always have the remote control in their hands. We are always aware of that.

That is why Brian Cox is the way he is. And that is is how Brian Cox is turning the whole nation on to physics, never traditionally one of the easiest subjects to teach! He’s not only incredibly inspiring for pupils, he’s very inspiring for teachers too! And if you listened closely to that clip you might have spotted a few differences from what you saw on BBC Two – that was one of our special shorts that Brian has re-voiced for schools with the curriculum in mind.

Let me show you another example. We’ve got a project going on in BBC Two right now called True Stories: it’s where we are bringing to life some of the great names from history, telling rich and deep stories about their lives and work. The series is made specially to watch at school.

Many people will know the name Edward Jenner. Not so many people know precisely what he did… I don’t think anyone could ever forget his enormous contribution to medical history after seeing this story, the story of young James Phipps...


James survived the cowpox scabs, lived to tell the tale and in the end Edward Jenner’s invention of the smallpox vaccine wiped the disease off the planet. It’s a great story, well told.

2. Opening New Avenues of Learning

There’s no point sparking the curiosity of our viewers if they then have nowhere to take that interest. So our second responsibility is to then signpost new avenues of learning for them.

We are developing a new knowledge and learning product at the BBC. Even as people are watching one thing, we will be dangling carrots for where they might go next, where their learning journey might lead.

It will help people access the huge treasure chest of learning resources that exists across the BBC through a single website.

It means that we will keep enticing people to find out more. So, for instance, if you are watching an episode of Frozen Planet, you will be able to go straight to your tablet and learn more, right there.

It might be educational games, easy to understand time-lines, interactive graphics or archive footage from the wealth of things that exist across the BBC’s huge library. There will be loads to learn.

3. Structuring Learning

But it often strikes me that one of the biggest challenges of this information age is working out ways to effectively store and track all the learning we gather. So I see our third responsibility as being to help learners progress their learning in a far more systematic and structured way.

It will allow them to store content that they can come back to it later. It will also track learning – so viewers can monitor their own progress. It will also invite users to share their learning with others, just as they share so much of their lives on social media.

So I’m hoping the whole thing will become a virtuous circle. With users, after a time, all telling their own stories and helping to ignite one another’s curiosity with those stories.

Our first release of the new Knowledge and Learning product goes live as a beta in a few weeks, and I’ve got a sneak preview for you. At the moment there are about 100 sites in the Knowledge and Learning portfolio. Sites like Bitesize Food, Religion & Ethics and Nature. With Knowledge and Learning, we are bringing these sites together in one unified place for the first time so that content can be navigated and surfaced more easily.

In this first release, we’re introducing a common look and feel across the genre pages. So audiences begin to feel that they are entering one big site as opposed to dozens of individual, sites.

The next stage of content to go live is aimed fairly and squarely at teachers and it will contain all of our clips and short films that work in the classroom – including Brian Cox and Edward Jenner. We’re still development so what you see in April may not be exactly like this.

You will be able to select whether you’re interested in primary or secondary content. They can you can select your key stage and subject of interest... here it’s Business.

Clicking on this will bring up all the related topics for business. Click on a topic, say marketing, and all the clips linked to marketing appear. For each clip there is information on the length and also a brief description of the content.

Click on the clip you want and this will allow you to play out the film. Also on this page is a more detailed description of the clip and some further information on how content can be used within the classroom.

Another key feature of the site is that is has been designed to be completely responsive. So as you resize the browser the content automatically reformats to fit the new browser size.

This means that all the content in the Knowledge and Learning product will work on any platform and any device. This is a first for the BBC and is something that we hope will make life easier for audiences.

You’ll also be able to access content on mobile as you can see here without the need for an app. Again the content has been designed to respond to changes in the orientation of phone screens – another first for the BBC.

Knowledge and Learning will also work with tablets. Teachers often complain that many of our films and games won’t work on iPads. Well as you can see, this new site will. Something that for us is incredibly important as tablets become an increasingly popular teaching tools in the classroom.

Do have a look at the site when it’s live in April, I would really like to know what you think. Even in its early stages this is what the BBC, and particularly BBC North does best. We’ve put technologists together with producers, computer kit with actors, storytelling with interactivity, and come up with something special.

It’s cutting edge innovation. I know… innovation is rarely welcomed with open arms. There’s always a bit of hesitation or a bit of fear, as I said at the beginning of my speech.

In Ancient Greece, Socrates warned about the danger of books – he worried it could mean people would no longer felt the need to remember anything, so they’d lose their capacity for memory! In the 12th century, one of Henry II’s advisers warned that Oxford and Cambridge were both presiding over a terrible decline in standards. In the 21st century, we get the whole debate about declining standards in education. And of course I mentioned CP Scott’s quote at the beginning. Tele. Vision.

These sceptics were not unreasonable harbingers of doom. They were not unduly pessimistic or irrational. Rather, their warnings were grounded in a genuine concern that, in looking to innovate too far and too fast, there was a danger we might damage something which we all cherish.

And that IS a danger with all innovation, and that danger is present as we explore the possibilities of this brave new world of digital learning. There is the danger that we focus too much on the technology, at the expense of the teaching. There is a danger that we focus too much on the general needs of the many, and forget about the specific needs of the few. There is the danger that we think too much about products, and forget about pedagogy. Of course, education is far too precious to be reckless.

We can learn from other spheres of life. The best innovation is always grounded in ancient truths. The great transport innovations - trains, planes and automobiles - were all rooted in the very deep human desire to travel and explore. The great communication innovations – the phone, the worldwide web, Facebook et al – were all rooted in the very deep human desire to connect and contact other people. And the great education innovations – from pen and paper, to the printing press and now through tablets and television – have all been rooted in the very deep human desire to learn, the very deep desire to make connections and the very deep desire to experience, understand and share a really great story.

Every good story needs a beginning, a middle and an end. You had the beginning. You had the middle. And this, ladies and gentlemen, I’m delighted to say, is the end.

Thank you.